Beautiful Bangladesh – March 2019

So continuing on my random jaunt around the world…my next pitstop sees me spending some time in Bangladesh. Whilst not on most people’s radar, Bangladesh has been on mine for a while simply for that reason.

I had a tour booked in 2016 which sadly was cancelled due to a terror attack and subsequent shutdowns and curfews. So I always had in the back of my mind that if I had the chance I would explore this lesser-visited, hidden gem of a country on the Indian subcontinent.

Somewhat overshadowed by it’s neighbours, Bangladesh is quietly going about its business with very few tourists and some wonderful archaeological sites and religious monuments…why wouldn’t I visit.

So before committing I spent some time reading up on Bangladesh, buying the thinnest Lonely Planet book ever and reading some fellow travellers blogs (not that there were many!). The words intense, crazy, intimidating and India raw kept appearing along with beautiful, friendly, hospitable and amazing….sounds interesting!

So with slight trepidation I jumped on a flight from Sri Lanka to Oman and then Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Upon arrival it was blatantly obvious that the immigration police were not really accustomed to foreign visitors….not only was the bureaucracy time consuming with numerous pieces of paper with the same data on, you needed to queue up at a separate bank desk to pay the visa on arrival fee, the receipt then had to go with your forms. I then queued for an hour for the forms to be processed and the immigration officer showed little interest in me having a return flight or hotel booking (which the forms and signage were adamant you must have). I have to say the officer was. Dry friendly and welcomed me to Bangladesh upon finally issuing me my visa.

I was then sceptical as to whether my bag would be at the carousel as it had now been 1 hour 45 since disembarking the plane!

Thankfully my little rucksack had been carefully placed in the middle of the floor near the baggage carousel and was looking rather sad and lonesome!

Next was customs where bags were being scanned and scrutinised and forms being completed. Upon reaching customs I got waved straight through…no need to scan bag or provide form…I can only assume I was exempt from the process due to the fact I was a tourist! A fact that would show itself to be true throughout my trip, it was like being a VIP for the whole time! Surreal!

I then grabbed a taxi and headed to my hotel, this was to be my next Bangladesh lesson….no one can follow GPS! So instead of following GPS to the hotel the driver just headed in the general direction of Gulshan 2 and then repeatedly asked people where the hotel was…even though I was sitting there with GPS and trying to direct him!

Still I made it there eventually and settled in for the week.

Now, I had already decided that my time in Bangladesh was going to be about meeting people and using the forum of Couchsurfing to meet locals and spend some time hanging out with them, learning about their country from them and travelling with them.

So a mere couple of hours after reaching the hotel, I was going out, on what was to be the first of many evenings out, to a local coffee shop to meet Abdul. Abdul and I had been conversing on CS (couchsurfing) for a while regarding a road trip up to the north of the country to see some fascinating archaeological sites and religious monuments.

We grabbed a quick drink and he introduced me to his friend Hasan, we sat chatting briefly about our road trip but then moved to us discussing global current affairs, Brexit, tourism and many other interesting topics. A wonderful introduction to the welcoming, friendly, hospitable and wonderful people of Bangladesh.

The next day I had arranged to meet Asmani at the same coffee shop, she arrived with her Husband, Bayzid, who from here on is know as Babu! Again, we sat chatting about the same things really and again both Asmani and Babu were really lovely people. Babu had to head off to see friends so I took a walk with Asmani back to their apartment where I also had the pleasure of meeting Kathrine who was couchsurfing with Asmani and Babu.

We sat chatting and eating until gone midnight when Babu returned and dropped me back to the hotel.

It was the perfect balance….daytime I mooched about Gulshan and wrote long overdue blogs, evenings were taken up with eating and socialising.

The next day I ventured out on a day trip with another guy from CS, Robin. He rocked up at the hotel with a car and driver and took me out for the day to see a few historical places outside of Dhaka.

We started with the Goaldi Mosque which is one of the few surviving medieval monuments in Sonargaon. It’s a stunning example of pre-Mughal architecture and is a rare example of a brick mosque.

