Ever considered traveling to Bangladesh? I bet you didn’t.
I had to do a visa-run from India and thought it would be great to do that by going to Bangladesh for a few weeks. It was one crazy adventure that I will not easily forget. Below are 10 things that nobody tells you about traveling around in Bangladesh - but that might be because nobody is talking about Bangladesh at all.
Proud to introduce to you: Asia’s least visited country!
Don’t get me wrong, Bangladesh is a stunning country, but in this post I will share the mean and ugly of this rarely visited country too.
What do I need to know about traveling in Bangladesh?
That -as should be clear by now- nobody goes there
On a population of more than 160 million people, Bangladesh only receives some 125,000 tourists per year. Just to put those crazy numbers in context, that is 1280 Bangladeshis for 1 tourist. My home country, The Netherlands, received in 2017 a whopping 17,6 million tourists - against only 17,2 million local dutchies. Pretty incredible right!
Those are tourist numbers that Bangladesh can only dream about. And with so little foreign visitors, it’s no wonder you will not meet any other travellers.
Not a single one!
Visiting Bangladesh in the high (but not so very high)-season, might increase your chances and you may spot one. But if you go outside of the season (like me, in September/October), you’ll have the entire country to yourself.
Well, not counting those 160 million Bangladeshis that is.
But I loved that! Any temple, national park or other sight that you will find in this country would have been massively overcrowded by photo-snapping tour groups if they would be located in Thailand or Cambodia. But not here. You may encounter the odd local school class on an outing, but you will be the only foreigner wandering about. This feeling of going off-grid, into unexplored territory was just thrilling!
The downside is that the Bangladeshis are simply overly excited to see a foreigner - which leads to the next point..
2. That Bangladeshis adore you
I mean, they loooooove you. Now I can only speak from my own experience, as a 31-year old, fabulous-looking (mua-ha-ha), blond, solo female traveler, but you’ll get attention in Bangladesh. Like a lot.
Now I know you’re not meant to put people in boxes. I know, I know. But in this case I make an exception. I can promise you, the different types of attention you’ll get, will fit in either of these four categories:
Where I’m from, mothers teach their children that it’s impolite to stare at strangers.
“Now don’t stare at this woman Bobby, that is not nice”!
It became increasingly clear to me that this is not a life lesson in Bangladesh. People stare you bluntly in the eye, often with their mouths drooping slightly. Moreover, they stop with whatever they were doing. They move in as close as possible and give you a good look. I’ve tried the giving-back-a-hard-stare technique, which sometimes worked and sometimes not.
When it didn’t work, it became an awkward, silent stare-off - which the Bangladeshis always won. Always.
Every Bangladeshi knows the word “Hello”. It is even part of their own language Bangla, and must be some relic from the British occupation. Now, you would think: nothing wrong with a nice greeting. True. Nobody uses the word in a normal way to a foreigner though. It.is.shouted.
No matter whether you’re standing at arm-lengths away or across the street. The people feel the urge to scream it at you at the top of their lungs.
This category is owned solely by men though (and some children). No woman will scream at you like that in Bangladesh.
The country demanders
You are not being asked where you are from - it is demanded to name your country. They’ll simply bark at you: “COUNTRY!!” Once you’ve named a country, you’ll receive a satisfied nod. And that is the end of the conversation.
I got so sick of the same single question over and over and over again (I once counted : 32 times in one day!) - that I started to shout random country names back. I’m now officially from Panama, South-Africa, Greece, Germany and even Bangladesh!
The slightly English speakers
Some Bangladeshis that speak better English will pop their second question: ‘are you married’. Expect appalled scowls when you tell them you are an unmarried woman in your thirties. I could just see the thought popping in their mind: What is wrong with her?
None of the attention was maleficent though. The Bangladeshi men were not glaring at me the way they do sometimes in India. It is only curiosity. Moreover, the people were extremely eager to rush to my rescue whenever they had the feeling I was in need of any help. In some more rural villages the people approached me quite shyly and tried their hardest to have a conversation with me - albeit not speaking a single word of English.
Just don’t expect to be left alone - a foreign tourist is way too interesting for that!
