Friday, March 1, 2013

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Last visited: March 2012

Do you dare to go to Dhaka?

Dhaka is not for the faint-hearted or the casual tourist. Even a person with the strongest stomach and an iron constitution can be brought down. 

You must have an invitation to visit Bangladesh either as a tourist or on business, and must submit the invitation with your visa application. Visas are required for visitors from all but a handful of countries (click for details). 

We visited on the invitation of the BRAC centre in Dhaka, and booked at the nearby Hotel de Crystal Crown which was recommended to us because of proximity, quality of food, and reasonable price. The accommodation was perhaps 3 stars, but much more affordable than the western hotels in Dhaka which are extremely expensive. Accommodation included breakfast, the room was adequate, staff were courteous and attentive, and the dinner menu was limited but delicious. Mosquitoes were a problem, as there are lakes surrounding the area and staff came into the room each night to spray it with mosquito killer, which was rather noxious. 

Each morning a cleaning man serviced the room, washing the tiled floors on his hands and knees. On speaking with him, I learned that he and his family lived in the stilt houses I saw perched over a black, smelly lake and he gets there in a small boat which is paddled by one of the locals and carried about 10 people at a time. I tipped him about 100 Taka a day (little more than $1) and he was very grateful as it was approximately half of his daily wage.

As you go through Dhaka, you will see hundreds of power lines draping and looping from pole to pole and building to building. Whenever someone wants a power line, they just run their own. As a result, the electricity goes out several times a day, and many businesses (and all good hotels) have their own generators that kick in automatically. Power outages were a normal occurrence when shopping or going to a museum, so people just pull out their mobile phone and use it for a light to get around.

One of the main business districts is Golshan Avenue, which has two large intersections - Gulshan-1 on the south end, and Gulshan-2 on the north end - about a kilometer (3500 feet) apart. Between the two there are numerous small shopping centres - both low-end and top-end - as well as banks, restaurants, and a supermarket. At Gulshan-1 there is a very busy produce market which is worth visiting. Walking along, you will be greeted by people sticking their hands out asking for money - usually children, old women, and women with babies. Give a few Taka if you want, but don't feel compelled - you can shake your head no and keep walking and eventually they will stop following you. You will also find vendors squeezing and selling sugar cane juice or orange juice along the road. Be warned - it is served in a communal glass from which everyone drinks.

Bangladesh has three main seasons: the monsoon or wet season from late May to early October; the cold season from mid-October to the end of February; and the hot season from mid-March to mid-May. We were there in March, when the roads were dry and dusty. The kerbs along the road are very high, about 6 inches, presumably to carry away the rain during the monsoons. The road surfaces are actually in very good condition - better than British roads - but the footpaths are a shambles.

The lakes around the Golshan district are black and foul smelling, but you'll seeing kids playing in the water and women washing their clothes in it and shacks built on stilts over the water and people commuting across it. 

Food and drink in Dhaka

Only bottled water is safe to drink in Bangladesh. Make sure your restaurant only serves you with bottled water.

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, so you will not find beer or wine in restaurants or most hotels. As a special treat, we hired a rickshaw to take us from our hotel in the Golshan-1 district up to the Westin Hotel at Golshan-2 so we could have a beer. Neither my wife nor I are very big, but we barely squeezed into the back seat. The tiny little man had to stand on his pedals for the power to give us a ride through the maze of back streets and was thrilled when I paid him 40 Taka (about 50 cents), showing his bounty to everyone, who then stuck out their hands asking me for money. The Westin Hotel is very posh and expensive, and two beers set us back about $20, but they did provide us with complementary nibbles.

I was very pleased to find an A&W Rootbeer restaurant near the Golshan-1 intersection. It served authentic American diner food and rootbeer in icy cold A&W glasses. Another time we tried a pizza restaurant called Bella Italia, which was also good.

However, the day before we were to leave, I made the mistake of having lunch at the cafe in front of the Washington Hotel on Golshan Avenue. Within a couple of hours I was alternating between sitting and kneeling at the toilet for the rest of the night. The next morning the manager of the Hotel de Crystal Crown took me to the doctor, who prescribed a 10-day course of very powerful tablets to treat amoebic dysentery. It took about 3 weeks for my bowels to return to normal (what a relief!).

