Earth's Greenest Country?
Despite being considered one of the world's more crowded countries, well over 85% of the people live very peacefully in small villages and hamlets. 'Daffy' Dhaka (the overstuffed capital) and Chittagong (the largest seaport) aside, rural Bangladesh feels relaxed, spacious and friendly. Bangladesh is nestled in the crook of the Bay of Bengal, sharing borders with India and Myanmar, fronting onto the Bay of Bengal. Except for the hilltract regions, the country is largely flat and dominated by the braided strands of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jamuna and Karnaphuli rivers. Although almost ignored as a tourist spot in the South Asian region, it offers much more than being just a 'tourist-free' destination...
A Few Basic Stats...
Area: About 144,000 sq. km. (About the size of Wisconsin)
Population: 130 million (till we lost count...)
Capital City: Dhaka (pop: 8 million and sprouting)
People: 95% Bengali, 2% Bihari, 3% Indigenous
Languages: Bengali, English (Binglish) & several tribal languages
Religion: 85% Islam, 12% Hindu, 2% Buddhist and 1% Christian & Animist
Government: Constitutional Republic
Time: GMT/UTC plus six hours
Electricity: 220 volts, 50Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric
Bangladesh enjoys a unique position - easily accessible from many popular destinations in South Asia - while virtually ignored by commercial tourism. To many, this a real advantage, and is particularly true of the Chittagong Hilltracts (our specialty), which until recently was a restricted zone. With the signing of an internationally acclaimed Peace Accord, it now provides a truly pristine and exciting destination.
FLORA & FAUNA
Roughly two-thirds of Bangladesh is fertile arable land The country is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, leopards, Asiatic elephants (mostly migratory herds from Bihar), and a few remaining black bears. There are also plenty of monkeys, langurs, gibbons (the only ape on the subcontinent), otters and mongooses. Reptiles include the sea tortoise, mud turtle, river tortoise, pythons, crocodiles and a variety of snakes. There are more than 600 species of birds: the best known is the mynah but the most spectacular are the kingfishers and fishing eagles.
The climate of Bangladesh is subtropical and tropical with temperatures ranging from an average daytime low of 21 degrees Celsius in the cold season to a top of 35 degrees in the hot season. Bangladesh has three main seasons: the monsoon or 'wet' season from late May to early October; the 'cold' season from mid-October to the end of February; and the 'hot' season (known in Bangladesh as the 'little rainy season') from mid-March to mid-May. There is also a 'cyclone season' - May to June and October to November. The best time to visit Bangladesh is in the winter when the weather is dry and fresh. During April, humidity and heat gang up to make conditions rather sauna-like. The rainy season offers unique opportunities to experience this 'riverine' country at its greenest.
The Bengal region has a multifaceted folk heritage, enriched by its ancient animist, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim roots. Weaving, pottery and terra-cotta sculpture are some of the earliest forms of artistic expression. The best known literature of Bangladesh is the work of the great Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore and Nasrul Islam. Folk theater is common at the village level and usually takes place during harvest time or at melas (village fairs). The various tribal indigenous cultures have been largely undisturbed by foreign or 'modern' influences and provide a unique opportunity to experience.
Bangladesh visas are valid for six months from the date of issue and are good for stays of one to three months. The country adheres to 'reciprocal' arrangements, which means the government generally charge visitors whatever their respective country charges for Bangladesh nationals. It is recommended you obtain your visa before departing, they may be difficult to get upon arrival at the airport. It may often be more efficient to write 'business' than 'tourist' for some strange reason.
Places To Check Out
The rather crowded capital city of Bangladesh sits on the bustling north bank of the Buriganga River, roughly in the center of the country. If you've arrived in Dhaka from Southeast Asia, you'll probably be struck by the lack of hype and commercial activity. If you arrive from Delhi or Kathmandu, you're sure to notice the relatively clean air. If you've flown from Calcutta you might find it clean and orderly and if you've come overland through rural Bangladesh, it will seem like Babylon. Here the lights are as bright as they get in Bangladesh, and there's a range of goods and services lacking elsewhere in the country.
The oldest section of the city runs along the north bank of the waterfront and was developed when Dhaka was a significant Moghul trading center. A must-see in the Old City is the area between the two main water transport terminals, Sadarghat and Badam Tole where the panorama of river life on the Buriganga is particularly fascinating. This area is always crowded with people and water craft of every type. Along the waterfront is the old pink baroque-style palace, Ahsan Manzil, which although relatively small, houses one of the regions more interesting museums.
Dhaka's premier attraction is Lalbagh Fort, an unfinished fort dating from 1678 located in the Old City. The area also contains a couple of attractive mosques, including Hussain Dalan. The National Museum is north of the Old City in the old European zone known as Modern City. It has fascinating displays of Bangladesh's Hindu, Buddhist and Moghul past and an extensive collection of fine folk art and handicrafts.
Most of the cheaper accommodation and restaurants are in the Modern City of Central Dhaka. This area also contains the Motijheel Commercial Area, the business district where most of the banks, travel agents and airline offices are located. Dhaka is the rickshaw capital of the world, with over 300,000 colorful painted rickshaws in operations. Taking a ride in one is as essential as catching a red double-decker bus in London.
The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world, stretching 80km into the Bangladeshi hinterland from the coast. The Sundarbans cover an area of 38,500 sq. km, of which about one-third is water. It is optimistically estimated that there are around 400 Royal Bengal tigers (of which you'll never see one -- and be grateful for it) and several thousand spotted deer in the area. Realistically don't expect to see much other than a few crocs sunbathing in the mud and a few species of migratory birds in the winter. Either to or from Dhaka, the 'Rocket' or colonial paddle-wheeler is the most exciting way to arrive at or depart from Khulna city. To get deep enough into the mangroves takes several days of river journey each way.
