Environment

Bangladesh is predominantly tropical. The country is home to vast stretches of evergreen forests as well as patches of deciduous mountain vegetation. The abundance of river water also means that the country's expansive floodplains are extremely fertile. Conservation, however, is still a nascent concept here, and the environment is thus vulnerable to degradation in many ways.

The Land

Famous for being flat and wet, Bangladesh is, largely speaking, one massive piece of gorgeously green farmland criss-crossed by an unfeasibly large network of rivers. It’s a rural wonderland, and beautiful to behold.

There are two exceptions to this flatter-than-flat vista, although neither is any less green than the rest of the country. First there’s Sylhet, in the northeast, with its soft, rolling hills covered in tropical forests and dark-green, waist-high tea bushes. Then there’s the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the far southeast, a forested region punctuated by cliffs, ravines and some small mountain ranges. It’s no Himalaya, but the peaks here are comparable in height to those found in the Scottish Highlands, and make for some good hiking.

The great news for travellers is that Bangladesh is very small. With a total area of just 143,998 sq km (roughly the same size as England and Wales combined), it’s an easy country to explore, and you can visit much of it in a single trip.

It is surrounded on three sides by India, but also shares a short southeastern border with Myanmar (Burma) for 255km. To the south is the Bay of Bengal, into which flow all the rivers after merging with each other and meandering through the dense Sundarbans, heritage-listed by Unesco for being the world's largest mangrove forest.

The two great Himalayan rivers, the Ganges – here known as the Padma – and Brahmaputra, help divide the land into seven major regions, which correspond to the seven governmental divisions: northwest (Rangpur), west (Rajshahi), southwest (Khulna), south-central (Barisal), central (Dhaka), northeast (Sylhet) and southeast (Chittagong).

Almost all of Bangladesh's coastline forms the so-called Mouths of the Ganges, the final destination of the Ganges (Padma) River, and the largest estuarine delta in the world. The coastal strip from the Sundarbans, in the west, to Chittagong, in the east, is one great patchwork of shifting river courses and silt islands. Across the whole delta, which extends into India, rivers make up 6.5% of the total area.

Animals

Bangladesh is home to the Royal Bengal tiger and other members of the cat family, including leopards and the smaller jungle cat and fishing cat. Tigers are almost exclusively confined to the Sundarbans, but their smaller relations prey on domestic animals all over the country. There are three varieties of civet, including the large Indian civet, which is now listed as an endangered species. Other large animals include Asiatic elephants (mostly migratory herds from Assam and West Bengal in India, although there are some native jumbos around Teknaf in the far southeastern tip of Bangladesh), a few black bears (in Chittagong division), wild pigs and deer. Monkeys, langurs, hoolock gibbons (the only ape on the subcontinent), otters and mongooses are some of the smaller animals.

Reptiles include various ocean turtles, mud turtles, river tortoise, pythons, crocodiles and a variety of venomous snakes. The voluble gecko, named for the sound it makes, is known here as tik-tiki.

Endangered Species

The Royal Bengal tiger is endangered and, although the government has set aside three areas within the Sundarbans as tiger reserves, numbers are low.

Other rare or threatened species include the Indian elephant, the hoolock gibbon, the black bear and the Ganges River dolphin. Reptiles under threat include the Indian python, the crocodile and various turtles.

Many of the diverse bird species are prolific, but some are vulnerable, including Pallas’ fishing eagle and Baer’s pochard.

Birds

Sitting like a cushion between the plains of India and the hills of Myanmar (Burma), the waterways of Bangladesh are a bird-watcher’s dream. The country contains more than 650 species of birds – almost half of those found on the entire subcontinent.

The country’s positioning means that Bangladesh attracts both Indian species in the west and north of the country, and Malayan species in the east and southeast. It is also conveniently located for migrants heading south towards Malaysia and Indonesia, and those moving southwest to India and Sri Lanka. In addition, a number of Himalayan and Burmese hill species move into the lowlands during the winter.

