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.