Click here for a list of things to see.
- Dhaka: Nagasaki Hostel $25 for a single with bath/tv/etc (House #13, Road #06, Sector #01, Uttara)
- The nearby rooftop Indian restaurant Aroma has excellent all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for 550 TK ($7) two or three evenings a week.
- Several budget hotels along New Airport Rd in Banani and Mohakhali
- Lunch buffet at Carnival (Gulshan 1 Road 34)
- Tuktuks (CNGs) cost about $3 for very long urban rides in Dhaka.
- Not easy to navigate Dhaka's train stations. Tickets get sold out right away. There are several train stations and it is not trivial to find out which one is the right one for you. Huge lines in front of counters. I simply walked through the gate and spoke to the station master (the only one who spoke good English) at the airport railway station and got a ticket to Rajshehi (north of Bangladesh). A/C car at 465TK=$7
- Train from Dhaka airport station (Bandar) to Rajshehi 465TK foir first class, 6h
- Rajshehi: +Hotel Dallas 900 TK, near train station
- Bus Rajshehi to Noga 1h
- Bus from Noga to Paharpur 1h
- Rickshaw to Somapura Vihara 20'
- Entrance to Somapura 100 TK
- Rickshaw to Joypurat 200 TK 1h
- Train from Joypurat to Dinajpur 86 TK 2h
- Dinajpur: +New Hotel near bus terminal 600TK
- Bus from Dinajpur to Gangaranpur 30'
- To get to the Kantoji of 1752 you have to walk past the village (over a small toll bridge for pedestrians)
- The Kantoji itself is free to everybody.
- Train from Dinajpur to Parbatipur 15TK, 1h
- I stopped keeping track of bus tickets because they are always less than $1
- Train from Parbatipur to Khulna 200TK for sleep chair 12h
- Bus from Khulna to Bagerhat 1h
- The 60-dome (Shaat Gombudge) mosque is a few kms before town, so make sure to tell the driver. Entrance fee 100 TK. There are other mosques on the way to Bagerhat.
- Bus from Bagerhat to Khulna to Mongla 2h
- There is a deluxe tourist hotel (Hotel Pashur) at the bus terminal (end of the road) $20 with A/C or $12 without. Even here the cost of a meal is very low: I paid $3 at the hotel's fancy restaurant.
- Boat tours of the Sunderban from Mongla (that only visit a couple of nearby spots) are about $70. Mabana Tours 01711-119490 or Al Shahaba 01714-932728 (As usual, the man you deal with is just a middleman).
- Tours of the innermost regions of the forest require joining one of the expensive cruise ships.
- Night bus from Khulna to Dhaka: 900 TK, 12 hours (AK Travel or Green Line)
Pictures of this trip
Notes on Bangladesh (2012):
Visa for Europeans: $51. For USA triple that.
Obtaining an Indian visa in Dhaka requires lots of time: it takes about a week to get the appointment (you apply online) and then three working days to get the visa.
The infrastructure for tourism seems to be non-existent in Bangladesh.
Dhaka's international airport is one of the very few airports that does not have any tourist information, any shop, any kind of help for the passenger.
The first shock comes from the natives: they ask to take pictures of you: shouldn't it be the other way around? I'm a tourist attraction here.
Obviously tourism is still in its infancy, despite the proximity of India.
Alas, English too is a rarity. Most people (even at the bus and train station) do not speak a word of English. I keep asking the younger ones, who obviously must study it in school.
Visas upon arrival are available at Dhaka's airport for most countries of the West, but airlines may refuse to let you board the flight to Dhaka if you don't have a visa on your passport. Visa for Europeans: $51. Visa for USA citizens: $150.
Transportation from airport to city: exit the airport and walk straight 500 meters to the main boulevard (follow the stream of people or just the noise of car horns), where countless buses, tuktuks and rickshaws are available.
There are only banks at the arrivals level of the international airport, but there are shops upstairs at the departure level. No tourist information (anywhere in Bangladesh).
Tuktuks vastly dominate the urban landscape. Here they are called CNG (auto rickshaw in India). There are also still many human-powered rickshaws (only them in the maze of old Dhaka).
The main attraction for foreigners is the colorful lifestyle of Dhaka. The oldest temple (Dhakeshwari) is utterly irrelevant, probably destroyed or abandoned for centuries in a country that used to be Buddhist and Hindu but is now almost totally Muslim. The great sight of the center is Louis Kahn's National Assembly (here known solely as Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban), one of the world's masterpieces of modernist architecture. The rest of this colossal metropolis is pure chaos. Not for the faint of heart.
