I spent 10 days in Bangladesh last January-February, and this place is awesome, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in travel off the well-beaten path. Needless to say, not many tourists make their way there, which on one hand has its charm, but also means there is a bit of an information vacuum when it comes time to do some pre-trip research. So without further ado, here is a list of things to know about traveling to Bangladesh (not in order of importance):
1. Check to make sure it applies to you, but most nationalities can get a visa on arrival for 50$ at the airport. Just fill out the form, follow the payment instructions, and you’re on your way. If you come by land from India though, you need to get it in advance, a short and easy process in Kolkata (finding the consulate in that sprawling and bustling city is the hardest part, of course).
2. Almost 100% of the country’s inhabitants speak Bengali as a first language, which makes it one of the most spoken languages in the world. But thankfully, you won’t have to learn it to get around, as English is still very widespread even though the British left a long time ago and there’s no tourist industry per se. Very young kids and old men are the least likely to have English proficiency, but a lot of people in between have their rudiments down. Few speak it flawlessly though, so keep your sentences simple and free of slang, and it might take a few tries to understand their accent and vice versa.
If you really want to learn some Bengali, go for it… two useful sentences: salaam aleikum/aleikuma salaam (Peace be with you, Arabic but universal) and apna namki (What’s your name?). The latter, you will hear it all the time from the mouths of curious kids running by your side.
3. Cricket. Cricket, cricket and cricket. No matter where you go, you will see kids or young men playing this weird sport in crowded alleys, by the highway, between two rice paddies, on actual fields or even on train tracks or other strange places. Upon seeing you, even if you are half a mile away, chances are one of them will run full speed in your direction and hand you the bat or ball, eager to see your skills. Being a North American, I had absolutely none, which made them laugh mercilessly at my expense a few times.
4. Expect locals to be VERY curious about you, unless you are an ethnic South Asian of course. But if you’re white as a Kleen-ex like I am, or Satan forbid, an ethnicity they’re even less aware of, you’ll be a superstar. Stares, “Hello how are you?”s, people stopping what they’re doing, kids giggling, rarely will you walk around inconspicuously when in public.Now, you ask me, does it feel too much at times? I’d say not really, the only thing that is mildly annoying is to answer the same four questions all the time (What’s your name, How are you, What’s your country, What do you think about Bangladesh), but I made an effort and answered with a smile to the hundreds if not thousands of onlookers that talked to me. After all, I’m the guest in their country, and it probably makes their day.
Actually, I’d say that all those people coming to talk to us made the whole superstardom less heavy, as at least there was an output to it. Many foreign travelers in China end up overwhelmed by the curiosity of Chinese people, as more often than not communication is impossible and the traveler just feels like a zoo exhibit. But here in Bangladesh, you can actually converse with people and break the ice easily.
5. Food: I think I’m an authority of the matter now, as every meal we had in Bangladesh was pretty much the same. Restaurants are found all over, easy to spot as most of them are open onto the street, with the bread oven outside. You walk in there, wash your hands (every restaurant has several taps and soap ready), sit down, and the waiter will bring glasses, a pitcher of water, as well as bottled water. The former is free, the latter you have to pay if you crack them open. We opted for the bottles, just to make sure.Then, given the nature of Bengali slow-cooking, they don’t prepare the food as you order it (like in China and other east Asian countries, where they use flash-cooking), but rather, they prepare several large pots before meal times and keep them on low heat.
There is always daal (lentils), vegetables and potatoes, and one meat dish, usually chicken but sometimes lamb, beef, or fish if you’re near the coast. No pork, of course. For the carbs, there is white rice, naan or chapatti bread. You tell the waiter what you want, and within a minute all the food is there, coming in small quantities that you can refill as much as you want.
The “traditional way” is to eat with your right hand (tricky as hell for rice dishes!!!) but even many locals use spoons. At the end, they bring you the bill in a small plate with anis seeds and wood splinters to clean your teeth with, which is pretty cool I guess.
The flavors are rich, always have a very homemade feel to them, and they don’t drown everything in fiery hot peppers like other parts of the subcontinent. To put it simply, even though we ate the same meal 20 times, we didn’t tire of it and were still craving it when we left.
We usually paid between 80-120 taka ($1-$1.50!!!) for two guys to be full, a bit more if I had meat. My friend became a “temporary vegetarian” after an… ahem… accident in India, but I took the risk and frankly it paid off, as the meat was always so tender it melted in my mouth.
You can also get street food, sure it’s risky as hell, but if you follow the usual precautions (trust your feeling, eat from stands with a high turnover) it’s worth it! Little syrupy donuts, noodles, chick peas, deep fried things with mashed potatoes inside (I always forget the name!) all cost less than nothing, just like fresh fruit or Bengali-style potato chips, which are worth a try.