Madhupur National Park, in Dhaka division, is an important habitat for a variety of owls, including the rare brown wood owl, wintering thrushes and a number of raptors, although sadly it also the victim of ongoing logging. The Jamuna River floods regularly, and from December to February provides winter habitats for waterfowl, waders and the occasional black stork.

The low-lying basin of Sylhet division has extensive natural haors (wetlands), and during winter it is home to huge flocks of wild fowl, including Baer’s pochard and Pallas’ fishing eagle, along with a great number of ducks and skulkers. The remaining fragments of evergreen and teak forests are also important habitats, especially along the Indian border near the Srimangal area, where the blue-bearded bee-eater, red-breasted trogon and a variety of forest birds are regularly seen.

One of two important coastal zones is the Noakhali region, particularly the islands near Hatiya, where migratory species and a variety of wintering waders (including large numbers of the rare spoon-billed sandpiper, Nordman’s greenshank and flocks of Indian skimmers) find suitable refuge.

The Sundarbans, with its miles of marshy shorelines and brackish creeks, supports a number of wetland and forest species, along with large populations of gulls and terns along the south coast. Eight varieties of kingfisher have been recorded here, including the brown-winged, the white-collared, the black-capped and the rare ruddy kingfisher.

The most exciting time of year for bird-watching is during winter, from November to March.

Plants

About 10% of Bangladesh is still forested. Half of the forest is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and a quarter in the Sundarbans, with the rest scattered in small pockets throughout the country.

The forests fall into three distinct regional varieties: the tidal zones along the coast (often mangrove but sometimes hardwood) in much of the Sundarbans; the sal trees around Dhaka, Tangail and Mymensingh; and the upland forests of tropical and subtropical evergreens in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and parts of Sylhet.

Away from the forests, Bangladesh is still a land of trees. Lining the old trunk road in the west are huge rain trees, and every village is an arboreal oasis, often with spectacular banyan trees, known as bawt or oshoth. The red silk-cotton (shimul) tree is easily spotted throughout the countryside in February and March, when it loses its leaves and sprouts myriad red blossoms. Teak was introduced into the Hill Tracts in the 19th century and its quality approaches that of Burma (Myanmar).

Flowering plants are an integral part of the beauty of Bangladesh. Each season produces its special variety of flowers. Among them is the prolific water hyacinth, its carpet of thick green leaves and blue flowers giving the impression that solid ground lies beneath. Other decorative plants that are frequently seen are jasmine, water lily, rose, hibiscus, bougainvillea, magnolia and an incredible diversity of wild orchids in the forested areas.

Environmental Issues

Bangladesh faces huge environmental problems, many of which boil down to overpopulation. Farmland soils are being damaged by overuse, rivers are being polluted by chemical pesticides and forests are being chopped down at an alarming rate. The water table is under threat as deep tube-wells extract clean water for drinking.

Annual flooding during the monsoon season is part of life in Bangladesh. Some experts are questioning whether the flooding is getting worse and, if so, whether deforestation in India and especially Nepal (which causes increased run off) is the reason. Another theory holds that the river beds have become choked with silt from once-forested land, making flooding more severe. Regardless, there has been increased pressure to ‘do something’ and find a ‘permanent solution’. Part of the problem of doing anything, however, is that the country depends on regular flooding for its soil fertility. Building dykes along river banks could be disastrous for agricultural output and, in the past, has contributed to increased erosion by altering the course and flow of water.

With the continuance of global warming, Bangladesh, as one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to a rise in sea level, will be drastically affected. If predictions are correct, a 1m rise in the Bay of Bengal would result in a loss of 12% to 18% of the country’s land.

Loss of land is just one consequence – severe flooding and reduced agricultural potential are almost inevitable. This is indeed a cruel twist of fate, since Bangladesh, as a poor, agricultural society, has contributed very little to global warming. Even with assistance from the Dutch, who are helping to devise a strategy to cope with rising water levels, the question remains whether Bangladesh will have the capacity to develop and apply the appropriate technologies.

However, there is some good news. Bangladesh is now taking environmental issues very seriously and has implemented some highly commendable policies.