After wandering around the tranquil mosque garden we headed to the nearby Folk and Art Museum which has some great displays of clothing, needlework, pottery and artwork from the area. We probably would have spent more time at the museum if a coach load of school children hadn’t turned up and descended on the place like a noisy, savage plague of locusts….climbing on everything, touching everything, shouting, running around and throwing fire crackers about (indoors!).

So we hotfooted out of the museum building and took a slow stroll around the surrounding gardens which although geared towards families and children have a lovely palace within them, a boating lake, some animal sculptures, some funky painted walls, loads of shops selling food, drink, clothing, toys and goods made in the local villages. There was even a very squeaky and unsafe looking wooden Ferris wheel!

After the Museum we headed to the beautiful ruined city of Panam.

Panam city is a former Hindu settlement dating to the early 13th century initially. From the 14th century it benefited from seafaring trade which influenced the architecture of the grand trunk road, giving it a striking indo-European style.

Fuelled by British colonial rule and the cotton textile industry, Panam became home to upper middle class Bengali Business men during the late 1800s until in fell into disrepair.

We wandered about the ghostly buildings, even wandering into some and clambering up positively unsafe staircase to take in views from the flat roofs.

I absolutely loved Panam’s building and ghostly ambience. A very cool historical site and one you should definitely visit when in Dhaka.

The next day I lounged about, went to a CS meet up early evening where I met Abdul again, then I headed to Asmani’s for dinner as Kathrine had knocked us up a veritable Malaysian feast…..a Bangladesh take on Nasi Lemak!

Kathrine is a big foodie and is an excellent food blogger and vlogger so I had high expectations for dinner and was not disappointed! Dessert was some wonderful local sweets I had procured on the way over, Bangladesh is heaven for sweet treats!

The next 2 days were taken up with day long monsoon rains and a political election meaning going out was a challenge, so I ended up chilling out for 2 days and staying in out of the rain. I did pop over to Asmani’s for dinner again which was, again, a delicious affair of copious amounts of local food!

Kathrine, Asmani and I also went out for a stroll around Hatirgheel and Gulshan, taking a quick bus ride around the lake and then wandering back home.

Friday saw me pack up my stuff ready for my weekend road trip up north with Abdul and Hasan.

We were getting the night bus at 11.30pm so I checked out shortly before that, got an Uber to Abdul’s, dumped my rucksack, collected the guys and then we headed to the bus station to await our night bus!

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the night bus….a definite improvement on ones I have taken in India before! The 3 of us dozed on and off throughout the journey and arrived into Bogra at about 5.30/6am…can’t remember exactly…it was too early and I was too tired!

We grabbed a tuktuk to our local hotel and managed to check in and get a room for freshening up. About an hour later, we were out getting an early morning bus to Natore where we would jump off and go and see the royal palace of Uttara Ganabhaban or Dighapatia Rajbari as its locally known.

The palace dates from the 18th century and was seat to the Dighapatia Raj.

We enjoyed strolling around the lovely gardens, even if the guys had to wait whilst I had numerous requests for photographs with locals! They don’t often, if ever, see a white Western woman so I was probably a bit of a novelty!

Next we jumped on the bus and headed back to Bogra before heading to the next historical site of Gokul Medh. Gokul Medh is a bizarre excavated mound which is said to be the bride chamber of Behula and date from 7th-12th century.

Our last stop of the day was the museum at Mahasthangarh, we wandered about the gardens, having more selfies with locals then headed back to the hotel…..totally shattered!

I crashed out early, leaving the guys to go out and get food and organise the bus for the next day to the site of Parharpur.

Sunday saw us have an early start again..out at 7am for a 7.30am bus. The bus was supposed to take 2&1/2 hours but some reports were that it was more likely 4 hours. We had been told the road to Rajshahi was impassable so we were going to have to go a different route.

We jumped on the bus, which was less of a bus and more of a child’s school bus! The seats were clearly built for children and the leg space was too small for me, let alone for Abdul at over 6ft!

We squeezed into the back right hand corner of the bus and off we went….we must have been on the road (which was terrible…if this was the better road, I dread to think what the bad road looked like!) maybe 90 minutes when we ground to a burning, smokey halt. Thick black smoke was pouring into the bus right where we were sitting and upon hanging out the window, I glanced a busted wheel sprayed with oil.