3. That you will have bad tummies
Bangladesh’s signature dish is Biryani - in all sorts of shapes: chicken biryani, mutton biriyani, beef biryani, prawn biryani and it is lip-smacking good! I’m not a fan of eating rice at all, but I can literally eat biryani all day long.
So although I haven’t had terrible food while in Bangladesh (OK - except that one time I went to a small coral island close to the border with Myanmar ) - I did had some serious bad tummies. Now over the years of traveling all around the world, I would say I built up a pretty iron stomach, but evidently not enough to get me through Bangladesh.
I didn’t have a decent sh*t in weeks. Oh - is that too much information?
Hygiene standards in Bangladesh are pretty poor and if you are roughing it on a low budget like me - prepared to bolt to the toilet regularly and unexpectedly.
BUT! Never did I get violently ill though - Win!
4. That you will smell.. badly
Bangladesh is humid and you will be sweating like a pig. No matter whether you are actually doing something or whether you don’t move a single muscle. Now this is all good, if you can do your laundry somewhere. Well - you can’t.
Laundry machines haven’t made it to Bangladesh quit yet. If you don’t want your clothes to be taken to a polluted pond and getting beaten by a stick - you have to do your washing yourself. Now this is something I’ve been doing in many countries, no worries. Except that in Bangladesh it just won’t dry.
A backpack full of damp, stinky clothes is what you will be dragging around the country. Good thing is that when you find yourself in a jam-packed local bus, literally rubbing shoulders (and arms and thighs) with the locals, they are just as sweaty and stinky as you are.
Equals out the smell!
5. That you will see markets that make your stomach turn
Making your way to the south-east of Bangladesh, you’ll find yourself in the Chittagong district: Tribal Territory. A dozen different tribes live here who showcase and sell their produce on the local markets. Now people in China and other Asian countries eat some pretty revolting things, but I dare to say these markets beat them to it.
Live frogs, eels and snails, dried sharks, and freshly cut iguana meat are amongst the things that are for sale. How they turn these ingredients into something eatable - I have no idea. But they eat some real weird stuff in this part of the world.
Visiting this area is incredibly rewarding though - each tribe has it’s own language, dress and customs. Some are even matriarchal - go women!
The best base to explore this area is Banderban, a short 2-hour bus ride from sea-port Chittagong. This area has some of the highest tourist-securities in Bangladesh and you’ll need to have a permit to come here. For more detailed information on this area and how to arrange this, check out Chittagong Hill Tracts - a must see when traveling Bangladesh.
6. That travel in Bangladesh is dirt-cheap
Breakfast for 0,80 US$, lunch and dinner for 1,50 US$ - now we’re talking! A typical Bangladeshi breakfast consists of chapatti, a spicy omelette, vegetables or dhal and tea. Yummie! Lunch and dinner is mainly Biryani as mentioned earlier. Sometimes Chinese dishes such as chowmein are available.
Traveling by train or bus is also incredibly cheap. Riding a bus for 5 hours will cost you US$ 2,50, a full night on the train will be around 4$.
Most sights you can enter for free, and if there is an entrance fee it will usually be between 1-2 US$.
To try and fit in with the locals I bought several Bangladeshi outfits (long tunics with trousers, similar to the salwar kameez in India). A ready made set costs about 7,50 US$ and if you buy the fabric and get it tailored, it will cost you around 10 US$. Not bad for a complete, tailored outfit!
The only thing that is relatively expensive is accommodation. Even when your are staying in cheapy-cheap hotels and rooms without air-con. A night in a hotel will easily set you back between 15 - 20 dollars. On the plus-side, rooms always have their own attached bathroom. No sharing bathrooms with fellow guests!
7. That you won’t get any sleep
You WILL be eaten alive by mosquitoes and bedbugs. You WILL battle with cockroaches in your room. You WILL drift out of your bed by all of your night sweat. But if all of this is still not affecting your good night’s sleep, then there is something else that undoubtly will.
90% of the people in Bangladesh are muslim. They have some of the best, strongest, loudest speakers on earth to broadcast the calls for prayer. Their first announcements starting at 04:50 in the morning. Ouch.
I’ve had a few unlucky accommodation choices where the speakers were right outside of my room. I can promise you - I saw the ceilings of those rooms at very close range, very early in the morning. Earplugs are a great asset though. Highly recommend bringing some good ones with you!
