Visiting Bangladesh as a couple? Now a real destination possibility
By Stuart Forster
Bangladesh is not a nation that normally stands high on the bucket wish list of couples looking to travel the globe. On a recent trip there I visited a cross-section of destinations across the country and experienced an array of refreshingly hearty welcomes. If you’re looking for a memorable trip away together then Bangladesh could well be worth considering.
The Bangladesh Tourism Board markets the country as ‘Beautiful Bangladesh’ and, if you get out of urban areas, you’ll find memorable landscapes and a wealth of historic and cultural sites. Many couples, of course, travel to spend time together on beaches. By taking a walk along the full 120km length of the beach at Cox’s Bazar you’d certainly have plenty of that. It’s clearly a popular destination within Bangladesh and I lost count of the number of times, throughout the country, people asked if I’d been there. It is, they proudly claim, the world’s longest natural sandy beach.
Like many people, I was a tad wary of what would be waiting for me in the country. After all, pretty much the only times I see or hear anything about Bangladesh in the news relates to political unrest or some sort of disaster. There was, for example, the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka during April 2013 and, over the years, I’ve lost count of the number reports about earthquake damage or destruction ravaged by cyclones.
In the run up to last year’s Bangladeshi general election there were also reports of disruption to transport, strikes across the country and even rumours of attacks on foreign tourists. As a traveller this was of grave concern to me. Safety, after all, is paramount when we travel.
I’m happy to say that I saw nothing to cause alarm while I was travelling in Bangladesh and would feel comfortable returning. That, really, is the ultimate test of whether I feel safe and enjoy my time in any country.
People working within the tourism industry within Bangladesh feel their country is given a bum deal in the international media. They believe too much focus is given to bad news and that the negative portrayal of their nation is one of the reasons why some travellers stay away.
Hasan Mansur is the former chairman of Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB). I chatted to him at the Hillside Resort in the Chittagong Hills, an upland jungle region that’s home to 13 tribal groups near the Bangladesh-Myanmar. “Security is not a problem. In my 37 years in tourism I never experienced a problem with terrorists,” he said, when I asked if it really is safe for tourists to visit his country.
“Only for a handful of people our country is suffering. Most of the people are very nice and liked by the tourists. People are smiling and don’t want anything from you. Maybe they want a picture with you, that is all…Bangladesh has a lot to offer. We have a lot of things inside but we have not been able to decorate our store,” added Mr Mansur metaphorically.
What he said rang true. I was not bugged by beggars or people wanting handouts while sightseeing; hassles that people often association with travel in South Asia. I did, however, lose count of the number of times people came up and asked to have their photos taken with me. While I’d love to think it was because of my striking looks or that those people are fans of my travel writing and photography that wasn’t, I rumbled, the case. All of the foreigners in the guided group that I was travelling with experienced a warm welcome and several commented about the movie star treatment. At one point a group of school children did indeed start asking for autographs.
I love independent travel but chose to experience Bangladesh as one of a dozen people travelling together in an air-conditioned minibus. I’d heard doing so would be easier for me. This is something Mr Mansur touched upon when we spoke: “As an experienced tourist or traveller now is the time to come. You should pre-contact people, otherwise if you come as a FIT, a Foreign Individual Tourist, you might have difficulty, you might lose time fixing things.”
Certainly, having an experienced guide with a wide range of personal contacts paid dividends in finding interesting things to do and arranging activities. For example, in Bogra I toured a factory making traditional Bangladeshi sweets. In the Sundarbans region I watched a group of fishermen working using trained otters. Ingeniously, the otters drive fish into the nets. These experiences went beyond standard sightseeing and allowed me to gain insights into local culture. Leveraging the language skills of my guide, who acted as an interpreter, I was also able to chat with Bangladeshi people.
Dhaka is a busy city and the heavy traffic may give you a negative first impression of Bangladesh. Wandering around the main fruit and vegetable market quickly provided contact with local people and it didn’t take long before they were calling to be photographed. The National Assembly Building, part of the parliament complex designed by architect Louis Kahn, is a good spot to pause by early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the low sun reflects picturesquely in the surrounding, man-made pools.
I enjoyed a walk along the Sadarghat, the city’s main waterfront area, from where ships depart and wooden ferries ply people over the river Burigonga. The flow of people heading across the river is a sight to marvel at and photogenic too, if you enjoy capturing scenes from your travels.
Heading outside of Dhaka will prove worthwhile if you enjoy cultural travel. The Shait Gombudge Mosque, in the town of Bagerhat, is, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and known in English as the Sixty Dome Mosque. Confusingly, you can count 77 small cupolas on the roof. I was assured that the building’s name makes sense, as 60 pillars stand within the brick building’s voluminous hall.
At Paharpur you can visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The once great Buddhist monastery of Somapura Mahavihara influenced the architectural style of temples throughout South-East Asia, particularly that you can see in Java and Myanmar.
Bangladesh’s third world heritage site is in the coastal region by the border with India. The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world. A slowly shifting delta of waterways weave a maze through the silt and dense forestation of the region. You may be lucky enough to see wildlife such as tigers, crocodiles and long-nosed irrawaddy dolphins.
One of the most effective ways of seeing the Sundarbans is by taking a cruise. I joined the M.V. Kokilmoni, on which local cuisine provided the mainstay of the food, and participated in a guided nature walk in the jungle. The accommodation onboard is comfortable, without being luxurious, and ensures you can maximise your impressions of nature.
It seems to me that Bangladesh is experiencing a wave of optimism at present. If you enjoy being on the road and interacting with local people, it could well be worth considering a visit.
Qatar Airways flies to Dhaka from Heathrow and Manchester, via is hub in Doha.
Eating & Drinking
Bangladeshi cuisine is aromatic and spicy. Look out for traditional dishes including Aloo Bhatha, spicy mashed potato, and Bekti Fry, a succulent fish based dish. The country has a limited number of licensed bars. You can often find them in international hotels. Interestingly, cans of the local beer, Hunter, resemble the packaging used by Fosters.
Where to Stay
The Ruposhi Bangla Hotel is one of Dhaka’s premier international hotels.
Dhaka is a great place to go clothes shopping. Pick up inexpensive clothing at the Casual Mart (GA-32/B,Shahjadpur,Gulshan,Dhaka-1212). Aarong a fair-trade store, sells a range of attractive handicrafts, clothing & jewellery.