So we all had to stream out of the bus onto the side of the road…in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was trying to flag down alternatives to get to the next nearest town. We managed to nab a space in the back of a small flatbed truck, so the 3 of us along with maybe another 10 people stood in the back of this truck for the 10 minute ride to the nearest town.

There we jumped out and tried to flag down another bus coming through…none of them would stop to pick us up and by this time I was drawing quite the crowd…clearly no tourist/traveller has ever stepped foot in this ‘out of the way’, small town in the middle of the north of Bangladesh.

We ended up jumping in a tuktuk with 2 local guys and then heading to the nearest bus station, with the intention of grabbing the bus to Parharpur.

Upon arriving at the chaotic, local bus station we discovered no buses and a raft of tuktuks waiting to rip us off…purely because I wasn’t local! Again we had quite the fascinated crowd…eventually the guys negotiated a fare with a young tuktuk driver to drive us the rest of the way to the site.

So we settled down for the hours tuktuk ride through small, local villages set amongst the most beautifully verdant rice paddies. Our driver rattled around tight bends that hugged people’s houses, uneven and patchy roads and suicidal goats, chickens and dogs that darted out from unexpected places.

Eventually we arrived…..about 4 hours after we left! Unfortunately we now didn’t have much time to wander around the site as we had to endure the same journey back to Bogra and get back in time for the bus back to Dhaka!

So we set to it…grabbed a ticket…marched around the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara, the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur.

It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates to the 8th century AD. It one of 5 important Viharas and the largest on the Indian Subcontinent.

It’s a fascinating place and even though we didn’t have long to see it, we still had chance to marvel at the sheer size of it and the beauty of its architecture. Again we had to make selfie stops with locals….we had enough time for that at least!

After rushing around we jumped back into the tuktuk (he’d been waiting for us) and headed back. The plan originally was for him to return us to where he had picked us up so we could grab a bus back to Bogra. However, part way into the journey he told us he knew a short cut and could drive us back to Bogra in only 2 hours!

So we agree a new price and sat back enjoying the 2 hour tuktuk ride through the villages, rice fields and beautiful Bangladesh countryside.

We made it back to Bogra in good time and managed to freshen up at the hotel before grabbing our bags and heading to the bus station to get the bus back to Dhaka.

Again it was a good 7 hours or so and we rocked up at the bus station in Dhaka around 11.30pm.

We grabbed a couple of cycle rickshaws back to Abdul’s and I said thanks and goodbye to the guys, grabbed my rucksack and called an Uber to my hotel.

I was totally shattered and filthy but what a weekend! It was so much fun and such a laugh…the buses, the break down, the alternative transportation methods and the selfies! I showered, even though it was 1am because my hair was vile and crashed out!

Monday morning I packed ready to leave Bangladesh, checked out and headed over to Asmani’s. Kathrine was also leaving Bangladesh Monday evening…about half an hour later than me, so we had decided to head to the airport together.

I spent the day chilled out at Asmani’s, we ordered some food in and just chatted for hours. We did head out to the coffee shop mid afternoon for a final, farewell drink and a meet up with Abdul to say thanks and goodbye.

I was really sad to be leaving Bangladesh and my new friends behind, but I know that I will be back, and soon, for some more crazy adventures with Abdul and Hasan and some more amazing food at Asmani’s.

It’s definitely true what they say….Bangladeshis are the most hospitable and welcoming people. Truly lovely people who go out of their way to make sure you have a great time in their country.

I have to thank Asmani, Babu, Kathrine, Abdul and Hasan for making my trip so much fun and enjoyable. Can’t wait to come see you guys soon….

Although…I nearly never left…

Bangladesh immigration sprung another surprise on me and had decided to date stamp my visa a day too early! Even though I had provided my return flight details on arrival! So technically I was in the country illegally for a day!

After a tense 90 minutes at the airport where they demanded payment for 1 day overstay and whole new visa, me refusing to pay, them taking ages to process and the me having to argue and eventually be handed over to a lovely lady who seemed to be in charge and thankfully waivered the charges immediately and got me stamped out! Phew!

Bangladesh has become one of my favourite countries and as long as they let me back in…I will be back!

If you are looking for an off the beaten track destination then Bangladesh is the place for you!

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