The second largest city in Bangladesh sits on the bank of the Karnaphuli River and has an interesting old waterfront area known as Sadarghat which reflects the importance of river trade to the city's growth. Nearby is the old Portuguese enclave of Paterghata which remains mostly Christian and has a colonial church. The Shahi Jama-e-Masjid and Qadam Mubarak Mosque are two of the most impressive buildings in the city. It's also worth visiting the Ethnological Museum in the Agrabad area which has quite interesting displays on Bangladesh's tribal peoples. There are good views and cooling breezes from Fairy Hill in the British City in the northwestern sector of the city. The markets (Reazuddin Bazaar) and the goldsmith lane (Hazari guli) are really worth a visit -- and a sampan river journey is a must. North of the city is the ship-breaking yards, a real experience in recycling if you're willing to breath in burning bilge and asbestos. A day or two here is plenty.
Bangladesh's main beach resort is near the Myanmar border in an area where Rohingya refugees have settled to escape persecution in Myanmar over the centuries. It has a slight Burmese Buddhist flavor and has basic amenities to service the visitors attracted by its enormous expanse of shark-free beach. Get out of the 'hotel district' and wander around the tribal and residential areas. South of Cox's Bazar are secluded beaches where having a swim can still be a private experience. A short speed boat journey away is Maheskhali island, where there is an ancient Hindu temple (during February there is a huge gathering for Siva Ratri) and Buddhist shrines in the tribal area where you can see and purchase beautiful handloom cloth directly from the tribal women weavers. You can also observe sea salt production and shrimp farming.
This 8th-century Buddhist Vihara was formerly one of the biggest Buddhist monasteries south of the Himalayas. Although in an advanced state of decay, the overall plan of the temple complex is easy to figure out and includes a large quadrangle with the monks' cells forming the walls and enclosing a courtyard. From the center of the courtyard rises the remains of a stupa which once dominated the surrounding countryside. The monastery's recessed walls are embellished with well-preserved terra-cotta bas-reliefs and a small museum houses a representative display of the domestic and religious objects found during excavations. It is just a few minutes from Comilla off the main Dhaka-Chittagong highway and can be visited on the way.
ST. MARTIN'S ISLAND
This small coral island is about 14km southwest of the southernmost town of Teknaf of the mainland is a quaint tropical paradise with beaches fringed with coconut palms and bountiful marine life. There's nothing more strenuous to do here than soak up the sun and drink green coconut water, but it's a clean and peaceful place without even a mosquito to disrupt your serenity. It's possible to walk around the island in a few hours because it measures only eight sq. km, shrinking to about five sq. km during high tide. Most of island's 5,000-odd inhabitants live primarily from fishing and close to the boat landing at the island's wholesale fish market. A ferry leaves Teknaf for St. Martin every morning (as per tides) and takes around 3 hours. It's difficult to go and return in one day, so plan to stay at least one night. The lone 8-room hotel is rather costly, the only alternative is with a local retired teacher in his most humble 'guest room'.
CHITTAGONG HILL TRACTS
Decidedly untypical of Bangladesh in topography and culture, the Chittagong Hill Tracts have steep jungle hills, Buddhist tribal peoples and is the one place that must be visited. The tracts are about 60km east of Chittagong, that have recently been opened to the public are an idyllic place to visit. The region comprises a mass of hills, ravines and cliffs covered with jungle, bamboo, creepers and shrubs, and has four main valleys formed by the Karnaphuli, Feni, Sangu and Matamuhuri rivers. This area is our specialty.
In the far southeastern corner of Bangladesh, bordering Myanmar (Burma) the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) cover three distinct districts of Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban. These are home to about a half a million indigenous peoples of 14 unique tribes. It's quite a relief from the flat lowlands of Bengal, to relax and get away from the crowds. Much of the traditional lifestyle is still preserved - Tribal kings, village headmen and self-sustaining crafts, a natural lifestyle, all in a rich, still pristine foothill ecological environment. This region has only recently become accessible - with the signing of an internationally acclaimed accord between the indigenous people and the government. As the few local hotel registers will confirm, only a handful of foreign tourists have yet had the fortune to visit to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, truly an experience to treasure.
A lush and verdant rural area belonging to the Chakma tribe, is open to visitors, as is Kaptai Lake. The lake, ringed by thick tropical and semi-evergreen forests, looks like nothing else in Bangladesh. While the lake itself is beautiful, the thatched fishing villages located on the lake shore are what make a visit really special. Boats which visit the villages leave from Rangamati. Bring your swimming gear because you can take a plunge anywhere. The town itself is crowded with baby taxis and becoming increasingly polluted. Avoid holidays and Fridays when hundreds of Bengali 'picnickers' converge in crowded buses, each competing with the loudest cinema music screaming tape systems mounted on the roofs.
The capital of the hill district of the same name and home to the Bohmong tribal king. Much smaller and more quaint than Rangamati. It the base for traveling south by country boats down the Sangu river to Ruma, Thanchi and points beyond. Tuesday is the weekly market when you'll see tribal folk from miles around. There is a large Buddhist water festival every April.
A very small market town (Monday is the weekly market). This is where one can take boats up the Matamurhi river and hike into interior tribal villages. There is a 3 room government guest house with basic facilities. Bangladesh Ecotours runs a small ecolodge about 20 minutes from the bazar area and arranges homestays with Tripuri, Tanchangya, Marma and Mru families. There are several small villages within a half-days walk.