During our time in the middle east, Al Jazeera English was regularly carrying a story noting that Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, had been named the second most polluted city on Earth by some survey or other. For this reason, along with the huge population density and the general tendency for crowds to gather and overwhelm one in Bangladesh, I was prepared to dislike Dhaka from the start.
Thankfully, once we’d dealt with the autorickshaw ride to our hotel (Susan had been in Dhaka before arranging her Indian visa and had arranged a place to stay) my fears were mostly unfounded.
Sadarghat, the main boat terminal in Dhaka, was something of a shock after the blissfully pleasant ride on the Rocket from Khulna
Our time in Dhaka was divided up into two halves, with a trip to Srimangal in the middle, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll combine my thoughts and memories about Dhaka into one section.
-Clean. “What!?” you reply. Let me explain. Dhaka was by no means clean in an absolute sense, but in comparison to other large cities in the region, e.g. Kathmandu, Kolkata, it was actually very tidy. Garbage was disposed of in large dumpsters place throughout the city and not just strewn everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, there were dirty bits (outside the mechanics shops near the inner city bus park is one of the filthiest pieces of road I’ve ever seen) and unpleasant smells were quite common, but overall the air, streets and even waterways seemed surprisingly clean. This general impression of tidiness held for most of Bangladesh as well… It’s possible that due to the very high level of poverty there, people were just better at re-cycling, and having all the trash in one place made it easier.
-Crowded. Wow. Was it ever crowded. Though the people were somewhat more used to foreigners than elsewhere in Bangladesh, the sheer density of potential observers meant that the same rules held: crowds would gather in a matter of moments to watch you sit and read, eat, negotiate with a rickshaw driver, anything.
Chandra at the bat. The Dhaka district cricket team gets a workout near the national stadium. It was a relief to, for once, not be the centre of attention
-Over-trafficked. In other Bangla cities there were very, very few motorized vehicles. In Dhaka there were some private cars, quite a few buses and trucks, lots of autorickshaws and inumerable cycle rickshaws. This made traffic a nightmare. It took a long time to get anywhere by road (we sat immobile in a traffic jam for over 1/2 hour one night) and it was dangerous to go anywhere on foot (drivers fully expected pedestrians to get out of their ways, and it was quite clear that if you didn’t they WOULD hit you.)
This is typical of a building in Dhaka. Crammed with action inside, outside and all around.
The icons of Dhaka: Rickshaws. More than of its buildings, monuments, markets or mosques, the ubiquitous rickshaw (and its distinctive decoration) is what I’ll remember about Dhaka
It wasn’t just the streets that were crowded. The Buriganga river flowing through town was packed with boats every time we saw it. (It was also packed with garbage in some sections, giving lie to my comments about Dhaka being so wonderfully clean)
-Poor. Unlike rural Bangladesh, there were lots and lots of beggars in Dhaka. Probably more than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. They were very persistant often following us for long distances and grabbing at my clothing or arms. I was really torn as to how to deal with them. Politely say no? Ignore them completely? Give the most seemingly needy some money? Firmly ask them to leave me alone? Try to explain why I WASN’T giving them money? In the end I couldn’t decide which approach was best and did all of the above at various times.
Banga Bazaar, THE place to buy clothes in Dhaka. Bangladesh is a very big player in the world textile industry. Wages there are very low, and the clothing they produce is correspondingly cheap. This means that seconds and overruns that are sold WITHOUT all of the middlemens markups can be had for a pittance. I bought a pair of convertable travel pants for about $3.25. Later, a bazaar “helper” offering his assistance with shopping warned me not to pay more than $1.25 for anything. Ah well. I was happy and the seller was too, so no worries
-Beautiful. Despite the dirt, poverty, and the crush of humanity, Dhaka still had some lovely moments. They were far between, but when they came the contrast with the rest of the city made them all the more beautiful for it.
There was a whole street of flower sellers in Dhaka, specialiazing in marigold garlands and other arrangements for Hindu weddings and festivals
Ahsan Manzil, or “The Pink Palace” as it was commonly known was built by some of the last of Bengal’s Nawabs (locals who helped run the British East India Company’s business.) It had an astonishing amount in common with Casa Loma in Toronto, right down to the associtation of its builders with the city electrical and water works and the exhbition of their personal effects/furniture inside.
Dhaka University in general, and the science faculty in particular had some gorgeous buildings. They would probably have been uncomfortable to take classes in though…
-Fascinating. All of the above factors, along with the culture and history of the place made Dhaka a very interesting city to visit. The incredible concentration of business, transport and daily life going on near the river. The artisans and manual labourers at work creating or recycling virtually anything imagineable. The beautiful sobriety of the Liberation War Museum, which docmented the country’s struggle for independence from Western Pakistani rule in 1971. The modern and flashy Gulshan district, home to the country’s rich, NGOs and diplomats. The mosques tucked in amongst the crush of the city wherever room could be found. All of these combined to ensure that we never had a dull moment in Dhaka.
Students taking an exam at Dhaka university
Tombstones and lingams are still carved by hand on Dhaka’s Shankaria Bazzar or “Hindu Street”
Perhaps my favourite moments in Dhaka were spent in the middle of the bridge across the Buriganga, staring out over the river at the swarms of boats working on the water as a crowd gathered to watch US watching.
