7 Things That Surprised Me About Bangladesh

Travel to Bangladesh is on the increase, but there are still many unknowns for first-time visitors. Stuart Forster shares seven insights to know before you go.

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Photo © Unsplash/Ashraful Haque Akash

Tucked between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh is best known for its waterways, verdant countryside and upland tea estates.

My first stop in Bangladesh was Dhaka, the country’s busy capital. I also traveled southwest to see the historic mosques at Bagerhat, explored the Sundarbans mangrove forest where tigers prowl, and finally headed into the jungle-clad hills beyond Chittagong. Here’s what to expect.

1. You Will Be Asked to Take Photos With Locals and Be Photographed

As a keen portrait photographer, I was surprised to find people in Bangladesh were eager to be photographed, something I hadn’t experienced elsewhere on my travels. Once people saw my Digital-SLR camera, they began asking me to take their picture.

At the Karwan Bazar, Dhaka’s buzzing wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I captured candid scenes as well as portraits of workers with colorful produce and trucks.

This market was also where I was asked for the first time to have my picture taken. I soon became accustomed to being photographed; sometimes people asked permission, other times they simply clicked a picture and moved on. Some asked to take selfies with me, others posed while a friend captured the moment.

A colorful fruit stand on the streets of Dhaka. Photo credit: Getty Images/Andre Vogelaere

2. The Local Food is Delicious

Bangladeshi food is aromatic and spicy. I looked forward to eating homemade dishes that, while not outstanding in presentation, were big on flavor. Fried river fish, such as tilapia and catfish, are popular menu items served at homestays. Hilsa (ilish curry), the national dish of Bangladesh, features fish marinated in turmeric that’s fried in mustard oil with green chilis and cumin seeds, and served with white rice.

While I expected fragrant curries and boiled rice to be staple dishes, I didn’t expect mashed potato seasoned with mustard oil and an array of spices.

There are also multiple vegetarian options, including vegetable curries and lentil-based dals.

3. Rickshaws are Like Mobile Art Galleries

Bicycle rickshaws with retractable canopies and auto rickshaws with cackling engines are found everywhere on the streets of Bangladesh. They are a popular and affordable way to get around. Short, local rides of less than 2mi (3.2km) cost well below US $1.

Drivers go to impressive lengths to personalize their rickshaws. Canopies and chassis are decorated by specialist rickshaw artists who paint artwork to order. Many are adorned with colorful, hand-painted artwork including the faces of movie stars, swirling flowers, and wild animals.

A decorated rickshaw crosses a bridge in Islampur, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Getty Images/By Shibu Bhattacharjee

4. Dhaka’s Rush-Hour Traffic is Bad

Arriving in Dhaka at rush hour is a mistake. The 11mi (17.7km) trip from Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to my downtown hotel took more than three hours, a journey that takes just 40 minutes in off-peak traffic.

Hire cars come with local drivers, and self-driving is not an option in Bangladesh. I realize why when I experienced the noisy traffic on Dhaka’s roads. Rickshaws edged slowly between vehicles and scraped buses weaved impatiently in and out of lanes in fruitless, counter-productive efforts to slice time off their journeys while belching fumes into the city air. It was more chaotic than the traffic I’ve experienced in Beijing, Delhi, Mumbai, and Banglalore.

Now I know to be flexible with travel times, avoid rush hour, and to remember to use the bathroom before setting out.

Traffic in Dhaka is famous for a reason. Photo credit: Getty Images/Rehman Asad

5. Travel by Boat Instead of Road

Highways in Bangladesh are often busy with dented buses and hand-decorated trucks honking their horns while barreling along potholed roads.

By comparison, traveling by ferry in Bangladesh is a far more relaxing way to get between urban hubs. Standing on the deck of a ferry I watched the river twisting through the flat landscape and chatted with fellow passengers. In a conversation with a local man, I learned that Bangladesh has approximately 5,000mi (8,046km) of navigable waterways during the post-monsoon winter season, from November to March. During monsoon season, the waterways are more broad. 

A fleet of ferries and paddle steamers, known locally as ‘rockets’, operates along the Buriganga River from the Dhaka River Port in Sadarghat. An economy fare for the 220mi (354km) trip to Khulna costs US $5, while an air-conditioned cabin is US $25.

A boat carries passengers on Kaptai Lake in Rangamati, Chittagong. Photo credit: Getty Images/Keren Su

6. Bangladesh Has Three UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites

Sundarbans Mangrove Forest

The Sundarbans mangrove forest is one of the largest of its kind in the world – a staggering 140,000ha. This biodiverse region on the Indian border is made up of broad waterways, mudflats and small islands of mangrove forests. The region is home to endangered animals such as Bengal tigers and Ganges River dolphins, and more than 250 bird species.

Bagerhat

The Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat is home to the ruins of 360 brick-built mausoleums, mosques and other monuments dating back to the 15th century. The best-known building is the Sixty Dome Mosque, which the imam told me has 77 domes and 60 pillars.

Paharpur

The Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur is the site of an 8th-century Buddhist vihara (monastery). Its terracotta sculptures show evidence of cultural exchange with Indonesia dating to the late 7th century as well as influences from Jainism and Hinduism.

The time-eroded ruins of the Somapura Mahavihara were once part of a network of Buddhist learning sites spanning the Indian Subcontinent around 1,300 years ago.

The excavated rooms on the periphery of the main building were once the compact dormitories for Buddhist monks. The base of the pyramid-like vihara features stylized bas-relief sculptures of people and animals, some with obvious mythical influences, including winged figures with human bodies and grotesque animal heads.

Note that entry to UNESCO sites in Bangladesh costs around US 25 cents for locals and US $2.50 for travelers.

7. Wake Early to Get the Best Landscape Pictures

The Tropic of Cancer passes through Bangladesh at Chittagong, so it’s no surprise that the midday sunshine is intense.

A boat floats on the waterways in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Unsplash/Md Efthakhar UI Alam

I soon realize early starts are the best way to successfully photograph sunrises over the undulating forest landscape of the Bandarban Hills. The soft light immediately after sunrise makes it a rewarding time to capture scenes of the countryside. Long clouds of mist hang low in the valley early in the morning, burning off as the heat of the day increased.

The flag of Bangladesh represents a red sun rising over the green land of the nation. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the shimmering redness of the sun during the first moments of the day. I capture images of twisted trees silhouetted against the golden glow of the morning sky, while agricultural workers head into the fields.

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1 Comment

  • Md. Efthakhar Ul Alam said

    Thank you Stuart Forster, for visiting Bangladesh and Writing about it. I don't know how many places you have visited, but I am sure you haven't to a lot of them. There are so many waterfalls, the actual beauty of Bangladesh is hidden where it should be, from the crowd in Bandarban! Though it's pretty tough for a foreigner to get a pass to visit those mountain areas if you can manage one, let me tell you there will be some of the best places you have even seen in the world! The last photo of the boat is in Mohamaya Lake, Sitakundu, Chittagong.

    Hit me in my email Next time you visit Bangladesh.

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