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.
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.
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.
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.
View more photos: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
While Shait Gumbad Masjid (Sixty Dome Mosque) in Bagerhat, Bangladesh might qualify as one of more remote and foreigner-free UNESCO sites we've come across in our travels, it's certainly not a lonely place.
From the moment we stepped foot on the grounds of this 15th century pre-Mughal-era mosque, we were approached by playful school girls, elderly Imams, extended families, shutter-happy teenagers and everyone in between. 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. Conversations went in and out of Bangla and English about Bangladesh, United States, Islam, crocodiles, cricket, Facebook and more. At every turn, mobile phones clicked with photos of us.
And although the grounds of the mosque teem with people and activity, the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Photos: 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.
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: 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Try to plan your visit around the weekly market in Bandarban and Rangamati on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In scenes like this one at the indigenous market in the town of Bandarban, it's easy to forget which country we're visiting. Bandarban is part of an area known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). CHT's rolling hills in southeastern Bangladesh are home to over fifteen indigenous groups, many of which have their origins in far eastern India, Burma and Southeast Asia.
While the market had some unusual features for one in Bangladesh — a monitor lizard butchered to bits at the river's edge, a huge pig sawed in half mid-market, massive sting rays hanging on hooks, and sacks jumping with plump frogs — something else stood out. Women.
Women were everywhere – as vendors, buyers, connoisseurs of cigars, and among the out and about. While the presence of women may not sound terribly profound, their absence from other markets and many facets of public life here in Bangladesh has been noticeable. And we've missed it.
So at the Sunday episode of the Bandarban indigenous market we enjoyed the opportunity to sit with vendors (men and women), throw around a few words in Bangla (didn't really help), use charades to communicate some more, learn the local names of vegetables, and share a few smiles.
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.
Another site to see near Bandarban is Bangladesh's largest active Buddhist temple, Buddha Dhatu Jadi or Golden Temple — a peaceful little place tucked into the hills above the town. You might be thinking, “Buddhism in Bangladesh?” Once upon a time, Buddhism was the prominent religion across the land that is now Bangladesh.
Although Buddhists only make up around 1% of the population today, you can find pockets of of Marma, Chakma and other ethnic communities practicing in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh. There are even a few Bengali Buddhists about.
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.
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.
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.
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.