Airlines in Bangladesh
Bangladesh currently has three prominent domestic airlines. Most travellers say Novoair and US Bangla Airlines – both private companies – are better than Biman, the state-owned carrier, which is a tad scruffy (but pretty decent otherwise). Other private carriers seem to come and go with the seasons.
Domestic routes connect Dhaka to Chittagong, Sylhet and Jessore on a daily basis. Barisal, Rajshahi and Saidpur (in Rangpur) are also connected by twice- or thrice-weekly flights, mostly by Biman.
US Bangla Airlines (www.us-banglaairlines.com)
If you base yourself in Dhaka or Chittagong, the surrounds of both these cities can be wonderful for cycling, and a self-guided bicycle ride could easily be one of the highlights of your trip here. Neither city is particularly easy or safe to ride, given manic traffic and pollution, although if you leave early, say 5.30am, you should be able to get out of the city and hit the countryside without incident. Srimangal in Sylhet division is another good location for scenic bike rides within easy cycling distance of the town.
The trick to cycling in Bangladesh is to avoid major highways as much as possible; look instead for quieter back-roads that will get you to the same destination. Android and Apple maps of Bangladesh are pretty accurate these days, so go ahead and have a field day navigating the countryside on your own. If you get lost, you can always ask around.
Most rural paths are bricked and in good condition, and even if it’s just a dirt path, bikes will be able to pass during the dry season. A river or a canal won’t hinder your travel, since there’s invariably a boat of some sort to take you and your bike across. The ideal time to go cycling is in the dry season from mid-October to late March; during the monsoon many tracks become impassable.
Note that prevailing security concerns and travel advisories issued in late 2015 pertaining to the safety of foreigners in Bangladesh mean that tourists can not embark on extended self-guided bicycle tours, though daytrips in the Dhaka and Chittagong areas are permitted. At the time of writing, cycling was not allowed in Sylhet due to safety issues, but check in advance to see if things have returned to normal.
Though cycling can by and large be a relaxing way to explore Bangladesh, don’t get complacent about your belongings; snatches from saddlebags are not unheard of.
Feature: Getting a Bike in Dhaka
It’s best to bring your own bicycle and all other safety and technical gear with you, though a couple of decent-quality bicycle shops do exist in Dhaka. Head to Bangshal Rd, an area of Old Dhaka that specialises in making and repairing bikes and rickshaws. Most places sell ordinary, single-gear town bicycles, but a couple of places sell decent-quality bikes and equipment. Try Lion Cycle Store. You may also find decent bike shops in Chittagong.
Bike repair shops, catering to all those cycle-rickshaws, are two-a-penny almost everywhere in Bangladesh, so finding basic spare parts shouldn’t be a problem unless your bike is unusual.
Bangladesh has more than 700 rivers, 8000km of navigable waterways and possibly more types of boats than any other country. Taking a river trip is a quintessential Bangladesh experience, and we recommend you do it as often as you can, from hand-poled river ferries to the old paddle-wheel steamers known as Rockets.
- Best for Wildlife
Sundarbans Monkeys, wild boars, otters, crocodiles, river dolphins and more than 30,000 deer. Even if there weren’t any tigers, this boat trip would be fun.
- Best for Scenery
Sangu River This beautiful Hill Tracts river passes steep, tree-covered banks, rugged river cliffs and villages so remote you can only get to them by boat.
- Best City Trip
Dhaka Bobbing across the Buriganga River – the lifeblood of Dhaka, if not the nation – on board a wooden rowboat, while triple-tiered ferries and oceangoing cargo ships charge past you is among the most surreal (and scary) experiences you’ll have.
- Best Boat
The Rocket Steeped in almost 100 years of history, Bangladesh’s famous paddle-wheel steamer may not be the fastest thing on the waterways these days, but it gets more and more romantic each passing year.
Types of Boats
The Rocket is a generic name given to the four remaining paddle-wheel steamers that were built in the early 20th century and are run by the BIWTC (Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transport Corporation). Called Rockets because they were once the fastest thing on the waterways, they now plod along, diesel-powered, at a slower rate than more modern ferries (which now also ply the same route, as well as other boats).