I can just say that after 3,5 weeks in Bangladesh, I never had such huge bags under my eyes in my entire life.
I NEED SLEEP!
8. That you can travel back in time
No really, you can. In a certain way then.
Bangladesh is proud owner of no less than 4 (still functioning) Rocket Paddle Steamers! These babies are over 100 years old, but still going strong!
Once the fastest mode of transportation over water, they are without a doubt the slowest these days. Don’t expect to get anywhere soon. Spending a night on this mighty beast is a great experience though. The rivers in Bangladesh are buzzing with life wherever you go. Spying on the locals doing their daily chores from the deck of the Rocket is a fun way to see Bangladeshi life.
Getting a ticket for the Rocket Paddle Steamer in Dhaka can be a bit problematic. At least - for me it was -. I had outdated information sending me to a non-existing office. It took 2 hours battling through Dhaka traffic followed by another hour for me to realise the office was definitely not there anymore.
Locals told me it had moved to BanglaMotor, another area within Dhaka. Add another 1,5 hour in traffic to get here. And once I did - locals told me I had to go to Sadarghat. Yet another 1,5 hour away!
To make a long story short: in the end it took me 8 hours in Dhaka traffic to get my ticket and make it to the Rocket. The stress this caused me must have reduced my life expectancy by a year or two. I cannot recommend it to anyone! By the way, the correct address to buy a 1st class ticket is Fairly House, 24 Kazi Kazrul Islam Avenue.
If you prefer a musty, small and hot cabin - go 2nd class! You can buy these tickets close to Sadarghat Boat Terminal. Once you get here, officials will be able to guide you to the ticket office. That office is a 10-minute walk from the terminal along the riverside, past the Pink Palace.
It was a bit more rugged than 1st class, but I had some lovely neighbours who invited to visit their home in Morrelganj. (I had to decline as I was just to eager to get to the Sunderbans - see next section).
9. That it’s possible to visit the Sunderbans - independently!
The Sunderbans area of Bangladesh is not only world’s largest mangrove forest, but it is home to (a very rough estimate) of perhaps 100 Royal Bengal Tigers. Tour agents in Dhaka offer multi-day trips into this wilderness, which are great value, but not if you are traveling outside tourist season.
Without any other tourists to share the boat costs with, a 3-day trip into the Sunderbans would cost me a mind-blowing 750 dollars! Given that chances of actually seeing a tiger are extremely low - this was not worth the money for me.
So how to get into the Sunderbans independently? No tour package, no tour group (thank goodness - I hate groups of tourists).
Ride the Rocket Paddle Steamer from Dhaka to Hulherhat. From there, the bus terminal is a short rickshaw ride away, where you can catch a Kulna-bound bus until the intersection called Kathakhali (cost: 0.40$). It will take you 2 hours to reach the intersection. At the intersection, change for the bus to Mongla (cost: 0.60$) which is another 1,5 hour busride. Arriving in Mongla, you’ll find yourself at the border of the Sunderbans National Park.
I stayed in Mongla in the Parjatan Hotel (which also goes under the name Pashur hotel), right next to the bus station. The staff arranged a boat and boatmen for me and a full-day trip into the Sunderbans set me back only US$ 60.
Don’t expect to venture far and deep into the vast mangroves on this one-day trip. But for more than a tenth of the price offered to me in Dhaka, I got to see the mangroves, monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles, turtles, spotted deer and lots of birds.
I didn’t see a tiger. But one may have seen me.
10. That Bangladesh should be on top of your bucket list - before the rest of the world discovers it!
Let me be clear - traveling Bangladesh is not for the faint of heart. If you choose Bangladesh as your first-ever backpacking country, you will likely end up being absolutely mortified. And go back home running, crawl under the sheets and start sobbing.
But if you’ve mastered traveling in a country like India, I would say you are ready to step it up. Once you’ve gotten yourself past several of the ‘inconveniences’ mentioned in this post, you will see a gorgeous, mostly undiscovered country.
So if all of the above doesn’t face you - I know it doesn’t, you adventurous traveler! - check out my other posts on where to go and what to see in Bangladesh. I guarantee you, after that there is no way back!