Bangladesh Travel: A Beginner’s Guide + Podcast

Children Bathing and Playing - Shangu River near Bandarban, Bangladesh
A Bangladeshi welcome.

More than five weeks in Bangladesh? Is there really enough to do there?

– A typical response when we shared our Bangladesh travel plans.

Let’s face it. Reliable independent travel information about Bangladesh doesn’t flow quite as freely as it does for some other nearby countries in Asia.

And even when you get in country, information can be hard to come by: ask five people a question and you’re likely to get ten answers.

But persevere and show your curiosity and you’ll find that Bangladesh actually offers more diversity in sights and experiences that you might first expect, from UNESCO pre-Moghul mosques to cycling through tea estates to tracking tigers in mangrove forests. But perhaps more distinct are the human interactions that make visiting Bangladesh such a unique experience.

A Rickshaw Drives Through Holi Celebrations - Dhaka, Bangladesh
>A dye-drenched rickshaw driver in Dhaka after a wrong turn during the Hindu celebration of Holi.

Next time you wonder what there is to do and see in Bangladesh, take a look at the list below for inspiration. Seek it out, understand that things don’t always go as planned, and enjoy the journey.

Cox’s Bazar Spoiler: We’re prepared for flak from Bangladeshis regarding the fact that Cox’s Bazar does not appear on our list. Cox’s Bazar, home of the longest continuous stretch of beach in the world didn’t make the cut during our visit. We’d spent plenty of time on beaches in Thailand before visiting Bangladesh, and frankly we were having too much fun in the Bangladesh countryside to up and make our way to the beach.

Dhaka: Bangladesh’s sprawling, crazy capital city

Make your way to old town Dhaka (Puran Dhaka) and Shakari Bazaar for interaction with some of the friendliest and most energetic people in the world. Go early in the morning or on a holiday so that you have a chance to see it all and engage with the crowds before things become too hot or busy. Take a rickshaw ride through the narrow old town streets. Wild, fun, human. Our favorite part of Dhaka by far.

Rickshaw Driver in Typical Streetscene of Old Dhaka, Bangladesh
A quiet day in Old Dhaka (Puran Dhaka)

Also recommended is the walking tour of old Dhaka by the Urban Study Group working to protect Dhaka’s historical buildings (ask for Taimur). Our tour happened to coincide with the Hindu holiday of Holi so our walks through the Hindu parts of town were in full festival and color mode. A fulfilling, educational experience all around.

Holi Boys -- Dhaka, Bangladesh
Kids in full color during the Hindu holiday of Holi.

The easiest way to get to the old town is by CNG (compressed natural gas auto rickshaw ) – ask to use the meter. Traffic in Dhaka is horrible, so plan your way around the city wisely or risk spending hours stuck in traffic that may leave you never wanting to exit your hotel again.

Other things to see in Dhaka:

hiring a boat at Sadar Ghat boat terminal, Khan Md Mirdha Mosque and Lalbagh Fort, Louis Khan’s Bangladesh parliament building and government complex.

View more photos from Dhaka

Rocket Steamer: River Travel

While the rocket steamer may not be one of the fastest ways to travel, but it is one of the most pleasant. Bangladesh is a country of rivers; you have to travel them to get a feel for the country. The Rocket Steamer is a great way to do this.

Rocket Steamer - Bangladesh
The Rocket Steamer: an ironic name for this slow-moving boat.

Although we’re usually cheapskates when it comes to transport, we do recommend splurging for an overnight first class cabin (around $25 total for the two of us). On the route from Dhaka to Khulna, this allowed us access to the front of the boat along with a handful – as opposed to hundreds – of other people. Pull up a chair outside and watch Dhaka disappear in the rear view as the river opens wide with fishermen, villages and the occasional brickfield (brick-making operation). We will never forget drinking tea after sunset on the front deck as we exited Dhaka’s orbit and made our way into wider, more silent waterways. Epic and soothing.

Men Collecting Palm Leaves - Sundarbans, Bangladesh
Life on the river, as we make our way to southern Bangladesh.

Because water levels were low, we chose to exit the boat at Pirojpur. From there, we took a bus the remainder of the way to Khulna (about 2 hours). In Khulna, we met up with our Sundarban tour boat the following day.

