…Welcome to Bangladesh!
When I was planning (very loosely) my travels, I decided that I’d look at all of the countries in Asia, do some research, and then decide where i wanted to go without prejudice, rather than making decisions based on my preconceptions and limited knowledge of the world. (Why would anybody want to go to Thailand? It only has two places, Phuket and Bangkok, and it’s full of sex tourists, drunk gap year kids, Ladyboys and Mike Tyson. I saw the Hangover 2…)
Did you know that apples are originally from Kazakhstan? Asia, and the rest of the world, is a pretty fascinating place! My main criteria was affordability (Bhutan is out for the moment), safety (I really really want to go to Pakistan, and cross the Karakoram highway, but now is probably not the time to do so) and ease of organization, as I didn’t want to have to organise visas or flights too far in advance, because I’m so spontaneous (lazy).
Bangladesh caught my attention for a few reasons, the first one being that I didn’t know anything at all about it. I didn’t even really know where it was on the world map.
Here it is…
Bangladesh is part of the Indian subcontinent, is surrounded by India, has a relatively small land border with Burma to the Southeast, and borders the Bay of Bengal in the South. A few more facts about Bangladesh…They love cricket! And Daniel Vettori too.
Bangladesh has an approximate population of 160 million people, and a land area of 147,000 kilometers, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Dhaka is the capital city of Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi currency is the Taka. 1 NZD = 66 Taka, 1 USD = 79 Taka
It is home to the Sunderbans, which is the largest Mangrove forest in the world.
When the British partitioned India in 1947, they decided to create an independent Islamic state. Pakistan and Bangladesh were one country, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, despite being separated by over 1600 kms. Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. A long and bloody war for independence followed. On December 16th, 1971 Bangladesh was born, when the Pakistani forces occupying Bangladesh surrendered to a joint Bangladeshi and Indian army. This day is known as victory day, and is a national holiday.
|‘The real Bangladesh’|
Before I left New Zealand, I’d never even met anybody who’d been to Bangladesh, until I was chasing up money owed from guitar lessons. The mother of my student was normally prompt with her payments, but I hadn’t been able to get hold of her in months. Turns out that she hadn’t been getting my messages, as she was in Bangladesh! I thought that this was pretty much the most awesome excuse ever.
When I started on my travels through Burma and Thailand however, I met a few stray travellers who had somehow found themselves in Dhaka, normally on a stopover on the way to Kathmandu…
‘I saw dead bodies.’
‘Dhaka is scary at night.’
‘I caught dysentery.’
‘Their country is dirty’
‘I met a guy who went there once…’
Hardly inspiring stuff. Although nobody that I talked to had actually been there in recent history, e.g less than ten years ago, and all had been there on a stopover; that horrible purgatory between home and holiday. Nobody had been outside of Dhaka. And nobody had gone to Bangladesh with the intent of actually travelling and seeing the country.
Reports on the Internet however, from people who had actually travelled in Bangladesh, sounded amazing. Beautiful scenery, small villages untouched by time and technology, incredibly hospitable and friendly people, long slow river rides, and genuine adventure in a country relatively untouched by tourism… And there was also a Bangladeshi man, Mahmud Hasan Khan, who had tirelessly been answering questions on the thorntree forum (including mine) for the past 6 or so years. He was obviously very passionate about his country, and really wanted people to come to Bangladesh. His love for his country and his generosity with his time was really inspirational.
In Bangkok, a few days before my flight, I got sick, the worst that I’ve ever been. I was really struggling to rehydrate, even with the help of sachets, and basically just took lots of pills and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. A bad omen? Between frequent runs to the shared bathroom, I was taking advantage of the free wifi and reading as much about Bangladesh as I could, including the news. At that time, there had been a series of violent hortals (strikes) in Dhaka, and a few people had been killed. At one point I was seriously considering cancelling my ticket, even though it cost 350 NZD and was non refundable, and my Thai visa was about to expire (Thailand is NOT a good place to overstay your visa). Maybe Bangladesh wasn’t such a good idea after all…
I emailed Mahmud (again), with all of my concerns. Mahmud patiently answered all of my questions, and invited me to come to with him to his home district of Barisal for a couple of days and meet his family. This act of kindness from a stranger was enough to convince me that I still wanted to go to Bangladesh. So, armed with the new guide book, a slowly improving case of the shits, my guitar, backpack and my new pants (which were taken up way too high by the taylor on my street in Bangkok), I went.
The flight was hilarious. There was one other non-talkative westerner, who I think was an NGO worker, myself, and a bunch of Bengalis. Bangladeshis are a loud and boisterous bunch, and know how to party, even in an airport. They were all carrying about three large carry-on bags each. They’d throw them from the mezzanine floor down to their friends in the boarding lounge, and then walk through the first gate into the lounge with no carry on baggage. When the next gate opened they all crowded around the desk for no apparent reason, made a bunch of noise, and shouted at the Thai staff. Thai people are generally pretty quiet and gentle, and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They then picked up their carry on bags, at least 3 each, and boarded the plane. It was great! When we boarded the plane the passengers all tried to sit in the wrong seats, normally up the front, or in the emergency exits. The steward would then shout at them, they’d argue, try and sit in another seat, argue more, and then eventually go to their designated seat. While the steward was arguing with the first person, another three people would try the same thing. It was really entertaining. By the time the ‘you can now turn on your cellphone’ message came on, everybody was already talking on their phones, (and i’m pretty sure some of them had been for practically the whole flight), everyone was pushing towards the exit with their oversized luggage in tow, and they were yelling and whooping and generally having a party. Best flight ever....