Jan 2, 2013 3:10:56 AM
Bangladesh for first-timers
Famously poor and heavily prone to flooding, Bangladesh makes an unlikely tourist destination, and a trip here is certainly off the beaten track. But if you’re happy to leave behind your home comforts and willing to get out and explore, this beautifully green and wonderfully welcoming country could be one of the most fascinating places you ever visit.
Tempted? Here’s a guide to the star attractions of one of the least visited countries in south Asia.
Bangladesh has more than 8,000km of navigable waterways and boarding a boat along a river is a quintessential Bangladesh experience. The most famous boat trip is aboard the old paddle-wheel cruiser known as The Rocket – Dhaka to Khulna is popular (although water levels are too low to go all the way to Khulna this year) – and of course your Sundarbans tiger trip will be by boat. But there are plenty of other, lesser-known trips you can take in pretty much any corner of the country. Even if you’re not going anywhere in particular, you can just rock up at most river ghats and negotiate a fare with a boat-hand for a one-hour tour of the river. You’ll have to have your best miming skills at the ready because it’s very unlikely your boat-hand will speak any English…but it all adds to the adventure.
Spotting a Royal Bengal Tiger
The Sundarbans National Park is the world’s largest mangrove swamp and 60% of it lies in Bangladesh (the rest is in neighbouring India). Extremely difficult to access, this region is home to the largest single population of tigers found anywhere in the world. There are thought to be almost 500 Royal Bengal Tigers roaming the Sundarbans (that’s about 10% of the world’s wild tigers) and boarding a boat to go in search of them is Bangladesh’s undisputed No 1 tourist attraction. It’s possible to dip into the mangrove forest on a self-organised day trip from Mongla, but for a true adventure, and to increase your admittedly very slim chances of seeing a tiger, book yourself onto a three- or four-day boat tour from Khulna with a reputable company such as The Guide Tours.
Predominantly agricultural, Bangladesh is rural bliss for many travellers and wherever you go you’ll enjoy vistas that are beautifully lush and wonderfully green. Nowhere is this more the case than in the gentle hills of the northeast. This is Sylhet, Bangladesh’s prime tea-growing region and a visit here offers the chance to escape the heat of the plains and a stroll around tea-growing estates before putting your feet up with a top-class cuppa. The most popular place to use as a base for your tealeaf explorations is Srimangal.
Hiking in the Chittagong Hills
Most of Bangladesh is, of course, as flat as a pancake, but few people realise that there are higher mountains here than in Scotland. The Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast of the country is hilly, forested and home to a number of Bangladesh’s minority tribal groups. A troubled history of local unrest means authorities are reluctant to let tourists explore the area – you must first obtain a permit for the region and often you are required to have at least a guide, if not a police escort. This puts a lot of people off, and as such this area is only just starting to be explored by hikers. For ideas and tips on where to hike, try to hook up with members of the community-run hiking group Bangla Trek.
Of course there are cycle rickshaws in many parts of the world, especially south Asia, but in Bangladesh they are arguably more colourful, more prevalent and more integral to everyday life than in any other place on earth. Designs are an art form in their own right – you can even take home painted panels of rickshaws as souvenirs – and riders take great pride in making theirs look best. Almost every town and city has a huge fleet and it’s pretty much impossible to avoid travelling on one at some stage of your Bangladesh trip. And why would you want to avoid it? They’re cheap, fun, environmentally friendly and are often the quickest way to get through the busy streets.
National animal: Royal Bengal Tiger
National fruit: jackfruit
National sport: kabaddi
Before you go
Reading: The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam
Watching: The Clay Bird, by Tareque Masud
Listening to: live streaming of Radio Dhaka, to get you into the mood
This article was first published in November 2011 and was republished in January 2013.
Daniel’s hot tip: Don’t bother packing your shorts for Bangladesh. Only young children wear them over here.