Plagued by corruption, political infighting, ethnic strife, flooding, overcrowding, pollution and poverty, Bangladesh is known worldwide for its problems and the headlines they generate. These are the images I carried with me when I arrived in Bangladesh in January 2018, but they were far from complete.
Nothing I had heard or read prepared me for the cultural richness and overwhelming kindness I encountered while traveling this beautiful and underrated country.
Bangla is the name of Bangladesh’s predominant ethnic group, which compromises 98% of its population, while –desh is a suffix meaning “the land of.” With 163 million people inhabiting a small, fertile wedge of land roughly the size of England, Bangladesh ranks among the most crowded places on earth.
Dhaka, the Capital
With demobilizing gridlock and minimal infrastructure, Bangladesh’s sprawling capital Dhaka is routinely ranked among the worst cities in the world to live in. But bad-to-live-in and bad-to-visit are two different things. The first-time visitor is bombarded with such a novel mix of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, it’s impossible not to be enchanted by this teeming megacity.
My host in Dhaka was Promi, a 25-year old architecture student from the distant Chakma buddhist ethnic minority in Eastern Bangladesh’s Hill Tracts. She and her sisters received me with great hospitality, constantly forcing me to eat even when I was not hungry and taking care of me when I fell ill. She taught me a lot about her homeland in the Hill tracts and the precarious position of the Chakmas in modern Bangladesh.
The Bengali are a proud people, and you may find their flag everywhere. The green symbolizes Bangladesh’s fertility. The red symbolizes the blood spilled in the War of Liberation against what was then “West Pakistan.”
After the British partition of India in 1947, Bangladesh, then called “East Pakistan,” suffered an unhappy and unequal union with West Pakistan, under which it endured decades of quasi-colonial exploitation before finally wresting independence from its Western counterpart in 1971.
He and many other strangers followed me around. They follow out of innocent curiosity, I think, because I look different.
Lalbagh Fort, 1678. Dhaka was proclaimed the capital of Mughal India in 1608. Throughout the eighteenth century, it was a prosperous, cosmopolitan city, and Bengal was among the wealthiest regions in the world.
I got sick from drinking contaminated water during my last few days in Dhaka. Promi and her sisters tried to nurse me back to health. I fell out of love with Dhaka during this time. The chaos wasn’t funny or cute anymore. I just wanted to breath clean air, lay in the grass somewhere, and have a moment of silence.
When Dhaka’s novelty gives way to frustration or even rage, it’s time to leave. Bangladesh is a beautiful, green country, but you won’t know that if you don’t make it out of the capital.
Next I visited Rajshahi, a city of nearly a million along the Indian border which is home to many of Bangladesh’s most prestigious universities. After a week in overcrowded Dhaka, visiting Rajshahi felt like a fresh breath of air.
I found out about Rajshahi because Foisal, a 28-year-old freelance programmer based in the city, reached out to me on Couchsurfing inviting me to visit.
Foisal taught himself to code using library books after family circumstances precluded him from attending college. Now he owns a successful marketing business selling woodworking tools to American consumers online. He once got an offer to work in Silicon Valley, but he had to decline out of a sense of duty to his parents to remain in Bangladesh.
Foisal took me to a sandy island in the Padma River to watch the sunset.
We also went to a large complex of abandoned Hindu temples 23 kilometers east of Rajshahi in Puthia, the largest such complex in Bangladesh. The temples were built by the powerful Puthia Raj family, which ruled the area for five hundred years.
The sixteenth-century terra-cotta temples of Puthia were pillaged and defaced by the invading Pakistani army in 1971. The area’s Hindu community fled to neighboring India
The temples are all locked for security reasons, so if you wish to enter one, you must find the temple-keepers are usually somewhere nearby. They have the keys, and they are willing to unlock the doors for a few coins.
Foisal and I would stay up past 3:00 AM every night talking about politics, religion, and life. I think I learned a lot from him. Some hosts are really hard to leave.
When I was leaving Dhaka for Rajshahi, Promi asked her friend, Secret (top right), to escort me to to the bus station. Instead, he brought me all the way to Rajshahi. On our last night there we had a barbecue at the house of Captain Fishstick (bottom right). The next morning we left for Natore to check out some old palaces on the way to his hometown
Natore was a sort of Bangla Versailles from which the Puthia Raj ruled over their distant fiefdoms. Today the palaces are mostly abandoned, though squatters have set up camp in some of the ruins.
Then we went to Secret’s hometown, Sherpur, a provincial town in the country’s north.
We spent most of our time there catching up with his old friends. We also visited this sixteenth-century brick mosque (background).
Secret’s mom works as a doctor at the local hospital. We went to visit her at the hospital once per day. She always left food in the refrigerator for us to heat up for lunch.
Clearly you’re convinced by now that Bangladesh should be your next move. I spent nearly a month there, but I still barely scratched the surface. I trust that you, fellow traveler, will help shine a light on the places I missed.
Entry by land is restricted, but you can find affordable flights to Dhaka from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Kolkata, and Singapore (one-way<$90). Nearly all major nationalities qualify for visa-on-arrival. Once you are in the country, daily expenses are as cheap as anywhere (I spent <$5 per day).
There are no conventional backpacker hostels, but cities across Bangladesh have very active and enthusiastic Couchsurfing communities. Bangladeshi hospitality is truly legendary, and you would be missing out on the best part of this country if you stay in a hotel.
Before visiting, I assumed that there would be little to do or see in Bangladesh, that it was a miserable and dangerous country, and that I would want to leave fast. I am here to tell you all of these assumptions proved false. Bangladesh may not be a glamor destination, but if you do it right, you’re in for the best adventure a traveler could hope for.