Hello Bangladesh! / by David Johnstone

Departure Yangon - Arrival Dhaka

Having said my farewells to Myanmar, it was time to head into the unknown. As I’ve eluded to in my previous post, Bangladesh is rarely visited by western tourists and has little infrastructure to cope with foreign travellers.

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On top of this, I was a tad anxious that, with the continuing Rohingya refugee crisis in the south of the country where something close to 1 million Muslims have been violently expelled from neighbouring Burma, there could be a problem actually getting a visa to get in the country. The flight was on time and my concerns were allayed as I made swift progress through Bangladeshi customs and into it’s sprawling capital, Dhaka. 

I’d made sure I had a hotel pick-up so it was with some relief that my driver, Milon, was there to escort me to my hotel in the Banani district.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer volume of both traffic and people. It felt like utter chaos. Myanmar was bad, this was a whole lot worse and I could feel the pollution sticking to my skin.

FEAR AND LOATHING  

On arrival at the Laurel hotel, I was greeted by the sight of ex-pats, some Japanese and one Brit, getting slowly sozzled in the hotel lobby, not something I was expecting in a ‘dry’ country. I took one beer with them - it could be my last till I reach India in late February - and listened to them disdainly jabber on about the country and it’s people. These are the kind that, like old colonialists, have zero interaction with local people, never venture far from their own hotel or air conditioned car, and are full of pissed self-loathing for being there in the first place. It was all rather depressing but was balanced somewhat by a sweet Turkish businessman who said only good things.  

STATION TO STATION

My main objective was to get out of Dhaka pretty quickly. I’ve never been one for big cities and Dhaka, with a population of almost 9 million and with gross levels of urban poor and inequality and by all accounts filthy, was something I’d need time to adjust to and explore a little later in the trip.

A food stall outside the station  

A food stall outside the station  

I headed to the station fighting my way through the frenzy to pick up a ticket for the Chittagong Express.  After a bit of interaction with the locals outside - one guy, over some tea, was adamant about the benefits of Brexit and another random bloke wanted to knock a taxi driver’s head off as he was quoting me an inflated price (I was impressed by his passion for fairness if not his means of achieving it!) - I slipped quietly into a motorised CNG (a small, caged vehicle) and headed back to the hotel. 

The ubiquitous rickshaw riders

The ubiquitous rickshaw riders

The leather stall where I picked up a new belt to stop any likely embarrassment  

The leather stall where I picked up a new belt to stop any likely embarrassment  

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CHITTAGONG EXPRESS 

Next morning I caught the train. The wrong train inevitably. It was a touch of luck that this was the fastest and the best in the country. I reluctantly, sheepishly paid an extra 1,000 Taka (around £9) and sat down, watching the world go by, occasionally the object of fascinated locals as I pointlessly practiced my piss-poor Bengali to their half decent English. It sped past lush, verdant countryside packed full of mango and guava, rice paddies and small villages, ponds, woods and rivers. Idyllic. Surprising. Not a landscape I’d have associated with Bangladesh. 

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A RIDE TO THE BEACH

After a day of rest at the Naba Inn (a half decent room but overly priced at 50 bucks a night), I took an eye-watering, arse-crushing, lung-busting CNG to Nevil Beach some distance away on the banks of the Karnaphuli River. Whilst these motorised, caged death traps are a somewhat chastening experience, they’re undoubtedly a great way to see the city. 

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A VIEW FROM A BRIDGE

Chittagong has the largest port in Bangladesh and is ideally placed on the Bay of Bengal. From super tankers to small wooden boats that looked remarkably like pirate ships (piracy is rampant here) it’s a gigantic, hectic place full of grist and grime. It proved a fascinating and worthwhile excursion. 

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So it’s onwards by bus to the south and Cox’s Bazar, at 120km the longest beach in the world. A prime destination for local holidaymakers, the region also plays host to the World’s newest refugee camps...