Is it silly to blog about travels that happened ages ago? I’m going to hope not. (#tbt is all over my Instagram feed, does it exist in the blogosphere as well? Let’s pretend it does. Sidebar: apparently there are rules for #tbt! In case you didn’t know…)
A while ago, I went to Bangladesh. A while after that a friend asked me to guest post about that trip on her blog. It took me a while to write said post, and by then her blog was no longer. I’ve mentioned that trip here before briefly.To continue my preamble: I’m clearly no Bangladesh travel expert. In fact, I wish I had had a little more travel experience under my belt before this trip– despite having travelled a lot with my family, it was my first time heading off so far on my own (well, with my boyfriend at the time), and I ended up being a bundle of nerves. After a rather unpleasant verbal joust between said boyfriend and a racist jerk while we got off our connecting flight in Germany, it was all just a little too much for me and I burst into tears over a bowl of ramen noodles in the Frankfurt airport. On the bright side, I discovered what is still my favourite place to eat in that massive airport. After that, the trip went smoothly, and I had a ball. There’s some awkwardness that comes from travelling with someone whose extended family all believes that a trip to Bangladesh means marriage is imminent, but I’m still very grateful to all of them for making sure my time in Bangladesh was so memorable.
I managed to avoid getting sick while we were there, but we both returned unable to stomach much food and unable to stray very far from a toilet (nice, I know.). So if you do go, you know, just be smart. Drink bottled water, and you should probably avoid street meat. Even if it smells delicious. Anyway! I’ll end my rambling preamble here, below is what I had written way back when…
My trip to Bangladesh was a fantastic and crazy whirlwind. I was lucky enough to be invited to a beautiful wedding, and with only 14 days available to travel over my winter break from school, we fit in as much as we could. The culture shock hit me as soon as we stepped out of Dhaka’s small airport. Every one of my senses was absorbing something new: the smells on the street, the smog, the traffic, the sights of poverty, the heat. The drive from the airport to our apartment woke me up from my jet lagged stupor; the traffic was like nothing I had ever seen. Rickshaws, beggars, scooters, and honking automobiles all crammed on to the same road, while packed buses drove by with people finding seats on the roof. Sometimes there were traffic lights or police men trying to keep order at an intersection, and other times there weren’t. Following any kind of “rules of the road” seemed optional. Once I got over my initial fear that we were going to collide with everything else on the road it almost became entertaining; I quickly learned to have faith in my driver.
That first night we left the smog behind and drove out to Rajendrapur where the wedding celebrations would be taking place, a quiet little green oasis just outside of Dhaka. The wedding itself was unbelievable. I was in awe of everything: the amount of guests, the full days of events, the mendhi, my beautiful saris that I couldn’t wait to wear, the food, the music, and the beautiful traditions – it was all amazing for a girl who had only been to one small church wedding before.
After the festivities we returned to Dhaka where we saw as much as we could with our remaining time in the country. Bangladesh certainly isn’t considered a tourist hotspot – unfortunately it usually only makes the news when disasters strike, but go with an open mind and your experience will be like none other.
Dhaka: My Top Seven
1. Ride in rickshaw.
My first rickshaw ride was scarier than that first car ride from the airport. Our rickshaw driver, who didn’t look older than twelve years old, biked confidently through all kinds of traffic while I held on to the side of my seat with white knuckles. Once I got over my initial trepidation I really enjoyed it; it’s faster to manoeuvre through the traffic than in a car and it’s probably the best way to see to actually see the city. The bumps in the road eventually seem less life threatening, I promise.
2. Cross the Buriganga River in a commuter boat
Another form of transportation that did not seem entirely safe to me at first was these flat commuter boats that cross back and forth across the river. If you’re like me and are a little wary of these wooden boats, try to get over it and experience what is part of many Bengalis’ daily routine. I will never take clean Canadian lakes for granted…
3. Ahsan Manzil
Also known as the pink palace, this is one of Dhaka’s most impressive buildings. Climb up the pink steps at the entrance and you can look back on the Buriganga River through the palm trees. Inside, you can walk through the rooms of the palace which include old paintings and artifacts that go through the country’s history.
4. Old Dhaka
If nobody in your group is Bengali (or knows the area well), I would recommend hiring a local guide to lead you through these narrow streets and alleys. If you want to see what real life is like for most of Dhaka’s population this is where it happens: slums, street vendors, mosques, delicious kebabs (but be careful with street meat!), pan stalls, barber shops, tiny Hindu temples, and the little bits of daily life. If you stick out like a sore thumb (like a tall blonde Canadian…) get your smile ready and be prepared to have your picture taken.
5. Bengali Parliament
We were told you needed to have a Bengali passport to get passed the front gates of parliament, but I’ve read online that foreigners can go inside, too. (Maybe the guard just didn’t feel like dealing with us that day.) In any case, it is an interesting building to see from the outside and there might be something going on at the pavilion in front of the grounds.
6. Shopping at Aarong and Bibi Russell
If you want to bring home souvenirs from your trip, these are the two shops I would recommend. Both sell fair trade products made in Bangladesh and with a wide array of clothing, jewelry, artwork, and other handmade goods, you’ll have a lot to choose from.
7. DVD hunting at Western Craze
I know that I probably shouldn’t be encouraging purchasing (super cheap) pirated DVDs, but if it’s supporting the Bengali economy maybe that’s alright? In any case, if there’s a DVD you’ve been looking to add to your collection I would be surprised if Western Craze didn’t have it in their stacks and stacks of selection (in many languages). It’s a shopping experience.
Note: obviously in the time since I’ve been there, many things could have changed. But to the best of my google-enhanced knowledge, these shops and sights are all still there.