All four Rockets follow the same set route. They used to go from Dhaka all the way to Khulna in a 30-hour epic trip to the edge of the Sundarbans, but at the time of research the last 10-hour stretch of the trip had been suspended indefinitely, so they were only travelling as far as Morrelganj.
From Dhaka (every day except Friday)
To Dhaka (every day except Sunday)
There are three main classes: 1st-class cabins are lovely, and well worth paying extra for. There are twins and singles. Both are carpeted and wood-panelled and come with fans, a TV, a small sink and crisp white bed linen. Shared bathrooms have showers. You also get access to the 1st-class dining room (although meals cost extra) and the wonderful 1st-class deck right at the front of the boat.
Second-class cabins are essentially a more basic version of 1st class. They are twin-bed cabins with bed sheets provided (although it’s not quite so crisp and clean as in 1st), and are fan-cooled but have no TV or private sink and the shared bathrooms don’t have showers. There are small side decks for you to sit out on, but you can often sneak onto the 1st-class front deck without being told off. Meals cost extra, but are generally pretty good.
Deck class is essentially a ticket onto the boat. It’s then up to you to find a spot to sit or sleep on, on the lower, open-sided wooden deck. There are snack stalls down here, which all passengers can use. Deck class is fine for a daytime trip, but extremely uncomfortable if you’re travelling overnight.
Private, more modern ferries – known as launches – ply the same route as the Rocket. The overnight ones tend to leave slightly later (from Dhaka between 7pm and 9pm) but are slightly quicker. There are also launches that leave Dhaka throughout the day for closer destinations, such as Chandpur, in Chittagong division.
Classes are similar to the Rocket, although you may also have the option of ‘VIP cabins’, with extra room and comfort, and private balconies.
Because there are more of them, you don’t usually need to book your launch tickets too far in advance. Head down to Sadarghat – the main river ghat in Dhaka – and inquire about launches to wherever you want to go. If you turn up mid- to late afternoon, you should be able to bag a cabin on a boat that evening.
Smaller wooden boats, known as nouka (country boats), come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and ply the lesser rivers of the more remote regions of Bangladesh. Riding aboard one of these can be a magical experience. They are sometimes rowed and sometimes driven by a small engine. You’ll find you often use them just to cross rivers, but you can take short trips on them all over 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.
Top River Trips
Sundarbans National Park
The world’s largest mangrove swamp is home to the largest single population of tigers found anywhere in the world, and boarding a boat to go in search of one of them is Bangladesh’s undisputed number-one tourist attraction. It’s possible to dip into the mangrove forest on a self-organised day trip from Mongla, but for a true adventure, book yourself onto a three- or four-day boat tour from Khulna.
Dhaka to Hularhat by Rocket
The first part of this 16-hour trip on the famous Rocket is overnight, so make sure you’ve booked a cabin! Try not to sleep in, though, because arriving at the large port at Barisal in the early morning mist is a sight worth seeing. Once the boat starts up again, sit back on the deck and lap up the scenery before hopping off at Hularhat and catching a bus to either Bagerhat or Khulna.
For a fun, albeit slightly scary city-river trip, head to the rowboat ghat beside Dhaka’s main ferry port at Sadarghat and pay Tk 4 to cross the massive Buriganga in one of the many small wooden rowboats that shuttle passengers across the river. While the cityscape of Dhaka rises in the background, watch in amazement as your tiny boat dodges triple-tiered ferries and enormous cargo ships to get to the opposite bank. Then grab a cup of cha at a tea stall on the other side, take a deep breath and do it all again in reverse.