A note on safety: You might be asking, “Is it really safe to take a boat in Bangladesh? I keep hearing reports of boats sinking.” The Rocket Steamer does indeed have a good safety record. However, be aware that other public river ferry transport options may not be as safe due to overcrowding and spotty maintenance.

Boat Men at Sadarghat - Dhaka, Bangladesh
The scene on shore at Dhaka’s Sadarghat.

Buying tickets: The Rocket Steamer departs around 6 PM from Sadarghat in old Dhaka. Although touts may suggest otherwise, you cannot buy tickets for the Rocket Steamer at Sadarghat in Dhaka. We advise going directly to the BIWTC (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport) office at 5 Dilkusha. Call ahead to confirm that boats are running. Schedules are subject to change based on water levels and repairs: +88-02-9559779. You can also buy Rocket Steamer tickets through local travel agent for a fee that will include a commission.

View More Photos: Rocket Steamer from Dhaka

Sundarbans: Tiger tracking in mangrove forests.

The Sundarbans, the largest tidal mangrove forests in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a big attraction in Bangladesh. A Sundarbans tour is usually among the first items on a visitor’s Bangladesh travel itinerary. The Sundarbans feature mangrove forests, visits to the Bay of Bengal, and an often unsuccessful search for tigers.

Tiger Print in the Mud - Sundarbans, Bangladesh
Fresh tiger print in the mud. Found on one of our treks through the Sundarbans.

Most journeys to the Sundarbans depart from Khulna and travel south and east along various rivers and streams towards the Bay of Bengal. Within a few hours of leaving Khulna, industry, towns, fishermen and villages fade in favor of virtually uninhabited mangrove forests. Birds, deer, crocodiles, and wild boar become your new companions. Oh, and tigers — whether or not you get a chance to see them, they will likely see you.

Sundarban tours include a few landings to walk through the thick mud of the mangrove forests in search of the shy Bengal tiger. Although it’s unlikely you’ll actually see a tiger (there’s an estimated 400 of them remaining in this vast land mass), this is still a recommended trip to get yourself into the middle mangrove forests, see some different animals, and just enjoy nature and its silence.

Sunrise Through Trees - Sundarbans, Bangladesh
Sunrise in the Sundarbans

Booking a Sundarbans Tour:

We went with Bengal Tours. The boat, food, and staff were all great. A standard tour for two nights/three days is around $150. If we had known in advance, we would have better timed our visit to coincide with the honey harvest season (April) and booked a “honey-hunting tour.” Honey-hunting tiger tours run at the very end of the Sundarbans tour season, as the dry season becomes full-blown. This special tour follows villagers in the northwest reaches of the Sundarbans and includes as they harvest honey, a rather dangerous undertaking because of the apparent relative profusion of curious tigers in the area.

The Guide Tours also runs Sundarbans tours. Although we didn’t travel with them, one of our close friends did and he recommended them. Rupantar Eco-Tourism, was also recommended to us, but there were no tours running at the time of our visit.

View More : Sundarbans Photos

Bagarhat: Pre-Moghul Mosques and Crocodiles

If you’re a “find the most obscurse UNESCO sites” type of person, then Shait Gumbad Mosque (60-Domed Mosque) is definitely for you. The mosque’s interior is impressive with its dozens of columns, pre-Moghul architecture, and faded wall decor wiped out by heavy-handed plastering. However, what we enjoyed most was that the mosque is not a museum, but is still actively used by the local community. Like all their Bangladeshi countrymen and women, they are a curious and friendly lot and will pay you oodles of attention, as this site currently does not get many foreign visitors.

Inside Shait Gumbad Mosque (Sixty-Domed Mosque) - Bagerhat, Bangladesh
Fisheye view of the interior of the Sixty-Domed Mosque

If you have more time, take a rickshaw to Khan Jahan Ali Mazar where you’ll find a pond full of well-fed crocodiles and the Nine-Domed Mosque a short walk away. Keep an eye out for this friendly Imam who will take you around the 15th century building.

Cricket at the Nine-Dome Mosque - Bagerhat, Bangladesh
Join the kids for a game of cricket at the Nine-Domed Mosque

There isn’t really a place to sleep here, so visiting Bagerhat is best done as a day trip from Khulna. For a taste of beautiful peaceful brick-lined village lanes, a visit here is an absolute must.