Responding to the high levels of litter, much of which was plastic, Bangladesh became one of the first countries to almost completely ban plastic bags. In many places, especially Dhaka, goods you buy are now packaged in cloth bags. Although you will still see plastic bags being used and discarded, especially in smaller towns, the amount is noticeably less than in other parts of south Asia.

Given its notorious reputation as one of the most air-polluted cities in the world, the government has also taken steps to improve the horrendous air quality in Dhaka by banning petrol/gasoline and diesel vehicles and replacing them with cleaner, greener (and cheaper to run) CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles. Almost all auto-rickshaws in Bangladesh now are CNG-run. In fact, they are now known colloquially as 'CNGs'.

The government’s recent work at improving and protecting national parks should also be lauded, as it attempts to step up environmental education for the public. Although poaching of animals and illegal logging of tress still occur in forest areas such as the Sundarbans, the government has made efforts to contain such cartel-run practices in recent times.

Feature: The Cyclone Zone

Every few years, Bangladesh is hit by natural disasters. While periodic floods and droughts are common annual affairs, the most catastrophic disasters in terms of human loss are cyclones.

Bangladesh is in the world’s worst area for cyclones, averaging one major storm every three years. The worst months are May, June, October and November, and the area where damage tends to most frequently occur is in the east around Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar.

People still talk about the 1970 cyclone, which claimed between 300,000 and 500,000 lives. The 1991 cyclone, which occurred during big spring tides, was stronger; it affected more than twice as many people and destroyed four times as many houses. However, the death toll (between 140,000 and 200,000) was less than half that of the 1970 disaster.

Most recently, in 2007, Cyclone Sidr became the strongest storm to hit the country in 15 years. It struck the southwest coast and left 3500 people dead, but it’s generally acknowledged that the death toll would have been far higher were it not for the early warning system that was installed after the 1991 storm. Since then, the warning system has again been of great use: as recently as in 2015, it helped alert and evacuate people in the wake of Cyclone Komen.

Feature: Water World

Floods are almost the first thing that people think of when talk turns to Bangladesh, but even so, if you arrive by air during the monsoon season you’ll be astounded at how much of the country appears to be under water. Many first-time visitors to Bangladesh assume that the flooding is due to heavy rainfall during that time of year. In fact, local rainfall is only partly responsible – most of the water comes pouring down the Padma (known as the Ganges upstream in India), the Meghna and the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) Rivers.

For Bangladeshis, annual flooding is a fact of life and one that, with an ever-increasing population, bad land management and global climate change, is only likely to get to worse. However, much of the flooding (which affects about a third of the country) is regarded by farmers as beneficial, as worn soils are replenished with nutrients. It’s when the rivers rise above their normal limits that problems emerge.

Major flooding struck northwest Bangladesh and Chittagong in 2007, but in 2004 really heavy flooding over much of the country resulted in the deaths of around 800 people, while in 1998 all three of the country’s major rivers reached flood levels at the same time and 16 million people were left homeless. In Dhaka, even houses on fairly high ground were inundated, and the airport was covered with water and had to be shut down.

Sidebar: Stone Quarry

In all of Bangladesh, the only place that has any stone is a quarry in the far northwestern corner of Sylhet division. It’s one reason you’ll see bricks being hammered into pieces all over the country: brick fragments are substituted for stones when making concrete.

Sidebar: Ganges

Ganges, the 2007 BBC TV series and DVD, is a sumptuously filmed exploration of the Ganges River, its people and its wildlife. The last program in the series focuses largely on the Sundarbans.

Sidebar: Wild Team

The government-endorsed conservation agency Wild Team (www.wild-team.org) tells you all you ever wanted to know about tigers, the Sundarbans and the ongoing conservation projects taking place there.

Sidebar: Corypha taliera Palm Tree

A rare specimen of Corypha taliera, a wild palm tree on the brink of extinction, was discovered growing on the Dhaka University campus during the East Pakistan era. It has since died, but saplings were reportedly harvested from the tree for culture in later years.

Sidebar: Arsenic

Bangladesh’s rivers contain unusually high levels of arsenic. When you buy bottled water, always check that it reads ‘arsenic free’ and that the seal is unbroken.