The scenery along most rivers is beautiful, but it’s particularly special here, on the four- to five-hour stretch of the Sangu River running from Ruma Bazar to Bandarban. This is the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where instead of flat-as-a-pancake paddy fields you’ll find dramatic rock faces rising from the water’s edge, backed by forested hills teeming with wildlife. It’s tough to sort out; you’ll need a permit, and if you haven’t brought a guide, you’ll need your best miming skills because boatmen don’t speak English here, but it’s a small price to pay for breathtaking scenery and hours of peace and tranquillity.
Formed when the Kaptai Dam was built in the 1960s, this enormous lake, accessed from the super-relaxed town of Rangamati, offers numerous boating opportunities. The three-hour round trip to Shuvalong Falls is the most popular.
With its village atmosphere and small collection of Hindu and Buddhist temples, the island of Maheskhali makes a wonderfully peaceful escape from the brash beach resort of Cox’s Bazar, but it’s the boat trip over to the island that’s the real gem. You’ll pass pirate-ship lookalike fishing boats, a huge and highly pungent fish market, a small boat-building yard and a string of ice-making houses where huge blocks of ice slide down rollercoaster runners and into waiting boats, before you finally open out into the estuary that leads to Maheskhali.
China Clay Hills
Enlist the help of the friendly staff at the YMCA in Birisiri to help arrange a relaxing three-hour boat trip along the Someswari River to the China Clay Hills: exposed mounds of rock surrounding a picturesque turquoise lake. You’ll have to walk the last bit, or take a rickshaw, but you can still do the whole round trip in a day.
The wetlands, or haors, of northern Bangladesh are a birder’s paradise. Migratory birds flock here in winter and join the resident birds for one big feathered party. Even if you’re not a keen bird-watcher, the marshy expanses are fascinating to explore by boat. Tanguar Haor, accessible from Sylhet, is one of the most popular wetland areas to visit.
Feature: The Holiday Rush
During major national holidays such as Eid ul Adha, passenger ferries can become worryingly overcrowded as locals rush to get home to their families. Safety concerns can be a real issue at these times. Use common sense; if a ferry seems ridiculously packed (even by Bangladeshi standards), think twice about boarding it.
Feature: Sea Voyages
One side of Bangladesh opens out into the Bay of Bengal, so as well as all the amazing river trips outlined here, there are some short sea voyages you can take too.
- St Martin’s Island Large modern passenger ferries shuttle holidaymakers south to laidback St Martin’s Island. Much of the two-hour trip follows the coastline of Myanmar (Burma).
- Fatra Char You can take a day trip along the coast from Kuakata to Fatra Char, a forested Island on the eastern fringes of the Sundarbans.
- Swatch of No Ground Excellent tour operator Guide Tours can help you join a research boat to visit the Swatch of No Ground, a deep-water canyon south of the Sundarbans, where you can spot whales and dolphins.
Feature: Boat Tour Operators
Most of the trips mentioned here can be done independently, but using a tour operator saves you a lot of hassle, allows you added security and gives you the chance to hook up with other travellers.
- Contic Has restored two elegant traditional Bangladesh boats and runs top-end but informal multiday trips to various places. Highly recommended.
- Guide Tours Bangladesh’s most respected tour company runs day-cruises around the Dhaka area as well as its signature three- or four-day Sundarbans trips.
- Bangladesh Ecotours Specialises in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and can help with river trips in hard-to-reach places in this region.
- Tiger Tours Owns a small cruiser offering day and multi-day trips from Dhaka.
Local bus travel is cheap and extremely convenient. Buses to main towns leave frequently, and tickets don’t need to be booked in advance, so you can just turn up at a bus station and wait for the next one.
The downside, though, is the often extreme lack of comfort and worryingly poor safety. For something more comfortable (but no safer) try a private coach instead, although these are less frequent and more expensive.
It’s illegal to ride on top of a bus, like many locals do, but the police won’t stop you. If you do ride on top, though, remember that low trees do kill people each year.
Many bus stations are located on the outskirts of towns, often with different stations for different destinations. If you’re unsure of which bus station to use, just hop in a rickshaw and utter the name of the destination you want to travel to followed by the words ‘bus stand’. The rickshaw rider will know where to take you. Note, however, that bus stations are nearly always called bus stands, while some larger ones are known as bus terminals.
