I booked my trip to Bangladesh without any prior knowledge of what I was letting myself in for. It was somewhere different and not visited by many Tourists, that was the attraction for me.
Due to some westerners being murdered prior to my going I boarded my flight with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. I knew that as a white person in a rarely visited strongly Muslim Asian country I would stand out, possibly attract attention and not find it easy to merge into the background if I needed to.
In retrospect I can say this. From the moment I arrived until the moment I departed everyone I met was friendly, helpful and interested in meeting someone different.
These next few Blogs are some basic thoughts on different aspects of my trip.
TRANSPORT AROUND BANGLADESH
I traveled on planes, trains, buses, boats, taxis, autos (tuk tuks), cycle rickshaws, hitch-hiked rides in cars, vans and trucks and walked miles. At no time did I have any fear for my safety.
PLANES – I flew into and out of Bangladesh from Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia – I really like Air Asia – they are not expensive, their planes are nice, the cabin crew are friendly. Sure you don’t get fed unless you have pre-ordered, but I am able to self-cater if it is a longer flight, and I am happy to pay less for the flight to have more for the holiday.
Domestically I flew from Dhaka to Sylhet and back on Birman Airlines, a cheap national carrier who were on time and comfortable. I was going to go there by train but for US$45 each way decided to trade money to save me hours of train travel. I booked at the Airport a few days before I flew.
TRAINS – I loved the trains – they were always on time and very inexpensive – a 6 hour journey might cost $3-5
You will probably need to befriend someone to tell you when you are at your destination though since the signs are all in Bengali – same goes for finding your train, carriage and seat – the carriages and seats are all in Bengali so for someone who only knows English you will need help. I just showed my ticket to anyone and was quickly assisted with a smile.
I always asked for a window seat in a non-air conditioned carriage – that way I could take photos without looking through a dirty window. I wandered through the carriages taking photos and only ever got friendly responses. There are two different classes of seating – I always paid a little more to go “Chair Class” where I had my own padded seat – the alternative was the unpadded bench type seating where everyone is packed in, if it is a full train that would be very uncomfortable whereas the Chair Class was limited only to passengers who had their own seat – anyone else that came in to sneak an empty seat or stand in the uncrowded aisle was quickly moved on by the numerous conductors and armed police who are on all trains.
BUSES – at some point I knew that I would need to catch a bus and I was a little concerned about how easy it would be – in the end it was not only a brilliant way to travel but also a fabulous way to meet the locals and almost feel like you were one of them. I would turn up at a bus terminal (more just an empty lot where buses waited), tell someone where I wanted to go and they would take me to one of the many buses waiting for passengers. Because I wanted to keep my bags close to me at all times I would often book 2 seats – one for me and one to put my bags on next to me. The buses were ridiculously cheap, and often packed with people. They were also incredibly beaten up – in most countries they would have been scrapped years ago, but Bangladesh is a poor country and they keep things like buses running until they literally fall apart.Some of the buses I traveled on felt like my journey might be their last, but I made it where I was going in every instance, and much richer for the experience. Buses were even cheaper than the trains – sometimes they get from A to B quicker than the trains because they can take a direct route whereas the train might not. An example of this was my trip from Comilla to Dhaka – I had booked the train which takes 6 hours traveling in a large upside down letter C – I found out prior to departing that the bus went direct from the two end points on the C and only takes 2 hours as a result, so I never boarded the train and for a couple of dollars caught the bus instead. I loved the interaction with other passengers and would travel by bus again anytime without any concerns.
I traveled from Dhaka to Hularhat on the orange coloured “Rocket” paddle steamer – built by the British during the 1920s in the grand days days of the British Empire – these would have been amazing in their heyday. Now they are somewhat neglected but still very functional – they transport thousands of people from place to place and judging by the masses assembled on board for my overnight trip, they are still very much a useful means of transport. I couldn’t get a first class cabin so had to settle for second class (no air-con). It was perfectly adequate – there were communal second class cabin toilets but the toilet caretaker without prompting approached me and gave me a key to my very own toilet – I wondered if he knew more about the on-board food than I did!! I have written about booking the Rocket in Bangladesh 1. I have seen that some people prefer to catch a daytime ferry so they can see the sights instead of the overnight Rocket. I took the Rocket more for the experience and was glad I did. I don’t know what I missed but my journey was very enjoyable and I wouldn’t swap it for a more modern ferry service.