Sidebar: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India & the Indian Subcontinent

Bird-watchers will enjoy A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India & the Indian Subcontinent by Bikram Grewal and Bill Harvey. It has useful maps and pictures, and is compact enough to take with you in a day pack.

Sidebar: Extinction

Wild buffaloes and rhinoceroses once inhabited the Sundarbans, but have not been seen in these forests for over a century.

Arts & Literature

The art, music and literature of Bengal is among the richest in the Indian subcontinent. The people of the Bengal region, whether they’re from Bangladesh or India, share a similarity of language, dress, music and literature that crosses national boundaries.

From the poetry of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore to the unmistakeable sound of the folk music of the Bauls (mystic minstrels) and Fakirs (mendicant musicians), Bengali culture is steeped in tradition and loved by millions.

Literature

Best known in the literature of Bangladesh are the works of the great Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976), who was later proclaimed Bangladesh's national bard and whose photos are displayed in establishments countrywide.

Tagore received international acclaim in 1913, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book Gitanjali (Song Offerings). Despite his Hindu upbringing, Tagore wrote from a strong cosmopolitan and multi-cultural perspective that transcended any particular religion. He celebrated ‘humble lives and their miseries’ and supported the concept of Hindu–Muslim unity. His love for the land and people of Bengal is reflected in many of his works, and one of his songs, Amar Shonar Bangla, has been adopted as Bangladesh's national anthem (interestingly, Tagore also wrote and composed Jana Gana Mana, India’s national anthem). Travellers can soak up inspiration from the great man by visiting his former home in a small village just outside Kushtia.

Unlike Tagore, who spent much of his later life in India, the ‘rebel poet’ and composer Kazi Nazrul Islam spent his last years in Bangladesh. When undivided India was suffering under colonial rule, Islam employed poetry to challenge intellectual complacency and spark feelings of nationalism among those involved in the freedom movement.

Of Bangladesh's modern writers, the most famous is the exiled feminist writer Taslima Nasrin, whose controversial book Lajja (Shame; 1993) was not only banned in Bangladesh but also earned her a fatwa (death sentence for blasphemy), and forced her to flee the country. It recounts the history surrounding the contentious destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya (in India), but depicts it through the eyes of a Hindu family in Bangladesh.

Tahmina Anam’s acclaimed debut novel, A Golden Age (2007), is a story of love, betrayal and family loyalties, set against the backdrop of the Liberation War. The second of her planned trilogy, The Good Muslim (2011), follows a war-scarred family as it faces the challenges of peace.

One of the world’s first examples of feminist science fiction, Sultana’s Dream (Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, 1905) is a ground-breaking novel that depicts a feminist utopia in which women run everything and men are secluded – a mirror image of the traditional Islamic practice of purdah.

Like a Diamond in the Sky (Shazia Omar, 2009) is a brave attempt to raise awareness of drug addiction among Dhaka’s young middle class.

Non-Bangladeshi authors who have written about the country include Katy Gardner, whose Songs at the Rivers Edge (1991) is a wonderful memoir of her year spent living in a small village in Sylhet; and James Novak, whose Reflections on the Water (1993) is a passionate account of the birth of Bangladesh by a journalist who worked there in the mid-1980s.

Music

The distinctive folk music of the Bauls (mystic minstrels) and the closely related Fakirs (mendicant musicians) can be heard across Bengal, as well as in some films about the region. Bauls most commonly play the one-stringed plucked instrument known as the ektara, accompanied by other musicians playing lutes, flutes, the four-stringed dotara and cymbals. You can sit in at plenty of folk music renditions if you travel to Kushtia, the resting place of the legendary Fakir musician Lalon Shah, and the location of a biannual folk-music festival.

The poet Rabindranath Tagore was also a prolific songwriter, and undoubtedly influenced much of the Bengali music that’s composed today. His anthology of songs known as Rabindra Sangeet (notations for which were set by Tagore himself) are popularly performed by artistes in both Bengals.