Khulna Hotel: We enjoyed staying at Hotel Jalico on #77 Lower Jessore Road. Around $14 for a double room with A/C, including breakfast served in your room. Request a local breakfast – the “western breakfast” includes soggy eggs and toast.

Related article: Panorama of the Week: Sixty Dome Mosque, UNESCO in Bangladesh

More Photos from Bagerhat

Rajshahi and Puthia: University town and Hindu Temples

Take the early morning train from Khulna to Rajshahi for one of the most pleasant rides in the country through villages and rice fields. Besides offering an absolutely beautiful journey, this train seems to run on time. Purchasing a ticket at the Khulna train station is fairly easy. Foreigners will likely be directed around the back of the building to make their visit even easier. 1st class cabin tickets run about $3-$4/piece. Among the world’s greatest train ticket values.

Train Ride through Rural Bangladesh - Khulna to Rajshahi
Views from the train trip from Khulna to Rajshahi

At dusk, go down to the Ganges/Patma river front: kids play cricket, families gather around food carts, and boats carry people back and forth towards the Indian border. You’ll soon be surrounded by Rajshahi’s students; curious, outgoing, and sporting good English. A good sign if these are the future leaders of their country.

Nearby Puthia is worth a stop to walk around, see the Hindu temples, and chat with the temple caretakers and other locals. You can see the town’s former prominence in the Hindu Temples and Palace. We particularly enjoyed the Govinda Temple with its exterior of carved terracotta tiles.

Govinda Hindu Temple - Puthia, Bangladesh
Govinda Hindu Temple in Puthia

Note that the representative from the Puthia archeological association can be a bit overbearing and ultimately hijack your visit and your sanity, so be firm in expressing your wishes.

More reading: Dollywood Rickshaw Art in Bangladesh

More Photosof Rajshahi and Puthia Photos

Paharpur Monastery: Tantric Buddhist Monastery

Another UNESCO World Heritage site in Bangladesh: the 8th century Paharpur Monastery in northwestern Bangladesh is one of the largest Buddhist monasteries south of the Himalayas. Today, much of the site is in ruins but it’s still worth a visit. Fascinating to imagine how this university-style “dorms” where Buddhism and Buddhist monks thrived for several centuries under in what was once Buddhist Bangladesh.

Paharpur Buddhist Monastery - Bangladesh
Paharpur Buddhist Monastery

If you visit Paharpur, we recommend spending the night in Joypurhat and taking an electric or auto rickshaw to the the site.

Paharpur Hotel: We stayed in a great guest room at an NGO called DMSS for around $11/double room. Our host, Aburpa, was wonderful and the money from your stay goes to support DMSS’ work with indigenous people in the region. He can also arrange a rickshaw to the ruins. Contact the organization in advance to see if they have availability. A great place to stay.

More Photos from Paharpur Buddhist Monastery

Rural Homestay: Bangladesh Village Exploration

Bangladesh’s cities are busy, harried and full of people, traffic and commotion. From our perspective, an absolute must in Bangladesh: spending time in rural Bangladesh to get a completely different perspective. One of the highlights of our trip was a two-day village homestay in the village of Hatiandha outside of the city of Natore.

Children Gathering Together - Acholcot, Bangladesh
Bangladeshi kids, everywhere in the village.

In the village, we stayed with a local family for two nights and enjoyed delicious home-cooked Bangladeshi food. We also had an opportunity to visit rural schools, walk around the village and fields to learn about agriculture, see a pottery village, various aspects of harvesting, puffing rice with hot sand and enjoying the pace of Bangladesh village life.

Arranging a Bangladesh home stay

The home stay program we used is a new initiative from Eco Connexion, the rural tourism arm of the NGO ESDO.

More Reading: Bangladesh Village Homestay: Becoming One of the Family

More Photos of the Bangladesh Village Homestay

Srimongal: Tea Estates and Long Bike Rides

From our perspectives, another must see during a visit to Bangladesh. The aim: to get out of town and enjoy the countryside; tea estates, ethnic villages, national parks, lakes and greenery. You can hire a car, or as we did, rent bicycles and cycle your way through the teaberry flavored air of tea plantations, take up a local or two on their invitation for tea (or a birthday party). Go, enjoy the outdoors and let your days unfold by themselves.