6. Booze? Bangladesh is a dry country, but alcohol does exist and is not completely illegal. There are expat bars in Dhaka and other major cities, and Chinese-run hotels can fix you with something if you ask. I didn’t try any of those two options though… but I did go to the “foreign alcohol store” in Chittagong, which has a small, extremely sketchy bar attached to it.The locally brewed Hunter is OK and you can get a lukewarm can for 100 taka (to go) or a cold one for 150 (to consume on the premises). There is also some local gin and whisky on site, and I did knock back a few with an English adventure-seeker I had just met in the street (he was easy to spot, surrounded by a crowd of mouth-gaping kids). You can also get moonshine (the taste is VERY similar to lao-lao) in the areas where ethnic minorities such as the Mizo and Burmese live, as most of them are either Christian, Buddhist, or have their own religions. They also have their own cuisines, with lots of pork, unique vegetables and LOTS of spice.
7. But if you want to have a drink with locals, better go with tea. Most places are very informal, just a phonebooth-sized cabin from where a man with a badass beard (they always have badass beards… must be something in the tea leaves) boils water and adds the leaves, the sugar, and the condensed milk, as they like it, before serving it in small glass cups to the patrons who then stand around chatting and sipping, or sit on the curb or on small wooden benches. I prefer my tea without sugar and milk, and of course they were always accommodating if not a bit weirded out by the request (but then again, maybe it’s just because I’m white).
8. Inter-city transportation is surprisingly decent. Buses depart on time, are never overcrowded (except for short distances), and are comfortable enough if a bit old and sometimes smelly. And there are plenty of them going all over the place, given the large population numbers and density. The train is also cool. But within cities, ouch. Most large streets are clogged with traffic all the time, and smaller alleys have hundreds of cycle-rickshaws, bikes and pedestrians going through them in all directions, shoulder-to-shoulder. This is truly frustrating and overwhelming, and why I recommend not spending more than a day in Dhaka before moving on to smaller cities which are more breathable and easy to navigate.
9. Stuff to see and do? Bangladesh doesn’t have any “world-renowned” sights, but there are definitely things to go out of your way for to keep your eyes and camera happy. Dhaka has a few huge mosques, a fort, a crazy busy old town, a VERY interesting national museum (one of the best I’ve ever been to, no shit), and some monuments commemorating independence from Pakistan. Cox’s Bazaar is the longest beach in the world, but far from being the most beautiful and most happening. The Sundarbans are accessible with expensive tours (or cheap ones, but they don’t go very far), and the remote ethnic areas of Bandarban and Rangamati are unique, beautiful and interesting. But most of the good things to “see” in Bangladesh (as in every country, frankly) are not in any guidebook.Most of our best pictures and memories are not of famed sights, but rather of street scenes, nature, ordinary villages, daily life, and smiling brown faces. Bangladesh is a country one must visit for genuine, unspoiled interactions with locals, cultural exchange and self-learning rather than just to tick a list of places to see.
10. But now, of course, nothing is perfect. Among the things a traveler will “see” in Bangladesh, abject poverty and underdevelopment is definitely one, and thus the country is not for the faint-hearted. Humongous sprawling piles of garbage, open air sewers between the sidewalk and the road (you read that right… watch your fucking step), cows walking and shitting all over, barefoot kids covered in filthy rags, and people doing extremely unsafe work.
You’re definitely in the Third-World. This can be either sickening, guilt-inducing and overwhelming, or humbling and eye-opening, or both. Remember to travel ethically, spread your wealth well (ie: give to small businesses rather than corporations, don’t be a penny-pinching cheap-ass, don’t over-haggle, be careful which beggars you help), be respectful of everybody no matter their social status, yet don’t be a submissive little bitch, so that the (very very very few) people with bad intentions don’t see you as a potential victim.
11. So then, is it safe? That is a very tricky question. On an independent traveler standpoint, it is. Muggings are very uncommon, Bengalis are non-violent if not always super warm, overnight transportation links are secure, so you just have to watch for petty theft. And even then, the small tourist numbers mean that there are not many dedicated full-time con artists or pickpockets, so we were good. But politically, the country is not very stable, and riots occur very often, we even got delayed on our second to last day as a countrywide strike paralyzed all buses. There was shotgun-toting policemen in riot gear all over the place, which was reassuring and unsettling at the same time. So while those riots and strikes don’t target tourists, they can still put a major dent in your travel plans and leave you stranded, and you never know if things could get VERY ugly. Better check the situation first.
And once you’ve done all of this, just go for it, pack light, open your mind, and enjoy the show! Bangladesh is probably the cheapest country in the world to travel in, and can be easily combined with an overland northern Indian trip, or a visit to Nepal, Thailand, or China’s Yunnan province, all of them a short reasonably-priced flight from Dhaka.