The city is so big that it is impossible to explore it on foot. Buses are overcrowded and in terrible conditions. So the tuktuks are the obvious choice. They sprint through traffic and are very reliable. The only catch is that they don't speak English, so you always need to find a translator first.
I wanted to buy a bus ticket or train ticket to head north, where i want to see three ancient Buddhist temples (hopefully that the Muslims haven't destroyed them yet). It turns out that Dhaka has a virtually infinite number of bus terminals. I was sent from one to the other, and hours later i still haven't found out which one is the right one for me. Someone eventually suggested the railway station because trains are much nicer than buses. Unfortunately, train tickets sell rapidly, so an advance reservation of two days is recommended. Someone is looking for a ticket for me as in the black market as i type. There are also several train stations and you have to know which station is the right one. I suspect that most tourists (assuming that there are any besides me) use travel agencies to do all of this. It is not trivial at all.
Bangladesh is Muslim but the Indian influence is obvious, especially on the clothes of women: the colorful sari competes with the black dress. In the evening, when families walk into the park by the National Assembly, the saris outnumber the black dresses.
Rest of the country:
The trip to the north of Bangladesh felt like a trip back to the past. It was a journey back in time to an era in which the main sound around you was the bicycle bells not the smartphone's ringers. Most traffic is rickshaws, then tuktuk, then buses and the occasional car. I saw a millenary civilization when most objects were made of plants (wood, wicker, paper) and soil (bricks, pots), a civilization that will be wiped out in a few days when the first Chinese shop opens and starts selling plastic. I saw the artisans who make furniture and kitchenware. They will all be jobless when the plastic comes.
Traveling around Bangladesh is certainly not easy. Transportation is a lose-lose proposition: buses leave almost on time and don't stop, but the roads are terrible and therefore the ride will be very bumpy; trains, on the other hand, can be very comfortable (first class is a bargain) but they usually run several hours late, stop frequently for no apparent reason, and the tickets are a lottery (first class is often sold-out, the station can issue tickets only when there is electricity, which is not very often, and the line to get to the counter can be intimidating). Computerization is a major problem: tickets cannot be issued if there is no electricity, and the ticket has to be printed on a computer printer, which requires ink, paper and is usually very slow. Hence the apocalyptic lines at the counter of any computerized station.
The good news is that transportation, food and lodging are extremely cheap. First class train is about $10 for a very long-distance trip. Ditto for air-conditioned bus with sleeper seats. The best hotels are $20, but most of the three-star hotels outside Dhaka are even less than $10. This makes the life of the tourist much easier: you don't need to spend hours looking for a cheap guesthouse, you can just take the first fancy hotel.
The other good news is that people are incredibly friendly, hospitable, helpful and honest. I rarely had to wait more than five minutes (even in places where English is not spoken) before someone offered help. I came back with names of dozens of new friends.
The price you pay is the endless questions about you and your country. After a while it gets really annoying to answer the 1000th person who asks you ÎéÎíwhich country?ÎéÎí and ÎéÎíwhat is your name?ÎéÎí That's when you realize that there are very few foreign tourists in this country. You are the attraction for them as much as they are the tourist attraction for you. In fact, countless people took pictures of me in the street. Sometimes they ask permission but mostly they just walk in front of me and snap a picture. Even when they don't talk to you, they stare at you nonstop.
Just about everybody was incredibly honest. I rarely had to bargain on a price. Deceit and greed don't seem to be part of their culture. When a rickshaw wanted me to pay 300 TK, a passer-by overheard the conversation and started yelling at him that it was too much. Eventually the rickshaw gave me back 100TK ($1.25).
This is a strange combination: a huge mass of extremely poor people who are extremely honest. They seem to accept their lot with resignation. The few rich people can drive their expensive cars and walk among the beggars and the rickshaw riders without fearing a robbery. In the west people become criminals for much less. Here there is a tacit acceptance of one's lot, no matter how bad it is. It's the Hindu concept of karma coupled with Islamic fatalism.
The language is Bangla, period. English is rarely used, except in the capital. It's a difficult language for me because the script is not Latin, therefore I can't even pronounce the characters. It's a bit like being in China without knowing how to read Chinese characters.
It is difficult to take notes while you travel around Bangladesh. It is virtually impossible to take them on the fly: you are usually in an overcrowded situation; and people start reading what you write. There are a few cybercafes, but the electricity is a lottery. There are power outages all the time.