Western influence helped spawn the new phenomenon of Bangla Bands, the generic name given to any band that plays modern music – ranging from pop and rock to grunge and heavy metal – performed in Bengali. Over the past two decades, this contemporary musical tradition has evolved considerably, and present-day bands often attract stadium-sized crowds at sell-out concerts, as well as getting plenty of airplay on local FM stations.

You can train your ears to the sound of Bangla music before you leave home these days, by tuning in to BBC Radio’s Asian Network (www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork), which has a regular Bengali slot.

Cinema

The 1984 short film Agami, directed by Morshedul Islam, is widely regarded as the catalyst for the birth of the Alternative Film Movement, the name given to Bangladesh’s independent film industry. It provides an alternative to the largely musical-based blockbusters that are churned out each year by Dhaka’s mainstream film industry, ‘Dhallywood’, and has spawned creative talents such as the late Tareque Masud, whose award-winning 2002 film The Clay Bird is arguably the best independent film to have come out of Bangladesh.

Feature: Best Films

The Clay Bird (Matir Moina; Tareque Masud, 2002) Celebrated feature-film debut of the late Tareque Masud, which won the International Critic’s Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Simply beautiful.

Homecoming (Ontarjatra; Tareque Masud, 2006) Also called The Journey, this was Masud’s follow-up film; a touching story of a woman and her son returning to Bangladesh from their London home.

Runaway (Amit Ashraf, 2010) Edgy, feature-length drama by an American-Bangladeshi director, which exposes the suffering involved when Bangladeshi men leave their families in search of a better life.

Agami (Morshedul Islam, 1984) The short film is generally regarded as the film that kick-started Bangladesh’s Alternative Film Movement.

Songs of Freedom (Muktir Gaan; Tareque Masud, 1995) A documentary of Liberation War footage shot by American film-maker Lear Levin.

Bostrobalikara: The Garment Girls of Bangladesh (Tanvir Mokammel, 2007) A candid look at the workers behind Bangladesh’s ever-growing clothes industry.

Teardrops of Karnaphuli (Tanvir Mokammel, 2005) This film documents the local tensions that have plagued the Chittagong Hill Tracts since the controversial construction of the Kaptai Dam in Rangamati.

Folk Art

Weaving has always held a special place in the artistic expression of the country. In the 7th century, the textiles of Dhaka weavers found their way to Europe, where they were regarded as textiles ventalis (fabrics woven of air).

The most artistic and expensive ornamental fabric – worn as a sari – is the jamdani (loom-embroidered muslin or silk), which was exclusively woven for the imperial household centuries ago and evolved as an art form under the influence of Persian design. The other sought-after hand-woven fabric is tangail silk, which takes its name from the production centre of Tangail, about 80km northwest of Dhaka.

Needlework is yet another formidable cottage industry in Bangladesh. Best known are elaborate pieces called nakshi kantha, embroidered and quilted patchwork cloths that hold an important place in village life, with motifs often recording local history, culture or myth.

Once found only among a woman’s private possessions, nakshi kanthas can now be seen hanging on the walls of upmarket hotels, offices and in museums. It's an artistic symbol not just of Bangladeshi women but the nation as well.

Traditionally, nakshi kanthas were mostly made in the central and western divisions of Bangladesh. They are made from worn-out clothing, particularly saris, and six or so layers of material are stitched together in a way that leaves a rippled surface. They are often given as wedding gifts to a daughter leaving home, or to a grown son as a reminder of his mother. Besides the usefulness of recycling old material, there is also a folk belief that a nakshi kantha made from old material brings good luck. The jealous gods won’t harm someone dressed in rags – infants are often dressed in nakshi kantha nappies for this reason.

There are women’s cooperatives that produce nakshi kantha commercially; one good place to look is Aarong in Dhaka.

Modern Art

Without a shade of doubt, the most pervasive form of popular culture in Bangladesh is the genre of paintings found on rickshaws. The turbulence of life in Bangladesh has given local artists much to express, which they do with wondrous diversity. On the other end of the intellectual spectrum, a number of contemporary Bangladeshi visual artistes have also taken their brand of new-age fine art to galleries around the world, in forms such as paintings, graphic art, sculpture, video art and installations.

