What comes to mind when you hear the word Bangladesh?
When we talk about our travels in Bangladesh, the mere mention often evokes a reaction that says, “Bangladesh? What is it? I'm curious.”
For good reason.
People don’t know what to make of Bangladesh. They know the name, but often only because they’ve caught a short blip news cycle item like a natural disaster.
Here, we take a different tack, a cue from the game show Jeopardy to introduce another side of Bangladesh.
(Hint: The answer to every question below is “What is Bangladesh?”)
Country where ordinary visitors are most likely to feel like rock stars
Feeling under-appreciated? Starved of attention? Then Bangladesh is the place for you.
How to feel like a rock star? Easy. Just to go Bangladesh and walk down the street. Then stop for a more than a few seconds.
And bam! You are the main attraction. Oh, and the questions Bangladeshis ask.
During our five-week visit to Bangladesh, we ran into a grand total of five tourists. One a week by our count.
Home to the city with the world's worst traffic
“Dhaka has the worst traffic in the world,” our friend told us definitively when we first arrived.
“Worse than Bangkok?” we asked, memories of jams dislodged.
We figured he'd gone soft. Then we tried to get across Dhaka during a low traffic holiday.
It’s difficult to describe traffic in Dhaka in any way that does it justice — other than to say that there are few rules and even less sense of “public good.” Bicycle rickshaws, men pulling carts, auto rickshaws, cars of every size, and wheezing buses all share the same clogged space. There is no apparent organization. But of course there is, it's just that millions are moving at once, desperate to get through, trying to push ahead. Add to that incessant honking, lurching, and brake-riding, you just might feel like your destination doesn't exist in this lifetime.
Each time we returned from a cross-Dhaka trip, hard liquor was in order. And we swore we'd never leave the house again.
Birthplace of Microfinance
Occasional darling topic of the development world, the concept of microfinance was not dreamed up by Economics and Development PhDs at Harvard or Yale. Instead (and very arguably) it was hatched in the mid-1970s in the villages outside of the town of Chittagong, Bangladesh when Muhammad Yunus began experimenting by providing small loans (originally with his own money) to rural women.
Why Bangladesh for microfinance? Need. Necessity is often the mother of invention.
The country with the cheapest shave and haircut
The cost of a haircut, shave, and head and shoulder massage, facial mask/scrub in the “fancy” barber shop (not pictured below)? $1.20
No wonder Bangladeshi men are a well-groomed lot.
Most Densely Populated Country in the World
We know, you've heard this from us before. But 150 million people tucked into a country the size of Wisconsin. The magnitude of this reality bears repeating, often.
Put it another way, given the same population density, India would have over three billion people. And the United States? Over 11 billion.
Take a few turns of the ol' wheels for this to sink in.
But Bangladeshi people — warm, outgoing and genuinely excited to meet and engage with travelers — are in fact the highlight of a visit to the country.
Birthplace of Tantric Buddhism
Buddhism and Bangladesh? Bet you weren’t expecting to see this here.
Today, Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim (over 90%), but if you go back over a thousand years you will find that it was in fact the birthplace of Tantric Buddhism.
Eventually, a wave of Hinduism washed over Bangladesh, followed later by Islam. The result is often-hidden layers of religious history, culture and sites throughout the country.
World’s cheapest breakfast
A typical Bangladeshi breakfast for around $1 for the two of us: four paratha (fried flat bread), sabzi (mixed vegetables), dal (lentils) and tea. A hearty and filling way to start the day often meant that we didn’t have to eat again until dinner.
And for the hardest of the hard-core “I can be cheaper than you”, we defy you to do better and cheaper than 24 singara (samosa-like pastry filled with spiced potato mixture) for $1.
Most Harrowing Road Trip
To loosen up all that wonderful food that you've eaten, hop a local or regional bus. Bangladesh road trips make overnight bus trips on Andean cliffside mountain roads look like walks in the park.
Imagine the traffic scene from Dhaka, opened to more space and much greater speed. Endless honking, slamming on breaks, dust swirling, full-speed passing on blind curves stacked with oncoming traffic, lurching movements to avoid bicycle rickshaws and hand-drawn carts. No wonder the average bus looks like it's been hammered back into a shape after a few rolls off a mountain.
To keep from losing it on bus and road trips, we read books and became fatalists.
Our advice? If you can, take the train.
Driest country (in South Asia, at least)
While you might find some alcohol in the big cities in expat and diplomatic circles, it remains illegal for Bangladeshi citizens to consume it.
So if you fancy a drink in Bangladesh, good luck finding one. There are exceptions, however. No wonder the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) were full of Bangladeshis who'd come in search of a drink of rice wine and to sing and party to their hearts' content for the new year. Outside of a new year celebration, we were offered beer once — under the breath of a waiter who later returned with something warm and appalling at $5/can.
No plastic bags
The first few times we received our street food in cups and bags made of stapled and folded old newspapers, we thought, “Recycling. Isn't that neat.”
But it isn't just neat; it's the law. Plastic bags are banned in Bangladesh. And while we cannot speak for the overall impact of this ban on the environment, it sure is nice not to see plastic bag bushes across the Bangladesh countryside.
Have questions about traveling to Bangladesh? Ask away. We’ll be writing more about our experiences there in future posts.