Needless to say, in a country with 150 million people the size of a small European country, the crowds are immense. As a student told me, ÎéÎíEverybody makes many children, so we can all live under the poverty lineÎéÎí. You have to accept that every square meter has at least one human being. You will never have privacy.
You have to appreciate how these people keep a sense of decency and humanity in the middle of the chaos and deprivation that come with excessive population. I don't think western people would manage. I think they would start behaving like animals. Here the vast majority of people are polite and well-dressed, no matter how tough it is for them to go to work, how crowded the bus/train, how often the electricity fails them, etc.
Poverty, at the same time, is what saves this country. Because they are poor, they serve snacks in newspaper pages and eat them with their hands. It is scary to think of the day when plastic will arrive. If every snack was served in plastic and eaten with plastic tools.
In fact, for such a crowded country, there appears to be relatively little garbage in the streets. If you look close enough, you realize that there is actually a lot of garbage, but their civilization is still mostly based on plants and soil, and therefore the garbage melts in the environment. It is scary to imagine what will happen when all that wood is replaced by plastic. You have to appreciate that many cities started switching to electrical tuktuks instead of the traditional ones.
What you see from the train and the bus, when you are not in the frenzy of a village, is mostly rice fields: it takes a lot of rice to feed this population.
By comparison, the colossal capital of Dhaka is the future: a megacity that is completely congested at all times. There are traffic jams in which drivers physically turn off the engine. We all sit staring at each other. Even the sidewalks are congested. Not even bicycles can move. And, still, some people spent a lot of money to purchase an expensive car. Now they sit in jammed traffic like everybody else, their only consolation being that they can run the air conditioning. It's a surreal sight.
I visited what used to be the largest Buddhist monastery south of Tibet, in Paharpur. What is left is a huge monolith in the middle of a plain. Then the Kantoji of Dinajpur of 1752. These are probably the two most important antiquities in Bangladesh.
Then I went southwest to Khulna. This is the base to explore the lost city near Bagerhat: only some of the mosques are still visible. Then back to Khulna and on to Mongla, which is the entry point to the Sunderban, the largest mangrove forest in the world, shared between India and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there are very few animals left. Compared with Africa, it's a massive disappointment.
The Sunderban is visited from Mongla, but be aware that you need a permit that you cannot obtain in Mongla. Tours are organized in Dhaka and in Khulna, and those will get the permits. Without the permits you are limited to a few touristy areas. In Mongla it is relatively easy to hire a boat at the harbor, near the government hotel.
The Sunderban is invariably a disappointment: there are no animals to be seen, other than a few insects. They will tell you that you have to go way inside to see animals, but the numbers tell the truth: the density of mammals and birds per square km is very low. You will not see any monkey or crocodile, except in the small zoo at the entrance. You may see one or two birds early in the morning.
Notes on Maldives (2012):
$1=15.4 rufiyaas but you can also just keep dollars (the currency is pegged to the dollar). Credit cards are widely accepted for tourist activities (but not at neighborhood stores). ATMs are non-existent outside Male.
Visa upon arrival (free of charge). Ferry to Male: $1.
The only tourist information office is at the airport.
Ferry from airport to town: 10 rufiyaas (or $1 if you only have dollars). Ferries from the airport to Male take about 20 minuets and leave frequently
till after midnight.
Lodging is not cheap in the Maldives. The cheapest hotel in Male (in 2011)
was $50 per night. No dorms, just single rooms.
There are lots of guesthouses around town but they are forbidden to rent
the room to foreigners on a tourist visa, and most of them have no sign outside
that identifies them as a guesthouse. Everybody in the neighborhood knows
which ones are guesthouses though. Taxis around the island cost $1-2.
You can try and hire a taxi driver for $5 and let him do the search for you
(he might even be willing to book the room for you, in which case the
transaction is perfectly legal). The cheapest room with A/C and bathroom
that i could find was actually a very reasonable $25 (but, again, only because
the owner was willing to break the loosely-enforced law).
Male is overcrowded: don't even think of camping in a secluded beach.
It's a Muslim
country, so unlikely that a family would offer lodging to a complete stranger.