Audrey Rides Bike Near Madhabpur Lake - Bangladesh
Cycling through tea estates from Srimongal to Madhabpur Lake and back.

Our suggestion: rent bikes and head out to Madhabpur Lake, not so much to see the actual lake but for the adventure on the way there and back. Beautiful scenery, villages and people. The fragrance of tea bushes in the fresh air of early morning is like nothing you’ll experience in life.

The tea gardens surrounding Srimongal are remnants from the British Empire; workers were brought from other parts of the country and also from India. Today, this area is home to several different ethnic groups. Although working conditions are exceptionally difficult for the tea pickers, we found them incredibly friendly and welcoming.

Picking Tea - Srimongal, Bangladesh
Friendly tea picker at Finlay Tea Estates near Srimongal.

It’s possible to arrange visits to indigenous Garo, Manipuri, and Khashia villages. Our suggestion is to go with a guide who is from that indigenous group and village so that you have a more personal experience. You can contact Nishorgo or Community EcoTour to arrange village visits. Don’t miss a visit to Nilkantha for a taste of 7-layer tea. There’s also an unassuming stand that serves up puchka. Makes for a perfect late-afternoon snack.

To rent bikes, contact Sablu at Classic Tours and Travels in Srimongal. He’s a really nice guy who can arrange other tours. He also knows where to find a get a good shave.

More Reading: The Destination Is Everything, The Destination Is Nothing

More Photos of Srimongal Tea Estates, Villages, Makets and Bike Ride

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Bandarban & Rangamati

This little sliver of land in the southeastern corner of the country can be a bit tricky to get to, but it’s all worth the effort. More than a dozen ethnic groups share this region; it’s like a journey through Southeast and South Asia in one swoop.

Diverse Group of Girls - Rangamati, Bangladesh
A group of girls in Rangamati show the diversity of the region.

Try to plan your visit around the weekly market in Bandarban and Rangamati on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Also highly recommended is hiring a guide for half a day in Bandarban to go through villages and take a boat ride down Shangu river. We arranged for this through Guide Tours Bandarban Hill Resort (about $8-$10) and it was a fantastic experience. Our guide, Royel, was a Baum man from the surrounding villages and knew everyone, everything.

Weekly Market Day in Bandarban, Bangladesh
Indigenous weekly market in Bandarban

Our visit to Rangamati overlapped with both local Buddhist water festival and Bangla new years; we were adopted by a local Chakma man and visited about ten groups of family and friends, each with outrageous amounts of rice wine and food. Let’s just say we didn’t do a lot more than that during our two days there.

Permits to CHT:

It’s necessary to get a permit to enter the CHT. Most travel agents or hotels can arrange this for you for free or for a small fee. They will submit your passport details to the authorities so that your name appears on an approved list.

Bandarban Hotel

We stayed at Hotel Purbani on the main road in Bandarban town. Around $8 for a double room (fan) with some of the most attentive staff in the world. To enjoy the hills and countryside outside of town, take a look at the Bandarban Hillside Resort run by Guide Tours. We hired a guide from here and the facilities looked nice.

Rangamati Hotel

Banarupa Tourists Inn is on the outskirts of town. We were there during a big holiday, so rooms were hard to find. A double room cost around $18-$20.

More reading: Panorama of the Week: Buddhism in Bangladesh

More Photos of Chittagong Hill Tracts – Bandarban and Rangamati

—–
Of course, there is much more to do in Bangladesh than what is on this list. Our aim is to provide you a starting point to inspire your thinking, planning, and preparation for Bangladesh. Independent travel in Bangladesh is intense, so be sure to plan in enough down time; try to get out of the big cities. Once you do, you are sure to set yourself up for some unforgettably unique experiences.

And if you’re interested in more information on travel to Bangladesh, be sure to listen to our Bangladesh podcast interview with Chris Christensen from the Amateur Traveler.

Amateur Traveler Episode 309 – Travel to Bangladesh

 

Best of Bangladesh Photo Slideshow

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the Best of Bangladesh Photo Essay.

