Bangladesh is south Asia's greenest jewel – a country braided with rivers, with a rich culture waiting to be explored by pioneering travellers.
A Land of Rivers
Welcome to river country. Bangladesh is braided together by more than 700 rivers, producing a deliciously lush landscape with more shades of green than you ever imagined. Travelling by boat is a way of life here, and provides a fabulous opportunity to see the country from a more unusual angle. This is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, but once you’re slowly floating downriver on a small wooden rowboat, it’s easy to imagine you have it all to yourself. Whether you're travelling to hectic Dhaka or to the Sundarbans' mangrove forests, boats large and small will help you explore Bangladesh's riches.
The mangrove forests and tigers of the Sundarbans National Park are Bangladesh's most famous attraction, but the country has a host of lesser-known attractions that are waiting to be discovered. Highlights include the Buddhist remains at Paharpur and the 15th-century mosques and mausoleums of Bagerhat, both of which are Unesco World Heritage Sites. While modern Bangladesh is majority Muslim, its hill tracts are still home to Buddhist and Christian Adivasi tribal peoples, while temples in Dhaka and beyond attest to the influence of Hindu culture on the country.
Warm & Welcoming
Getting off the beaten track is something of a travel cliché these days, but Bangladesh is somewhere that tourism remains in its infancy. It's easy to get the sensation that you're breaking ground here. Bangla culture is famously welcoming – rarely will you have cause to suspect ulterior motives. If you enjoy making friends, mixing with locals and travelling without bumping into too many other tourists, then this is probably just the country to explore.
Be prepared to embrace Bangladesh in all its possibilities and quirks. This isn't a destination to be rushed. Basic infrastructure and an undeveloped tourist industry means that you’ll be left frustrated if you’re trying to travel in too much of a hurry. So slow down; don’t try to pack too much into your itinerary. Bangladesh isn’t a tick-the-sights-off-the-list type of country. It’s a place to relax, meet people and discover new ideas and ways of life. Taking your time will allow the country to reveal the best of itself at its own pace, as sure and steady as the rivers that flow through its veins.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bangladesh.
Set amidst gorgeous countryside, the vault-roofed rouge sandcastle of Kantanagar Temple, also known locally as Kantaji, is a stunning piece of religious artwork, and one of the most impressive Hindu monuments in Bangladesh. Built in 1752 by Pran Nath, a renowned maharaja from Dinajpur, it is the country’s finest example of brick and terracotta style temple architecture. Its most remarkable feature, typical of mid-18th-century Hindu temples, is its superb surface decoration, with infinite panels of sculpted terracotta plaques depicting both figurative and floral motifs.
The hulking 20m-high remains of a 1300-year-old red-brick stupa form the central attraction of the vast monastery complex at Somapuri Vihara. Shaped like a quadrangle covering 11 hectares, the complex has monastic cells that line its outer walls and enclose an enormous open-air courtyard with the stupa at its centre. The stupa’s floor plan is cruciform, topped by a three-tier superstructure. Look out for clay tiles lining its base, which depict various people and creatures in a variety of postures.
Built in 1459 (the same year Khan Jahan Ali died), the famous Shait Gumbad Mosque is the largest and most magnificent traditional mosque in the country. Shait Gumbad means ‘the Temple with 60 Domes’ – a misnomer considering there are actually 81. This fortress-like structure has unusually thick walls, built in the tapering brick style, and is a hugely impressive sight. The overall architectural influence is unmistakably Turkish, and the arches within the main hall are a graceful exercise in geometry.
This gem of a museum is tucked away in an unassuming building on a quiet street, but can easily take up half a day of your time. Founded in 1910 with the support of the maharaja of Dighapatia, it is managed by Rajshahi University and is the oldest museum in the country. Housed within is a fantastic and superbly curated collection of relics spanning the entire subcontinent, from the earliest civilisation of Mohenjodaro in Pakistan to local archaeological excavation sites.
One of the oldest rajbaris in Bangladesh (dating from the early 1700s), the magnificent but dilapidated Natore Rajbari was once the nerve-centre of undivided Bengal's second-biggest zamindari (land revenue estate), which lost its sheen in the 19th century. The entire complex – moated by ponds and lined by centuries-old shady trees – is actually a series of seven rajbaris, four of which remain largely intact. One palace houses a police camp, another is a government office, while several others simply lie in ruins.
This wonderful patch of tropical semi-evergreen forest, around 8km east of Srimangal, provides some lovely forest walks and also your best chance of seeing the endangered hoolock gibbons in the wild. These are the only apes in Bangladesh and there are only around 200 left in the country, some 60 of which live here. Protected as part of the government-run Nishorgo Network, the park now has walking trails as well as knowledgeable eco-guides who charge Tk 400 an hour.
The flamboyant and delightfully maintained Tajhat Palace is arguably one of the finest rajbaris in Bangladesh. The palace was constructed in the 19th century by Manna Lal Ray, a Hindu trader who was forced to emigrate from Punjab and found his way to Rangpur. He eventually became a successful jeweller, acquired a lot of land, subsequently won the title of raja (landlord or ruler) and built this huge mansion. Local villagers believe there is treasure hidden in its walls.
About 750m beyond the turn-off for Darasbari Mosque, turn right at the bus stand and keep walking for around 250m until you see a sign directing you off to the right to this gorgeous single-domed mosque. Also known as Rajbibi Mosque, it was built in 1490 and is in excellent condition. It has some ornately decorated walls, embellished primarily with terracotta floral designs. The dome is particularly fascinating, and is in perfect architectural unison with the gracefully proportioned building.
Running calmly through the centre of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River is the muddy artery of Dhaka and the very lifeblood of both this city and the nation. Exploring it from the deck of a small boat from Sadarghat (shod-or-ghat) is to see Bangladesh at its grittiest. The panorama of river life is fascinating. Triple-towered ferries leer over pint-sized canoes, and country boats bump against overladen barges with barely an inch of clearance above water.