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 folk artists who lent their masterful touches to the temple were superb storytellers. In one panel, a demon is depicted swallowing monkeys, which promptly reappear from his ear. Other scenes are more domestic, such as a wife massaging her husband’s legs and a lady combing lice from another woman's hair. Amorous scenes are often placed in obscure corners. These intricate, harmonious scenes are like a richly embroidered patchwork of Bangladeshi society, culture and mythology. The 15-sq-m, three-storey edifice was originally crowned with nine ornamental two-storey towers, which collapsed during the great earthquake of 1897 and were never replaced. The building sits in a courtyard surrounded by offices and pilgrims’ quarters, all protected by a stout wall. Visitors can no longer go inside the inner sanctum of the temple, which houses a Krishna shrine, but the intricate detail of its exterior will keep you engaged. The centuries-old Hindu festival of Maha Raas Leela – which celebrates the life of a young Lord Krishna – takes place here around full moon in late November or early December, attracting up to 200,000 pilgrims. This is also when a rural fair takes place around the temple complex, marked by stalls selling objects of daily village life and folk artists engaging in music and dance performances. Buses run regularly all day from Dinajpur’s main bus stand to the village of Kantanagar (Tk 30, 30 minutes, 7am to 7pm). A more comfortable and efficient alternative is to grab a return CNG ride from Dinajpur (Tk 1000 including waiting time). From the main road where the bus drops you, it’s a lovely 10-minute walk to the temple past stretches of lush farmland, over a concrete river bridge and through a couple of mud-hut villages. En route, you can also stroll down to the river where, in the dry season, the sandbanks exposed by the dropping water levels make a handy cricket pitch for local kids.
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. Apart from the walls of the central stupa (now undergoing careful restoration), pretty much every other structure within the complex has been reduced to its plinths and base walls over time. Lining the outer perimeter are 177 small monastic cells – once living quarters for monks, and later used as meditation rooms. Ninety-two of these house ornamental pedestals, the purpose of which still eludes archaeologists. It is possible they contained the remains of saintly monks who had once resided here. On the eastern wing of the south side is an elevated brick base with an eight-pointed star-shaped structure that is thought to have been a shrine. To the west lie the remains of what appears to have been the refectory and kitchen of the complex. Except for the guardhouse to the north, most of the remains outside the courtyard lie to the south. They include an oblong building, linked to the monastery by a causeway, which may have been the wash house and latrines. In the same area is a bathing ghat, probably of Hindu origin. Close to the ghat is the rectangular ruin of a Hindu temple, with an octagonal pillar base in the centre and a circular platform to the front. The monastery is thought to have been successively occupied by Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, which explains the curious mixture of artwork. The Jains would have constructed a chaturmukhar (a structure with all four walls decorated with stone bas-reliefs of deities). The Hindus replaced Buddhist terracotta artwork with sculptural stonework of their own deities, and terracotta artwork representing themes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Artefacts discovered at the site range from bronze statues and bas-reliefs of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, to statues of the Jain god Manzuri, bronze images of the Buddha and statues of the infant Krishna.
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. Keep enough time in hand to view the wonderful sculpture galleries, with exquisite figurines of Hindu gods, goddesses and mythical figures. The collection of Islamic artefacts from the medieval era, comprising weapons, ensembles, daily objects and a number of ornate hand-written copies of the Quran, is simply stunning. The building itself is a curious mix of British and Hindu architectural styles.
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. The main palace block within the compund, called Boro Taraf ('big palace'; home of the elder patriarch of the family), is approached via a long avenue lined with impressively tall bottle palms, the white trunks of which resemble temple columns. To the rear of Boro Taraf are the crumbling walls of Rani Bhavani's Palace, which was the residence of the eponymous Rani Bhavani, the widowed wife of one of the Natore rajas who took up the reins of the estate and went on to become a very powerful administrator herself. To the far end of the complex stands a second palace block called Chhoto Taraf ('small palace'; for the younger brother of the family), consisting of two rajbaris. The principal one faces a pond and is one of the most beautifully proportioned buildings in Bangladesh, although its cavernous central hall is now in a complete shambles. Entry is restricted, but peering through the broken window slats is allowed. The peaceful and idyllic gardens around the palaces are as much an attraction as the buildings themselves; bring a picnic to eat in the shade of a gnarled old tree. There are several large ponds here that form an interesting centrepiece, around which are a couple of Hindu temples, one dedicated to Kali and another to Shiva. Both are still used by the many Hindus in the area and attract the odd sadhu (itinerant holy man), unusually for Bangladesh. Natore Rajbari is on the northern edge of town. From the bus stand, you can walk to it in about half an hour (just keep asking for directions) or take a rickshaw (Tk 30).