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Comments

  1. says

    Just adding to this otherwise pretty complete guide.

    Boga Lake
    A part of Chittagong Hill Tracts, but can only be reached by trekking through some darn nice hill country inhabited by different tribes.

    Cox’s Bazar
    Yes, you mentioned it yourself. A visit to Cox’s Bazar beach is pretty mandatory. Not because is pretty, but because Bangdeshis consider it to be a paradise and it is so far from. It is a wonder how a beach can be so unattractive in a fascinating way… but hey, this is Bangladesh!

  2. says

    @Sutapa: There’s a lot of inconsistent information about Bangladesh in guide books and even when you get on the ground, so we tried to be thorough here with all the details we wish we had known before we went.

    @Bo: Boga Lake was on our wish list, but as we were in CHT during the new year it was difficult to find guides and transport. We’ll just have to return to be able to visit next time…including Cox’s Bazaar :)

  3. says

    Great tips, thanks for sharing! Tigers being curious about honey sounds adorable but I’m sure it’s far from the opposite – I need to switch my brain off of Disney mode!

    I’m a complete geek for things like old mosques and ruins, I had no idea there were so many in Bangladesh! Now to book a ticket… EasyJet to Dhaka? Hmm!

  4. says

    @Tom: Yeah, tigers going after honey does sound rather Winnie the Pooh-ish, but it is a dangerous activity. Something like 50-60 people get killed each year by tigers and many of them during the honey season.

    Bangladesh definitely does surprise on its old mosques and ruins; there used to be much more, but as the population has grown it’s hard to keep things up. I don’t see EasyJet going to Dhaka anytime soon, but Air Asia used to from Kuala Lumpur. We flew $90 one-way from Dhaka-KL. Such a shame they stopped service!

  5. says

    Definitely one of the most detailed, well-illustrated and thorough write-ups I’ve seen about Bangladesh. Could you let me know if/where you discovered “inconsistent information about Bangladesh in guide books” in the Bradt guide? I’m in the midst of updating right now!

  6. Murad says

    Thanks for covering Bangladesh in such a positive and interesting manner. One thing though, the mention of Tea Pluckers(not pickers in the true Tea jargon)life being exceptionally difficult is not correct as they are probably the only working group that are provided with their own homessteads, clean water, weekly ration and a large communal meeting place with TV for their entertainment.In some large estates they also have dispensaries and small scale hospitals. Working conditions are difficult for all agricultural growers in Bangladesh.In fact it is specially difficult for the Rickshaw Wallas who migrate from the villages due to no employment opportunities there and live in almost squalid conditions in the large cities.

  7. says

    @Mikey: Wow, thank you for your kind words about our write-up. Coming from you as an expert on Bangladesh that means a lot.

    I don’t have the Bangladesh guidebooks in front of me at the moment, but some suggestions we have for updating the Bradt Guide would be:
    1) For all transport routes, be sure to list (expected) hours/length of route. If possible prices as well (although these do change).
    2) Give the Bangla name for sites and locations since many rickshaw drivers don’t speak English. I remember doing charades trying to communicate Buddhist temple when we were in Bandarban to the rickshaw drivers since they only knew the local name.
    3) Improve the maps. I know Bangladesh is impossible to map, especially its cities, but we found it quite difficult to navigate the maps in the Bratdt Guide.

    If more ideas come to mind, I’ll be sure to send you an email. Good luck with updating the Bangladesh Bradt Guide!

    @Marc: Many people don’t think about Bangladesh as a travel destination, which is really a shame. Bangladesh is not the easiest travel out there, but it’s certainly fascinating and people are so welcoming.

    @Murad: Thanks for sharing this about the Tea Pluckers. I completely agree that life for all agricultural people in Bangladesh is difficult and for rickshaw drivers they live extremely challenging lives.

    Yes, the tea estates provided housing when the pluckers moved from other parts of Bangladesh and India many years ago. Of the people we spoke with, they still live in the same homes their parents had when they arrived many years ago. However, we were told by different sources that the situation now for tea pickers is worse than it used to be because the tea estates don’t have as much money for these services. Many earn around $1/day and the food rations are often not sufficient. But, it’s hopeful to hear that some tea estates are able to provide better services and pay.

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