Photography is also one of Bangladesh's favourite art practices. Pioneered by documentary photographer Shahidul Alam, the photography movement has now attracted countless enthusiasts at both amateur and professional levels. The biennial Dhaka Chhobi Mela (literally 'photo fair') is a good place to catch some of the best frames shot by local photographers.

Feature: Rickshaw Art

One of your first, and perhaps strongest, impressions of Bangladesh is likely to be the rainbow colours of a cycle-rickshaw. More than just a cheap and environmentally sound form of transport, the humble rickshaw is a work of art in Bangladesh, and a fleet of rickshaws is the finest art gallery any country could conjure up. Art passing by on wheels needs to be bold and eye-catching, and able to be taken in quickly. Rickshaw artists aim to decorate the vehicles with as much drama and colour as possible, and paint images that are both simple and memorable. This is street art for the ordinary man or woman, and it is unashamedly commercial.

Maliks, the owners of rickshaw fleets, commission mistris (rickshaw makers) to build and decorate the machines to their specification. The artists working in the mistris' workshops learn on the job, sometimes starting out as young as 10, when they work on decorating the upholstery and smaller sections of the vehicle.

The main ‘canvas’ is recycled tin, which forms the backboard of the rickshaw. Enamel paints are used; the artist may also decorate the seat, handlebars, the curved back of the seat, the chassis, the hood and just about every other surface.

All the dreams of the working man appear on rickshaws. Common themes include idealised rural scenes, wealthy cities crammed with cars, aeroplanes and high-rise buildings, and unsullied natural environments. Images of Bangladeshi and Indian film and pop stars are by far the most popular designs. Images of women with heart-stopping stares are clearly a figment of the male artists' imaginations, and are a great contrast to the real women on the street.

These days, however, many rickshaw maliks choose to skimp on the cost of paint and go for less elaborate designs, mostly in the newer boroughs of town. To see some of the best specimens still plying the roads, head into the lanes of Old Dhaka.

Sidebar: Art Scene

For current news on the arts scene in Bangladesh, as well as what’s-on listings in Dhaka, go to the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Star website (www.thedailystar.net).

Sidebar: Entertainment Industry

From popular music and latest movies to trending topics and events around town, www.dhakatribune.com provides news, commentary and listings from Bangladesh’s entertainment and lifestyle industry.

Sidebar: The Art of Kantha Embroidery

The Art of Kantha Embroidery, by Naiz Zaman, uses drawings and photographs to explain the technique of nakshi kantha (elaborately embroidered and quilted patchwork cloths) and give a face to the women involved in its production.

People & Culture

Bangladesh has a population just north of 160 million, which currently makes it the eighth most populous nation in the world. Needless to say, the large number of people also means that Bangladesh has a rich culture that comes out of the intermingling of its different religions, traditions and communities.

Religion

Islam is the predominant religion of Bangladesh, with nearly 90% of its citizens being Muslims. Constitutionally, however, it remains a secular state, and there is no official religion. Hindus, at about 9% of the population, form Bangladesh's second largest religious community. The remainder (less than 2%) are made up of minorities such as Christians and Buddhists.

Given the predominant Islamic population, much of Bangladesh's culture derives from Islamic traditions, but there's a distinct overlap of regional Bengali customs as well, which are common to the Hindu-majority state of West Bengal on the Indian side.

In areas adjoining Burma (Myanmar) and the tribal Indian states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, you will come across a fair number of Adivasis (indigenous tribal people), who are either animists or have converted to Christianity in recent times.

Religious skirmishes and communally tinged acts of rioting and violence have occurred in Bangladesh from time to time, but the society is largely tolerant in terms of mutual respect, and harmony prevails at most times.

Family

Bangladeshi society is largely patriarchal. In rural areas, it is still common to see women in the family being relegated to duties in the household and kitchen, while the men go out and earn a living. In the urban sphere, men and women are more on par with each other, although that said, Bangladeshi women still fight for their rights at home and work every day.