Coach companies often have their ticket offices in the town centre rather than at the bus stands, and you sometimes need to book tickets in advance, especially if you want to ride the pricey and comfortable air-con vehicles, which are fewer in number.
The most comfortable bus options are private coaches, which are distinguished by their adjustable seats and extra leg room. Some also have air-con.
Departure hours are fixed and less frequent than local buses, especially for long journeys. Seats should be reserved in advance, although just turning up at the ticket office half an hour before the coach leaves sometimes suffices.
Some coach services travelling between Dhaka and cities on the western side of the country operate at night, typically departing sometime between 5pm and 9pm and arriving in Dhaka at or before dawn. While you’ll save on a night’s accommodation, you probably won’t get a decent night’s sleep as there are no proper sleeper buses; you’ll just be sleeping in a reclinable seat.
Prices vary from company to company, but there are basically two types of coach – those with air-con and those without. Those with air-con cost about twice as much as those without. Unlike local buses, coaches will often make a lunch stop at a roadside restaurant if you’re travelling through the middle of the day.
Feature: Popular Coach Companies
Among the ordinary buses there are express buses and local ones, which stop en route. The latter charge about 25% less but can be very slow. In more remote areas local buses may be your only option. Most buses are large, but there are a few minivans (coasters).
The buses run by private companies tend to be in better condition than those of the state-run BRTC.
If you’re tall, you’re in for a shock; leg room hardly allows for short people to sit with their knees forward, let alone 6ft-tall Westerners. On long trips this can be exceedingly uncomfortable, so try to get an aisle seat if you can.
Women travelling alone sit together up the front, separate from the men. If there is an accident, this is the most dangerous part of the bus to be on. Women travelling with their husbands sometimes sit in the main section, usually on the window side. On long-distance bus trips cha (tea) stops can be agonisingly infrequent and a real hassle for women travellers – toilet facilities are rare indeed and sometimes hard to find when they do exist.
One of the most under-appreciated professions would have to be the bus-wallah. These are the men who hang out the door helping people on and off, load oversized luggage onto the roof, bang on the side of the bus telling the driver to stop and go, and uncannily keep track of who needs how much change. They are usually extremely helpful – they often rearrange things so you are comfortably seated and rarely fail to let you know when the bus has arrived at your destination.
Car & Motorcycle
Travelling by private car has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it gives you the freedom to quickly and easily go where you please, when you please, and allows for all manner of unexpected pit stops and adventures. On the minus side, it does insulate you somewhat from Bangladesh and it is far more expensive than public transport. Self-drive rental is not available in Bangladesh, so car hire really means hiring a car with a driver.
Motorcycles can be hired on self-ride basis only in a few places, such as Kuakata in Barisal. Touring the country on a motorcycle isn't a popular activity as yet.
Self-drive rental cars are not available in Bangladesh, and that’s probably a good thing. However, renting cars with drivers is easy, at least in the big towns.
In Dhaka there are innumerable companies in the rental business. For the best cars and the safest drivers, try one of the more reputable tour operators. Expect to pay at least Tk 4000 a day for a car, plus fuel and driver expenses. When you stay out of town overnight, you must pay for the driver’s food and lodging, but this won’t cost much. Make sure you determine beforehand what all those extra rates will be, to avoid any misunderstandings. Insurance isn’t required because you aren’t the driver.
Outside Dhaka, the cost of renting vehicles is often marginally less, but actually finding an available car and driver is much harder. Asking at the town’s top hotels normally produces results.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs, and let someone know where they are planning to go. Solo women would be particularly unwise to hitchhike. Generally speaking, you will be expected to pay for any ride, as the locals do.
Bangladesh has an amazing range of vehicles – on any highway you can see buses, cars, rickshaws, CNGs, tempos (shared auto-rickshaws), tractors with trays laden with people, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles carrying four people, bullock and water-buffalo carts, and bizarre home-made vehicles all competing for space. One local favourite in Rajshahi and Khulna divisions is a sort of minitractor, known as a nazaman, which is powered by incredibly noisy irrigation-pump motors.