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. Apart from the hoolocks, a further 19 mammal species have been identified here including capped langur, macaques, the delightful slow loris, orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel and barking deer. There are also some 246 bird species and 20 varieties of orchid. Remember this is a dense forest, so sightings are not guaranteed and are completely contingent on luck. One thing you won’t miss, though, are the enormous orb spiders – black, red and yellow monsters that hang from Spiderman-sized webs between trees and are supposedly completely harmless. There are three walking trails (30 minutes, one hour and three hours), with maps on wooden signboards marking the way. A guide will be able to take you off-track without getting lost. These days, an armed guard will also likely accompany you into the forest ostensibly for your security. Mind the railway line that runs right through the jungle; trains have a tendency to creep up on unsuspecting humans while they're immersed in photo-ops. There’s a tea-and-snack stall by the visitor centre. You can get here from Srimangal by bus (Tk 20) or CNG (Tk 100). Note there are two gates to the park. The first one, as you come from Srimangal, is on the right-hand side of the road and is mostly unmanned and unused. The main gate is about 2km beyond this (on the left-hand side of the road).
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. Structurally, the palace is similar to Dhaka’s Ahsan Manzil (Pink Palace), and has a frontage of about 80m. The main building is crowned by a ribbed conical dome, and features an imposing central staircase made of imported white marble. The balustrade originally featured marble sculptures of classical Roman figures, but these have long since disappeared. During the regime of General Ershad (1982–91), the mansion was used as the divisional High Court, but today it houses a small museum stuffed with old manuscripts and bits and bobs excavated from the archaeological sites of Paharpur and Mahasthangarh. A rickshaw from the town centre to the palace costs around Tk 70.
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. Built of thousands of minuscule bricks, Khania Dighi is one of the more arresting mosques in the country. Like Chhoto Sona Masjid, it’s a working mosque, in which Friday prayers are especially animated. It’s fine for women to enter outside prayer time but they must be respectfully dressed. The mosque’s position, crouching under huge stumpy mango trees (May to June is mango season) beside a large lily- and duck-covered pond, only helps to enhance its beauty, and it’s a perfect spot for a picnic.
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. On the foreshores, stained with grease and mud, you’ll find children fishing with homemade nets in the lee of rusting tankers. Further out, repairmen busy themselves crashing, bashing and scrubbing ship hulls while floating on planks of wood. Among all the large ships are the tiny wooden ones that you can hire. These are available almost everywhere along the waterfront, though most people hire them from around Sadarghat boat terminal. If you just walk along the jetty here, English-speaking boatmen will find you and offer you a one-hour tour of the river. If you can barter the price down to Tk 30 you’ll be doing well. Alternatively, if you don’t fancy a price battle with the touts, walk slightly west to the small rowing-boat landing; from here wooden rowing boats ferry passengers across the river all day for a set price of Tk 5 per person. The opposite riverbank is of no particular interest – it’s packed with clothes shops and stalls, although there are some snack stalls and tea stands, too – but it’s the trip there and back that’s the attraction.
Clouds of incense and a bursting paintbox of colours signal a welcome to so-called Hindu Street. Lined on either side with old houses, garlands of lurid orange marigolds, and dark doorways leading to matchbox-sized shops and workshops, this can be an extremely photogenic part of Old Dhaka, as the shankharis (Hindu artisans) , whose ancestors came here over 300 years ago, busy themselves creating kites, gravestones, wedding hats and bangles carved out of conch shells. The area is particularly flamboyant during Hindu festivals, but colourful year round.