Bangladesh is undoubtedly a country that deserves a lot more visitors than it gets currently and so I’ve put together a list of things to know before you go. Because you should definitely go.
Chaotic, disorganised, a little wild. I’m not selling this very well am I? But what I mean is that Bangladesh is a destination travellers often overlook, which can make it a more challenging place to explore. But travel isn’t always easy and if you want to visit less popular destinations, sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to put in the legwork.
1. Plan your arrival
If you’re planning to get a visa on arrival make sure that you have proof of your return booking and a hotel reservation (even if you’ve booked and then cancelled – have a screenshot or print out, simply writing down an address is not enough). The immigration staff were super picky when we arrived at Dhaka Airport and actually went through the process of checking that the outbound flight we said we were taking was a real flight.
They also wouldn’t accept the hotel address that we’d written down and wanted to see an actual booking confirmation. We were Couchsurfing in Dhaka but didn’t have the address of our host yet and so tried to fluff our way through with a hotel address. They were having none of it.
PS. The ATMs at the airport rejected all our cards so we had to change dollars to get some Taka (the local currency)
2. Brace yourself for the chaos of Dhaka’s roads
Traffic in Bangladesh can be intense and, at times, nail biting. All of the buses in Dhaka look like they’ve been tossed down a hill at speed and then set upon with a baseball bat. Also, as we don’t speak Bangla, trying to find out which bus went where didn’t work out so well for us.
CNGs (Bangladesh’s version of the tuk tuk) which are kind of like a cage on wheels, are plentiful and you can usually negotiate the drivers down to a fair(ish) price. But I’m not gonna lie, at times, travelling in a CNG feels like you’re in a fairground dodgem car.
Also, when it rains heavily the sewer systems here don’t cope so well and the streets tend to get waterlogged. Not ideal if you’re in a CNG or a rickshaw. This also makes the roads dirrrrty, so leave your nice shoes at home.
Lastly, in Dhaka the traffic is generally horrendous so any journey usually takes double the time you think it will.
3. Prepare for the stare
Many locals will be fascinated by the fact that you’ve chosen to visit Bangladesh, because not that many foreign visitors go and as a result you will get stared at…a lot. If you’ve been to India, then you’ll have encountered this kinda thing before, but believe me, in Bangladesh the staring is next level.
Let me just say that the staring is (usually) in no way sinister or scary, it’s always from a place of curiosity, even if that can be quite unnerving at times. Like the time we took the train from Rajshahi to Dhaka and were seated in the middle of the carriage and people kept peeping over their chairs or sticking their heads out in the aisle to get a look at us the whole time. That was a totally relaxing and non-intrusive train journey.
4. Ride the train
Despite my previous anecdote. Trains in Bangladesh are great and we used them for pretty much all the journeys we made between major towns.
They’re inexpensive and efficient and a lot more comfortable than Bangladesh’s bumpy roads. You also get perfect views of all that lush green countryside.
5. Get ready to make lots of new friends
As a foreigner in Bangladesh you’ll find that lots of new people want to talk to you or take a picture with you. People regularly approached us in the street to find out why we were visiting and where we were from. Whenever we got stuck figuring out how to get somewhere, it was never long before a local popped over to help us out. We even ended up going for meals with people who struck up conversations with us on the street or on a boat.
Occasionally, of course, there is a downside to this, because sometimes you’re just really tired or you want some quiet time and so a chat with a stranger is the last thing you need. But at times like these I keep in mind all of the occasions I’ve asked people if I can take their photo and intruded on their day and nine times out of ten they’ve responded positively.
Really though, Bangladeshis are incredibly friendly and hospitable and these qualities truly enriched my experience in the country.
6. Dress for comfort
Although Bangladesh is not an Islamic Republic it is still a pretty conservative, predominantly Muslim, country and clothing reflects this, especially outside of Dhaka.
I wore a kurta and loose trousers most days and I personally felt more comfortable, and able to blend in, by wearing something similar to the locals. We were getting stared at enough already.
If you’re a man what you wear doesn’t really matter so much (lucky you) but, my partner wore shorts most days and on quite a few occasions they drew stares and giggles from some locals. Men in Bangladesh don’t really do shorts.
7. Travelling in a couple
If you’re travelling in a couple it’s often best to say that you’re married even if you’re not. The concept of two people travelling together and sharing a room while not being married doesn’t really compute. Sure, we met plenty of younger people in Bangladesh who knew we weren’t married and were fine with it, but even they suggested it was best we pretend we were to the general public.
8. Keep your budget accommodation expectations low
As budget travellers our accommodation options in Bangladesh were limited. In a few towns the guesthouse owners wouldn’t let us stay and didn’t care to give a reason why. Some friends told us that it was probably because they didn’t want the responsibility of having tourists stay, but who knows.
One thing’s for sure, the morning we spent roaming the streets of Barisal, looking for a room and getting repeatedly turned away, quoted a ridiculous rate for a cockroach infested hole while being laughed at and then also having my face stroked in a very creepy way by an old man whose hands smelled like urine was no bueno! (yes I know that was a very long sentence).
The places that did let us stay were not always the cleanest or most customer focused. Bedbugs, stacks of condom wrappers stuffed behind the bed and empty pregnancy test kits were just a few of the delights we discovered. Yay!
9. Go Couchsurfing
Because tourist infrastructure in Bangladesh isn’t very advanced, Couchsurfing was ideal for budget travellers like us. Not every city we visited had hosts but most did and the locals we stayed with were wonderfully hospitable. Even if you don’t end up staying with hosts the community is strong across the country and helped us to meet lots of lovely locals during our travels.
There isn’t a vast amount of information available on travel in Bangladesh so having direct contact with locals is the perfect solution. They will also insist on feeding you well.
10. Take the boat
Because you’re in Bangladesh and it’s basically Water World. There are rivers and tributaries everywhere and the best way to see them is from a boat.
We took the Rocket Ferry from Sadarghat in Dhaka (incidentally one of the most fascinating places in the country) and travelled overnight towards Barisal and Khulna, opting for the lowest class of ticket at a cool $2. We claimed a spot on the deck floor for the night, next to some bewildered looking locals. The boat crew seemed concerned for us sleeping on the deck and tried to offer us a cabin, but we declined. The deck ended up being a great place to sleep because there was a breeze, giving us respite from the stifling April heat. In fact we slept so well that we missed the sunrise, oops.
There are second and first class private cabins onboard too if you don’t fancy living the deck-life and judging by the fare we paid I’m sure they’re not too pricey.
11. The three questions people will definitely ask you
Are you married?
These three questions seem to enable locals to place you on their invisible compass, it’s like they have to ask you these before a proper conversation can start. Unfortunately they always seemed a bit disappointed when we answered no to the last one.
In relation to the first question, quite a few times people just shouted “foreigner” or “China” at us. Neither of us look remotely Chinese, so to this day the China thing baffles me.
12. Watch the weather
Be aware that if you want to visit certain parts of Bangladesh, like the Sundarbans, they will not be very accessible during the rainy season. Rainy season had started early when we arrived and our plans to visit the world’s largest mangrove forest were scuppered.
The weather has a dramatic effect on life in Bangladesh, so for once I would advocate planning ahead if there are specific sights you want to see and places you want to reach.
And now…go forth and visit Bangladesh!