In Dhaka and Chittagong, motorised transport has increased tremendously over the past decade, and traffic jams in Central Dhaka are a nightmare. In Old Dhaka it’s not unusual to get caught up in a snarling hour-long traffic jam consisting entirely of cycle-rickshaws. In fact, in Old Dhaka, it’s almost always quicker to walk.
What freaks out new arrivals the most is the total chaos that seems to pervade the streets, with drivers doing anything they please and pedestrians being the least of anybody’s worries. Accidents do happen and sometimes people are killed, but the odds of you being involved are still fairly slim.
Given that there are over 8000km of navigable inland waterways, boats are a common means of getting around. Even if you’re not on a long-distance trip, you may find yourself having to cross rivers by boat. Usually you pay a couple of taka for a place on a small wooden ferry. You can also hire private boats, known as reserve boats, to get from one town to another. Public ferries, known as a launch, are always worth inquiring about if you’re at a town with a river ghat. They may be slow, but they’re cheap and are certainly the most pleasant way to get from A to B.
If you thought long-distance buses were crowded, wait till you try a local city-centre bus. Just getting on one is a challenge in itself; it can be something of a death-defying process. Firstly, assess whether the bus will get you to your desired destination by screaming the name of the destination to the man hanging out the door (he's called the conductor). If he responds in the affirmative, run towards him, grab firmly onto a handle, if there is one, or him if there isn’t, and jump aboard, remembering to check for oncoming traffic. Chances are you won’t be able to squeeze any further inside than the doorway, so just hang on.
In Bangladesh, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are called CNGs because these days, most of them run on Compressed Natural Gas. As with the pedal-driven rickshaw-wallahs, CNG drivers almost never own their vehicles. They’re owned by powerful fleet-owners called mohajons, who rent them out on an eight-hour basis. Also like rickshaws, they’re designed to take two or three people, but entire families can and do fit.
CNGs are ubiquitous across Bangladesh – most people use them instead of regular taxis. Faster and more comfortable than rickshaws, CNGs cost about twice as much. Thanks to the wire-mesh doors that secure the passenger seat on both sides of the vehicle, they are also somewhat safer to travel in, especially at night.
In Bangladesh, all rickshaws are pedal-driven. Many vehicles come fitted with battery kits these days, which boost speed while saving the rickshaw-wallahs (drivers) from pedalling all the time. Rickshaw-wallahs usually do not speak English, although you may find some English-speaking ones hanging around outside top-end hotels; this is certainly the case in Dhaka.
Fares vary a lot, and you must bargain if you care about paying twice as much as locals, although even that still won’t be very expensive. In any case, it is probably unrealistic to expect to pay exactly what Bangladeshis do. As a very rough guide, Tk 10 per kilometre is about right.
To hail a rickshaw, simply stick your arm straight out, wave your hand downwards and yell 'Rickshaw!' Remember that the usual way of waving your arm upwards, as used in the West, appears to a Bangladeshi as ‘Go away! To hell with you!’
Taxis are less abundant than you’d think. Even in Dhaka, most people use CNGs. You might be able to hail one from the side of the road if they are on their way to their usual hangout, but if they’re all occupied you are better off heading straight to an intersection or top-end hotel, where you will find a fleet of them waiting. Taxis are usually not metered, so you should negotiate the fare before boarding. Dhaka now has a radio taxi service called Toma Taxi, which has about 200-odd cabs plying the greater Dhaka area.
Outside Dhaka, there are precious few taxis. In Chittagong, you’ll find a few at the airport or at large hotels and around GEC Circle. In Sylhet, Khulna, Saidpur and possibly Rajshahi you’ll see no taxis except for a few at the airport. They are not marked, so you’ll have to ask someone to point them out to you.