TAXI – Never my preferred method of transport, but necessary at times. I only used Taxis a couple of times – in Dhaka upon arrival I was met outside the terminal with the usual Taxi scam which goes like this. They approach you and ask where you are going. I told them I had a Hotel pick-up already organised (true but I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me with a name board), they then offer to call the Hotel for you to find out. They talk to the Hotel then pass the phone to you, you chat and the Hotel confirms you should just take the Taxi. Only problem is that the Taxi man in reality just calls his friend and tells him to pretend to be the Hotel and instruct you to go with the Taxi man. I was well aware of this scam, and negotiated a rate which was cheaper than the Hotels quoted rate anyway. Ultimately we both won because I got a cheaper fare (still too much of course) and the Taxi Man got a better fare by being partially successful with his scam.
AUTO TUK TUK AND CYCLE RICKSHAWS – these are simple and plentiful everywhere – just follow the golden rule of negotiating before you get in. When they see you are a Tourist the rates will always be much higher than local rates so depending on the journey I will offer a low figure to see if they will accept. If they don’t I just walk away knowing there are thousands of others waiting. Most times when you start to walk they agree to your price, but if they don’t then you know you are either too low or they are too greedy, so I raise the offer for the next one I like the look of and go through the same process. You do have to consider that sometimes you get caught up haggling over some ridiculously low amount trying to save maybe 10 cents. I am happy to pay more than usual since it means a lot more to them than it does to me.
HITCHING A RIDE – sometimes this was planned other times it just happened – for example, I was traveling from Chittagong to the Ship Breaking area some 20ks out of town – an Auto could only go as far as the City gates where I would need to get a bus, but in the middle of a traffic jam the Auto driver jumped out and started talking to the truck driver in front. He came back and indicated for me to get into the truck as the truck was going my way, so mid traffic jam I paid him, grabbed my bag an hopped into the cab of a truck with a Driver that spoke no English. I had marked on my GPS where I wanted to go, so I watched as the K’s to destination counted down and when it was at 1k (and where the road headed in a different direction) I stopped him, gave him $2 equivalent and hopped out in the middle of nowhere. I then saw an Auto, but I couldn’t get him to understand where I wanted to go, so found another one who seemed to understand and off we went successfully to my intended destination.
I was also befriended by a Man the day before I was due to take a flight from Dhaka – he said he had a car and for much less than a Taxi would take me to the Airport next morning. The price was good so I agreed. He was waiting early next morning as promised and off we went. It was one of the most exciting rides I have ever had. He drove his beaten up car like it was a Ferrari weaving in and out of the pre-dawn traffic – it seemed to me he was doing at least 120kph – but when I managed to glance at the speedo he was only doing 90kph –I had become used to travelling at 30-50kph so 90 seemed supersonic.
WALKING – I walk a lot, am fit, tall and confident – this matters because when you are a lone traveler in “troubled” countries you need to appear strong and confident so you don’t present as an easy target. That’s not to say you should feel under threat, but I believe that your demeanor can identify you as an easy target or a hard target should you be unlucky enough to be in the presence of undesirables. I also try to make good eye contact with everyone I walk past to gauge if they are a potential threat or an ally. I find that the more people I can connect with in a positive way the more protection I will have should the need ever arise. Thankfully I have never had to test these theories, but it might be that unbeknownst to me they have already helped me to have trouble free travel when unknown perils might have been lurking nearby.
There are times when my friendly hello gets a cold response, but the positive responses would outnumber the unfriendly ones by 99 to 1 – good odds to my way of thinking!!
IN SUMMARY – Overall I found Bangladesh to be a very easy place to travel around. Transport is cheap; I generally booked trains a couple of days ahead. Railway stations can be a bit tricky because there is very little (or no) English, but the people are very helpful and there is generally someone with a little English that is keen to say hi and help. Buses are very simple and regular. Once you have caught your first one you will realise it is a great way to get around over medium distances. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes to get a bus to where I wanted to go, and you can flag them down as they pass by – there will always be room for one more passenger.
Of all the Countries I have visited Bangladesh would be the simplest and cheapest to get from A to B so have no worries about getting around – there will always be a simple option.