Travel agencies in Male are useless: they can do exactly what you can do with the Internet. If you ask anything that is slightly different, they don't know. They are simply robots that book rooms in expensive resorts (up to $4,400/night) and sell you whatever package that resort has sent them. Most of them have no experience of what they are trying to sell you. They are also clueless about cheap accommodation in Male. I would only recommend Michelle Faik at Scaevola Travel across from Jetty #9 (seventh floor). List of travel agencies in the Maldives: http://www.mondomaldive.com/General_Information/Travel_Agency.html
Hotels in Male, although most of these are officially considered "guesthouses" (note that about 10% taxes must be added to hotel prices) (note that there are no pay phones in Male so, if you don't have your own cell phone, you will depend on someone else making phone calls and they will probably only call one or two of these and possibly miss some great discounts):
Kaani Lodge $45 http://www.kaanilodge.com/ Tel: +960 3003626 firstname.lastname@example.org
Hulhumale Inn $55 Hulhumale, Plot no. 10487 Nirolhumagu, +960 335 5510
Abalone Tourist Inn M. Maahiya, Male 960 332 7784
Athama Palace G.Dhivehi Atha, Majeedhee Magu, Male' 960 331 3118
Buruneege Residence H. Buruneege, Hithaffinivaa Magu, Male' 960 333 0011
Candies H. Candies, Deefuram Golhi, Male' 960 331 0220
Champa Moon Guest House G. Champa Moon, Male' 960 333 4042
City Hide Away H. Rihifaiy, Ameenee Magu, Male' 960 332 8815
City Palace H. Hiriyadhoo, Filigas Hingun, Male' 960 331 2152
Dhonveli Inn G. Villashabnamy, Handhuvarudhey Higun, Male' 960 334 1002
Extra Haven H. Halaveligasdhoshuge, Male' 960 332 7453
Fariva Inn H. East wood, Male' 960 333 7611
Fasfinn Lodge G. Buruzu Magu, Male' 960 331 8189
Fuana Inn $65 10107 Dhigga Magu K.Hulhumale 2300 335-0610
Host Inn Anona Golhi, Male' 960 332 1406
House Clover 332-5506
Maadhuni Inn H. Holheege, Majeedhee Magu 960 332 2824
Maafaru Guest House M. Maafaru, Champa Magu 960 332 2220
Maagiri Lodge Bodhuthakurufaanu Magu, Male' 960 332 2576
Mariyaadhu Hiya 331-7373
Male' Inn H. Munik, Male' 960 332 9028
Marble Hotel $59 Kanba Aisa Rani Higun, Maafannu, 20335 (northend of Male)
Park House 333-6060
Real Inn H.Landhooge, Ameer Ahmed Magu, 960 331 2790
Royal Inn M.Honey Dew, Izzudhdheen Magu 960 332 0573
Surf View 331-2010
Transit Inn Ma.Dheyliaage, Maaveyo Magu 960 332 0420
Villingili View Inn M. Raaverige, Majeedhee Magu 960 332 1135
West Inn M. Shahu Abad, Male' 960 331 7152
and real (cheap) guesthouses (with A/C): G View (333-6048), Off Day Inn (330-4839)
Male is tiny: the entire island in which it is located is 1.7 km long and 1 km wide. You can walk the whole city in less than one hour. However, it feels very crowded. It communicates by ferry with the island of the airport, which in turn is connected by road with the artificial island of Hulhumale, and there are ferries between Male and Hulhumale too.
Male is Muslim: female tourists must cover themselves (no matter how hot it is) and males should wear long pants and never take their shirt off (shorts are tolerated but you don't look very respectful if you wear shorts in a country in which nobody does).
The cost of living in Male is very reasonable: the lunch buffet at the Cafe Bourse is $6.50. A soda can is 10R=$0.70. Internet is a bit expensive at 20R/hour ($1.50). There are no pay phones in Male.
The only part of the Maldives that is well connected with ferries is the northern islands. Flying from Male to Hanimadhoo costs about 4000 rufiyaas round trip ($260) if you book it on the Internet (10% more at the Maldivian office). There is a ferry early in the morning to a nearby island (Nothivaranfaru), returning at 3pm. There are guesthouses that gladly cater to foreigners (about $30 for a double room with bathroom, tvset and A/C) but they are not represented by any travel agency and will now show up on the Internet. Very few people live on these islands. The shops have very little to offer: usually just crackers and canned food. They are not expensive at all (but if you are staying in one of the resorts you will never find out). If you talk to the fishermen, you will almost certainly find someone willing to take you around in a boat to the nearby islands ($50/day or so).
There is no garbage collection and no recycling facilities in most islands. Therefore you will find garbage (especially the indestructible plastic) dotting the entire perimeter of every island, whether inhabited or not. Within a generation these islands will just be floating dumpsters.