With modernity making greater inroads into Bangladeshi society, families have become more nuclear in the urban areas, but the traditional practice of living with the extended family still continues. In the traditional family set-up, children live with their parents and other siblings under the same roof. After a wedding, the bride usually moves into the house of her in-laws, instead of the newly wed couple moving out to find a home of their own.

Within a traditional household, the patriarch of the family usually makes executive decisions, while the children simply obey. At social occasions such as religious festivals, births, weddings or deaths, extended families usually assemble and participate in proceedings together, and these are occasions when bonds with far-flung relatives are strengthened.

Customs

In Bangladeshi society, elders are treated with utmost respect. It is considered offensive to smoke, drink or generally play the fool in front of older people.

Anyone, irrespective of age, gender or religion, is greeted with the Islamic salutation 'Assalamualaikum' ('May peace be upon you') which elicits the response 'Walaikumassalam' ('And peace to you too'). Bangladeshis are extremely polite and deferential when it comes to interacting with foreigners. You are unlikely to be subjected to rude or smug behaviour during your stay here.

Standard honorifics used to address strangers include Bhaiya (Elder Brother) for a man and Apa (Elder Sister) for a woman – and are used regardless of age. Hindus will sometimes use Dada and Didi (which have similar meanings to Bhaiya and Apa) instead. It is considered impolite to address people only by their names; the right way to do it is to say the name, followed by Bhaiya or Apa.

Despite keeping up with modernity, the society is still plagued by certain regressive practices. Child marriage still remains a sensitive issue: two out of three Bangladeshi girls are married off before they turn 18. While timely interventions by NGOs as well as global organisations such as the UN have contributed to tackling the practice, it is still far from over.

Feature: The Adivasis

Adivasis (indigenous tribal people) constitute a tiny proportion of Bangladesh's masses, but bring a substantial amount of diversity into the country's cultural matrix. Numbering around 1% of the total population, the Adivasis are found mostly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, along areas adjoining Burma (Myanmar) and Northeast India, though they also live in parts of Sylhet, Mymensingh and Dinajpur that are contiguous with Indian tribal regions. These days, a number of them can also be seen in big cities such as Dhaka, where they migrate for work.

The largest tribes are the Chakmas, the Marmas, the Khasis, the Garos, the Jaintias and the Santals, although smaller tribes such as the Tripuris and the Manipuris also exist. Each tribe is distinctly different from the other in terms of customs, cuisines and dialects, although to an outsider's perception, the differences may not entirely manifest themselves.

In everyday life, tribes are well integrated with the greater Bangladeshi population. Almost everyone speaks Bengali and many Adivasis have converted to Christianity over the years and adhere to local orders and churches. You can sample tribal culture in its most authentic form in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where many centuries-old traditions are still at their purest.

Language

Bengali is the official language, although English remains widely spoken (or at least understood) across Bangladesh's bigger cities and towns. In Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet, you will have few problems striking up a conversation with locals, or at least getting your point across. Many of Bangladesh's upper-class citizens go to school or university abroad, and are fluent in English.

In rural areas, however, Bengali rules. Signs are largely in Bengali, as are addresses, paperwork (which includes, forms, tickets and receipts), bus numbers, and menu cards in restaurants. Bangladeshis are a friendly folk, though, and will gladly and enthusiastically come to your rescue whenever you are in a spot.

The colloquial language in Bangladesh is peppered with Urdu words, which is the result of the erstwhile Pakistan government introducing Urdu as the official language during the East Pakistan era. While Bengali was reinstated as the official language post-1971, a number of common Urdu words and phrases have remained in everyday speech.

Sidebar: Alcohol

Alcohol is officially prohibited in Bangladesh (although bootlegging exists). Foreigners can bring in small amounts for personal consumption, or drink at one of the few upscale bars by paying a small fortune.

Sidebar: Cricket

Cricket is the most popular sport in Bangladesh. You'll see men of every age play the game in all parts of the country, when they're not glued to live matches on TV sets. The domestic T20 league is extremely popular.