I have NO idea what this movie is about, but I want to see it. We did actually go to the movie theatre once in Bangladesh. We saw a double feature of 1980s era straight-to-video (or nearly so) English films that had been edited to: A. remove the sex B. focus on the violence and C. cut the running time to about 45 minutes. This was done with no thought for the plot of course, which led to an entertaining, if confusing, viewing experience.
When we arrived in Dhaka, Susan discovered that she needed to wait a few more days for her Indian visa, and so we decided, almost immediately upon arriving, to head out of town, since our travel companion had (understandably) had about all of Dhaka she could take. The destination for our side trip was the town of Srimangal, in Sylhet district, perhaps 200km northeast of Dhaka. And what a great choice it was! I can scarcely imagine anywhere better to take a break from Dhaka’s craziness. Srimangal sits amongst some of the few hills in Dhaka, and is surrounded by tea estates, pineapple fields, and rubber and lime groves.
Tea plantation workers near Srimangal. The tea workers have pretty much the only effective labour union in the country and actually work under fairly good conditions, with free schooling and health care provided for their families
Our first night was spent in Srimangal town, which, while still a relief from Dhaka, still managed to feel a touch oppressive (especially as everyone in town who spoke more than a word or two of English offered their services as a tourist guide… Insofar as Bangladesh has a foreign tourist industry, a lot of it is centred on Srimangal.)
After our first night in town, we moved out to the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute guesthouse. It’s primarily meant for visiting scientists and officials, but rooms are let out to tourists if they’re available as well. The BTRI guesthouse was wonderully peaceful (set amongst the institute’s tea gardens, about 4km from town.) The staff were friendly. The food was good and plentiful (if a touch expensive, but hey, when it’s served on BTRI logo china in a dining room with actual tablecloths, you can’t complain.) And of course the tea we enjoyed out on the verandah was fresh as fresh could be.
The BTRI main office and gardens
Aside from the guesthouse itself, some of the best bits of our time in Srimangal were:
-The walk through the countryside. One of the BTRI workers kept appearing near the verandah all day on our first day there, regularly asking us if we wanted to go for a guided walk with him. This was actually kind of annoying, but we were very happy we finally caved in and went with him. We wandered through tea gardens, a rubber plantation, lime groves, up and down the hills, finally ending at small Hindu (though Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, almost all of the tea workers are Hindu) village’s religious festival. We were sat down on the only chairs in town and treated like a king and two queens. We were fed huge quantities of fruits and sweets, lavished with attention and then briefly turned into the official photographers of the ceremony. We arrived back at the guesthouse after dark, but the walk was more than worth being late for dinner (we scarcely had room for more food anyway!)
Me with just about every young man in the village following our puja (religious offering/festival/event) meal
A Monipuri woman (the Monipuri are a non-Bangla ethnic minority who live near Srimangal) busy weaving beautiful fabrics for saris and salwar kameez at her loom
-The BTRI. The institute itself was a really cool place. The gardens were pretty, and contained plenty of English placards, explaining the experiments underway in each section. The staff were wonderful as well, and only too pleased to take us inside the buildings for a first hand look at their work.
An exhibit of diseased tea plants at the BTRI. They had bunches of dried and/or pickled stuff too, including lots of insects and snakes!
The BTRI guesthouse had their own China!
-The pineapples. It was the heart of pineapple season while we were in Srimangal. The fruit were a bit small, but amazingly sweet and juicy. They were also cheap, with the foreigner price clocking in somewhere at about $0.15 each. On one evening the three of us ate five pineapples at one sitting.
Sarah with a cup of 5 colour tea (I’m still not entirely sure how they layered the drink… I assume it had something to do with different concentrations of milk and sugar in each layer
-The cycle tour. Susan and I took a bike ride around the area. First we headed back into town (advice: don’t try to cycle amongst traffic even in small town Bangladesh when 50% of the town is barraging you with questions, pineapples for sale and friendly greetings. It’s just too stressful.) Then we headed out into the country, which was a delight. There was hardly any traffic, even on the main roads, and once we turned off into one of the tea estates, we only saw small groups of tea workers, and these only every ten or fifteen minutes. The only downside was the one-speed bikes, which made even the small hills of the region very tough (especially once the chain on mine started falling off every time I pedaled hard.)
A tea estate. The bricked roads were a bit tough on the bicycles (and the body) but riding through them was just so pleasant that I didn’t mind
I’m still not 100% sure, but these certainly LOOKED like wild poinsettias to me. What do you think?
-Lowacherra Forest Reserve. This place was amazing. The forest was beautiful (though all second growth… its oldest trees were about 90 years old) and the wildlife was amazing. We saw three kinds of monkey and inumerable smaller animals, as well as lots of local people at work in and around the forest (local tip: to prevent leech attacks, rub lime juice on your legs.) They didn’t even charge an entry fee which, given the wonderfulness of the place, actually disappointed me. I kept trying to give them a donation, but the guy at the visitors centre (there were quite a few interesting English language interpretive signs there and along the trails) either refused, or misunderstood all of my attempts. At least they had trail guides and postcards for sale so we could contribute a bit to the management of the place.
A hoolock gibbon. You can’t see it from this photo, but these endangered apes have huge, white, bushy eyebrows.
A HUGE spider we met in the forest. This was probably the largest web-spinning (as opposed to hunting) spider I’ve ever seen. About 15cm across the legs!
A snake in the Lowacherra forest reserve (look closely she’s actually quite pretty if you can find her )
When the time finally came to leave the BTRI and Srimangal we were a bit sad to be going, but thoroughly relaxed and ready for our return to Dhaka.