This is a larger, shared auto-rickshaw, with a cabin in the back. Tempos run set routes, like buses, and while they cost far less than CNGs, they’re more uncomfortable because of the small space into which the dozen or so passengers are squeezed. On the other hand, they’re a lot faster than rickshaws and as cheap as local buses. You will find tempos in most towns, even relatively small ones.
Trains are a lot easier on the nerves, knees and backside than buses. Those plying the major routes aren’t too bad, and if you travel in 1st class, they are positively luxurious. However, travel is sometimes slowed down by circuitous routing and different gauges, which means that a train ride usually takes longer than a bus ride.
Intercity (IC) trains are frequent, relatively fast, clean and reasonably punctual, especially in the eastern zone. Fares in 1st class are fairly high (about a third more than an air-con coach), but in shuvon chair (2nd class with reserved seating, and better carriages than ordinary shuvon) the fare is comparable to that in a non-air-con coach, and the trip is a lot more pleasant and safe.
The carriages in 1st class, which have three seats across, facing each other and separated by a small table, initially seem similar to those in shuvon, which have four seats across without tables. However, the difference is that there’s always room for just one more passenger in shuvon, whereas in 1st class what you see is what you get. Some IC trains also have an air-con 1st class, which is well worth the extra money. Seats here are of the soft and comfortable variety and are similar to those found on trains in the West. This class is always very popular but seats are limited. It’s a good idea to reserve as far in advance as you can to get a seat or berth in air-con 1st class, though a quiet word to the station master can sometimes work wonders.
There are generally no buffet cars, but sandwiches, snacks and drinks are available from attendants. If you’re lucky, these attendants will be sharply dressed waiters handing out dainty china cups of tea.
Second-class cars with unreserved seating are always an overcrowded mess, and on mail trains (which allow for some passenger cargo), your trip will be even slower than on an IC train. However, you may come out of the experience with a few good stories.
The only sleeper berths are on night trains or those with more than eight hours of running time, and the fare is about 40% more than a 1st-class seat.
The relatively recent introduction of computerised ticketing has made the purchase of train tickets from major stations far less of a headache than it used to be. A recently launched fully automated e-ticketing system, called Bangladesh Railway Esheba (www.esheba.cnsbd.com) allows passengers to buy tickets online; you can pay by either Visa or Mastercard.
Note that the ticket-reservation system only allows passengers to buy tickets five days in advance of their journey (previously it used to be 10 days in advance). Check that this is still the case when you arrive, as it’s wise to try and book your tickets as soon as they become available to buy.
Ticket clerks will often assume that you want the most expensive seats, unless you make it clear otherwise. Buying tickets on local short-distance trains is a drag because they don’t go on sale until the train is about to arrive, which means that while you’re battling the ticket queue all the seats are being filled by hordes of locals.
Feature: Tix By Text
It has recently become possible to book train tickets through a few local mobile-phone networks. You’ll need a local SIM card with enough credit on it to cover the cost of the ticket. You must pick up the paper ticket at the train station you’re departing from at least an hour in advance (or from select retail outlets of the phone company), but the procedure can save you some time.
Tickets are booked through a series of prompted text messages, and can be booked up to five days in advance. Grameenphone (www.grameenphone.com) and Banglalink (www.banglalink.com.bd) have all the details on their websites.
Feature: Train Fares
There are 11 possible classes of train tickets, although it’s rare that they’re all available on one train. We’ve generally listed fares for shuvon (ordinary 2nd class), 1st-class seat and 1st-class berth, but to show you what the other options are, here is a broader sample list of train fares. This shows seven possible train classes, and their respective fares, for the five-hour journey from Dhaka to Srimangal:
air-con berth Tk 765
air-con seat Tk 512
1st-class berth Tk 445
1st-class seat Tk 295
snigdha (air-con) Tk 426
shuvon chair Tk 225
shuvon Tk 185
Feature: Online Train Timetables
For a full list of routes, times, journey durations and prices of tickets of all the trains in Bangladesh, go to the official website of Bangladesh Railway. You can’t book tickets here, but it’s very useful for planning your journey.