Wow, Bangladesh, what an assault on the senses! First impressions- people people people, everywhere! There are 150million+ people here in a country a bit larger than Ireland. And for most of them poverty is the norm. During my taxi ride into the city beggars would approach the car window while we were stuck in traffic. Poor souls. Bearing in mind they are begging in a country unaccustomed to ‘rich’ foreigners. I checked into my ‘Al razzaque International’ hotel, a cheapie in the old town, one of the few that accepts foreigners but no women (not sure if that counts for a foreign couple), next door to a recommended restaurant (with separate cubicles for women of course!). I don’t think i’ve been anywhere with less tourists. The nice thing is the lack of touts and hardcore hassle, though this is replaced with relentless and unashamed curiosity from just about everyone. There is no respite from the stares and random comments in passing, though it is manageable. Life certainly happens without restraint here.
The most common sight in Dhaka are the bicycle rikshaws. Everywhere! About 600000+ of them congesting the streets, outnumbering all motorized transport. The basic pre-requisite for the passing buses seems to be an advanced state of dilapidation and full beyond capacity, as they trundle by. There is no point being courteous on the streets, it just interferes with their ‘order’! If you leave space for anyone to pass, it could be a crippled old lady in a narrow lane, someone else will just take the space. But it seems to work for them. That said, bus accidents and associated fatalities are apparently huge in this country. After
getting completely and hopelessly lost in the old town streets for 3-4 hours, i eventually gave up my desire to find my own way back and paid a rikshaw cyclist less than 20c to take me back ot my hotel, which as it happens turned out to be in the direction i was going anyway!
Next morning i got up early and went down to the riverfront where i struck a deal for a boat ride. What a wonderful way to see the gritty daily life of this city. Tiny wooden boats to huge triple deck ferries, old age rusting ships marooned on the shore to slightly less disintegrated hulks hauling produce. It’s a wonder they aren’t colliding all the time. Even out on the water i was greeted with hellos and waves by practically every passer by. It was a very pleasant morning, followed by more rikshaw rides around the old town. That evening i boarded the ‘rocket’ boat, a stately 1920’s British paddle steamer which plies the 27hr river journey between Dhaka and Khulna every day. The ticket office didnt even give me the option to buy anything other than a 1st class ticket, though i stopped them short of selling me a cabin for two people! That said, my $15 ticket entitled me to a shared cabin, a dining hall and deck space, in grand 20’s British opulent style, which i happily enjoyed! Everyone was very friendly and nice meals were served. It was a nice break from the crowds and the unfolding scenes along the river banks provided endless photographic fodder. Definitely one of my most enjoyable trips I’ve ever had.
I arrived in Khulna the next night where i booked into what must be the cheapest hotel room i’ve ever stayed in, less than 1euro for an ensuite room, though yes you get what you pay for! I was eaten alive by bed bugs and I had to get up to have a shower on 3 occasions just to relieve myself from the persistent itching. Back to the crowds and stares the following day, I changed my original plans for a less rushed and more relaxing alternative, a tour of the Sundurbans mangrove national park for 3 days. It is the largest mangrove (tidal swamp forest) on the planet and, oddly enough, home to the densest concentration of tigers on earth (though rarely seen). Here’s an entertaining fact, on average a person is eaten by a tiger in this region every 3
days and some local honey collectors wear specially designed iron masks to stave off the skull crushing bite of an assailing tiger! Anyway, a few days on a boat away from the crowds and back in nature was just about a perfect plan.
Throughout my 10day stay in Bangladesh I saw no independent tourists, let alone any other solo travelers, though I did meet a couple of interesting characters on the ‘Rocket’- among them an elderly deaf/mute Japanese photographer traveling with a guide and a really cool Mexican renegade priest involved in a program to help
disabled people in this region. With his earring and refusal to wear a collar, he was ‘fired’ by his bishop due to his modern opinionated, spiritual, community-based approach to his church until his local parish demanded he be brought back! You would have loved him!