I was lucky enough to have this piece published on the Born To Bunk website last year, and now that my blog is finally up and running I wanted to share it here too. Bangladesh was a huge culture shock to me, and one that I struggled with at times, but looking back I realise what an amazing and unique experience it was.
When I first arrived in this dusty, hectic city I was confronted with unnerving stares from the locals and a feeling that I really wasn’t in Kansas anymore. If you can safely navigate your way through the hordes of people, rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, and buses then this capital city has some great places to discover.
The Ashan Manzil (Pink Palace) is a must-see, as is the National Assembly Building, both places to escape the big crowds – but not the stares. The markets and tiny streets lined with stalls are easy to get lost in a whirlwind of hand-printed fabrics and knock-off t-shirts, the smell of incense burning your nostrils and the sound of honking traffic never quite fading away.
If it ever gets too much for you, all you have to do is escape to one of the many roof gardens, high above the chaos and watch the sunset through the smog.
Paharpur Buddhist Monastery
When you step off the bus (that only just made it here in one piece) you feel like you’ve travelled back in time. Paharpur is the second largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, and even in its ruined state, it’s impressive.
Being a tourist grants you special privileges, we were allowed to spend the night in the original research building and were taken on a private tour at night, the full moon our only source of light. It’s even more mysterious in the dark.
Srimangal Tea Estates
After another terrifying bus journey, you arrive in the quaint little town of Srimangal. The first thing you should do here is rent a bicycle, find yourself a quiet little tea shop on the edge of one of the many private tea estates and try their famous 7-layered tea.
You should then immediately ride to Lawachara National Park and spend a day hiking through the forests and tribal villages in search of the endangered Hoolock Gibbon.
Listed as the world’s longest natural sand beach at 150 miles, it’s 149 miles of pure golden sands, untouched by anyone other than the fisherman from Myanmar with their beautifully carved wooden boats.
The other mile is crowded with amazing restaurants teetering on wooden stilts built 40 feet above the surf, alcohol-free bars, and hotels for every price range. The locals gather on this one-mile stretch and wade into the sea fully clothed. Be careful to stay covered up though, especially if you’re female.
According to Wikipedia, The Sundarbans are the ‘largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world’. To me, it’s a place where you can pretend you’re Indiana Jones. As you reach the muddy shores by boat, you’re greeted by a man with a gun – ‘just in case’.
You’re hunting for Bengal tigers, following tracks, wading through mud, in and around the mangrove forest. Even if you don’t spot any, everyone has a chance to see crocodiles and monkeys before sailing back to the mainland at sunset, keeping an eye out for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
At first, being stared at silently by everyone, and I mean everyone, leaves you feeling a little violated. Especially once they take their phones out and start snapping pictures of you while you’re squatting down to pee or trying to sleep on the train. But understand this, Bangladesh doesn’t have much of a tourist industry and you are as interesting to them as the sights are to you.
Smile, be kind, give away a little money or leftover food to the poor, and they will return your kindness. Everywhere we went, word got around and the locals would run for the one person who spoke a little English. We were driven around, given tours of the town, help with buses and trains, we even had breakfast and lunch cooked for us by complete strangers. Kids in Bangladesh are happy, energetic, kind, curious, love to have their photo taken and can have fun playing outside, no need for an Xbox or a PS3.