We would not have normally come to Bangladesh, except the opportunity was here because our friend Natalie is a teacher in Dhaka. I preach frequently the need to visit less tourism developed places – and yet am guilty of wanting to see places like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Table Mountain.
And so our decision to visit Bangladesh helped us make the leap to a place no one goes, except our friend Natalie.
We connected with Deshghuri Tours – one of a handful of tour companies catering to the few Westerners who come here, mostly Canadians, Germans and
Americans. Because our time was short we booked a three-day tour with Deshghuri. It’s difficult to see Bangladesh without a guide. The cities are crowded and Dhaka is plagued with air pollution. Driving here is, shall we say, daunting. So a tour is a must.
Our first day was to see the densely packed city of Dhaka – home to 20 million people. Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world and
Dhaka has a density of 23,234 people per square kilometer within a total area of 300 square kilometers. We spent the day weaving in and out of traffic, but also enjoying getting in and out of the car to see some remarkable sites; mosques, temples, university, and the 600-year-old Lalbagh Fort that serves as a lovely oasis in the city. It was here we really began to feel how unusual it is to have a westerner walking around Dhaka. Bangladeshi
stopped and gaped at us, some asking for selfies, others discreetly taking our photo without asking. Very strange.
At the end of the day we arrived in Shadarghat, the steamer terminal and one of the busiest places in Dhaka (which is saying something). Here we
boarded our first of seven boats: the 100-year-old “Rocket” paddle wheeler that plies the waters of the Buriganga River. These boats were, in their time, the fastest thing to ever hit these waters (thus the name), but today faster and more upgraded ferries provide service. The Rocket continues to work however, and tours often include a night aboard these vessels for the “experience”. It was definitely an experience as we were on one of the oldest and most worn down vessels.
On arrival in Barisal early the morning of day two of
our tour we were met by our new guide Ontu. After breakfast we went by car three hours to Bagherhat, a UNESCO world heritage city and one of the most historic cities in Bangladesh. On the way to Bagherhat we rode a very small and crowded car ferry which is boat number two. On reaching Bagerhat we toured three remarkable mosques, built in the 15th century! All still in use today. Two of these mosques were a
remarkable architecture design of domes rather than minarets. The first was a nine dome and the second was an 80 dome mosque. Truly fascinating for the time period and in wonderful condition considering the climate and the years.
We continued by car to Mongla, where we boarded
boat number three: a small wooden pirogue which we stood in to cross the very busy river. On the other side we boarded boat number four, known as a country boat. It was just the two of us with our guide and we sat back and enjoyed cruising the river on this small 20-foot boat. We enjoyed a
traditional Bangla lunch onboard, then went ashore at the Sundarban’s breeding sanctuary where we saw deer and crocodiles and walked the mangrove forest.
Back on the boat and back to Mongla where we
met the car, returned to Barisal (including car ferry-boat number five) and to our hotel in Barisal. It had been a very amazing day.
Day three we were up early, and instead of car we were in a Tuk Tuk before the sun had risen, driving an hour from Barisal to the banks of the Shondha River. Here we would board boat number six, a long deep river dwelling vessel, for what would turn out to be my favorite part of our
tour. Cruising through the backwater region of the Shondha we enjoyed the floating vegetable market as well as seeing the river people going about their daily life – scratching out an existence on and in
the river. The river is both highway and washing machine, bathtub and food source. We got off the boat several times, including a visit to an ancient and scrabbled together Hindu village where the people were so kind and generous and interested in us. When we tell them we are from
the United States they say it is their honor to have us in their country. This is the Bangladeshi way – welcoming, kind and generous; even if they have nothing to give, they will offer you a cup of tea.
It was particularly interesting to me how astonished everyone – men, women and children – were with my white hair. They found it fascinating and we felt like celebrities. Very
We learned a lot about river life, about the kindness of strangers, about how important community is to this ancient way of life. We learned about religion (Islam is the largest religion of Bangladesh; Muslims constitute over 90% of the population, while Hindus constitute 8.5% and Buddhists 0.6% are the most significant minorities of the country. Christians, Sikhs, animists and atheists form 1%), we learned about food, we learned about education.
But mostly we learned about how much we take for granted.
Saying farewell to our boat driver we were back in the Tuk Tuk for the hour ride back to Barisal where
we had time to tour the market before our departure. The market was remarkable to me mostly because not a single tourist item was there. This was perhaps the most authentic market I have been to (except for Ethiopia and Burkina Faso). In fact I have not even been able to find a postcard in this country – a sign of how small the tourism
industry is here.
We said goodbye to our wonderful guide and boarded a river ferry, faster and more modern than the Rocket, for the overnight return to Dhaka. Boat number seven.
Seven boats, three days, one rare Bangladesh. I’ll not forget my time here. Unique, remarkable, rewarding and above all, humbling.