Transportation in Dhaka

Traffic in Dhaka can be chaotic and crazy at best, congested and dangerous at worst. The streets of Dhaka are crowded with cars that don't stay in their lanes and drive on whatever side of the road they please. Hundreds of little motorised rickshaws zip in and out, and there are tens of thousands of bicycle rickshaws, some ridiculously overladen with goods. Huge iron-sided buses covered in scrapes and dents compete with brightly painted and decorated heavy trucks (lorries) to push their way through traffic. Everyone beeps their horn every few seconds to let other drivers know they are there. What a cacophony of chaos.

Needless to say, it is not recommended that you rent a car and drive yourself around, and trains and buses are best left for the locals (unless you are a backpacker seeking adventure). Your hotel will gladly pick you up from the airport, and can arrange drivers for where ever you need to go.

Driving from the airport to the Hotel de Crystal Crown, a distance of scarcely 6 miles (10 km), in the hotel shuttle bus took more than 1 hour in the rain and darkness (there are very few street lights) fighting traffic which jostled for space on the badly congested roads. By the end of the journey, I was glad I was not behind the wheel.

Language in Bangladesh

Bengali, or Bangla, is the official language of Bangladesh and is the most predominantly spoken. English is taught in higher education and is used as the common second language among the middle and upper classes.

Currency in Bangladesh

The currency in Bangladesh is the Taka, or TK. At the time of writing, US$1 was equal to 80 TK.

What to see in Dhaka

The manager of our hotel organised a driver and tour guide to take us out for a day to see some of the sights, including:

Jatiyo Smriti Soudho - the National Martyrs Memorial in Savar, 35 miles north of Dhaka. This was a long drive out of the city and through the countryside to reach their Independence Park, which happened to be closed to the public on the day we visited because the next day was their Independence Day and only dignitaries were allowed. The roads to the park were decorated with dozens of temporary bamboo arches covered with multi-coloured cloth and pictures in honour of Independence Day. But the public is not allowed in the independence park on Independence Day. Go figure. The tour guide told us the monument is the "Bangladesh Statue of Liberty". Even though the park was closed, we were thronged by people staring at us and children and old women begging for money. The driver gave them small notes of 5 Taka (about 5 cents) to keep them from bothering us.

Sadarghat Boat Terminal - photo © Michael Bouy
Sadarghat Boat Terminal  - photo © Michael Bouy
Sadarghat Boat Terminal on the Chittagong River, where hundreds of large ferry boats tie up and come and go all day. The captain of one of the boats allowed us on board to explore, and they are spacious and seem comfortable, with cabins for first class passengers, rows of seats for second class, and benches for third class. The river, however, was black, smelly and rank with pollution and sewage.

Ahsan Manzil - also called the Pink Palace - is just a short distance up river from the boat terminal. It was built in the 1860s by the Nawab (or prince) of Dhaka during the British Colonial Period. It is now a museum, but is in poor condition. There was a power blackout when we were there, so we struggled to see many of the exhibits, and had to use mobile phones as flashlights. The grounds are beautiful and lead down to the river, but are spoilt by the smell of the river, and are surrounded by high-rise slums. The site was closed for lunch when we arrived, so we parked in front and waited. Local men walking past stopped and stared at me standing outside, then noticed my wife in the car and started gathering around to look at her. It was rather uncomfortable, but thank goodness the gates soon opened and we went inside.

Lalbagh Fort in old Dhaka is well worth a visit. It was built in the 1600s during the Moghul Empire. To get there you have to weave your way through the crowded, narrow streets of the old city filled with thousands of rickshaws and pedestrians, going only a couple of miles an hour. Then you pass through the walls of the fort into a large landscaped park filled with historic buildings. Many locals come here to walk and picnic on the lawns. As everywhere, the locals stared at us (mostly fascinated with a white woman), and some of the local women and men were brave enough to stop and talk and others asked to take her photo.