Ok, I admit it, Bangladesh is not in Southeast Asia,
but it's very close and I now know plenty of Bangladeshi’s
and just recently had the opportunity to visit Dhaka for the
second time, read on ...
Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was not really looking forward to this
visit. I had been in Dhaka once before in 2002 and did not have
a very favorable experience that time, so I was a little apprehensive
as to what I would experience this time round.
On my previous visit I stayed in a well known global 5 Star
hotel, but it was in a really dreadful state of repair and I
was overjoyed when I had to cut my stay short to meet a client
need in another part of the region, that was November 2002.
At that time the traffic was horrendous, the airport was appalling
and if had not been for the wonderful people I was meeting with
it would have been four days of unutterable hardship.
On this visit my experience could not have been more different,
although there were some challenges during the ten days in-country.
Quick History: Bangladesh became independent
of Pakistan in November 1971. The country has seen plenty of
bloodshed in it's short history, or at least since the Partitioning
of Pakistan and India in 1947 by the British. Bangladesh declared
independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a short civil war backed
by India and the USSR at the time. Since then there has been
constant changes of government, at least 4 coups and many uprisings,
it's certainly an interesting place from a political standpoint.
It has a population of about 160 million people, which makes
it one of the biggest populations in the world in a very small
country. The main religion is Islam, with about 95% of the population
being Muslim, the others being Hindu and Christian generally.
It is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries as well.
It's main resource has been Jute which has long been used in
textiles and is very highly regarded. Bangladesh does have a
robust cotton manufacturing industry but this is under threat
with the rise of China and other manufacturing bases around
the world. While we were there a major manufacturing plant closed
down and there was a day and half of rioting around the factory.
Arriving at the airport: I knew from my previous
visit that the processing through Immigration is painfully slow,
so I made sure we traveled Business Class and got to the counters
ahead of everyone else. My previous trip was Economy and took
me nearly 2 hours to pass through Immigration, by which time
my hotel car had left without me, I was a little peeved. This
time we got to the head of the queue and even then it took nearly
30 minutes. We were second in line. The system is fully manual
and the Officers enter each letter very slowly into some incredibly
ancient machine. The Immigration entry form is amazing, you
will be surprised at some of the questions you will be asked
and details to be provided, not quite down to your hat and underpants
size, but close. So lesson here is if you are not traveling
Business Class, run.
Departing from the airport: Do not get there
too early, especially if you are traveling Business Class. 60
to 90 minutes is plenty. If you are traveling Economy I would
say 90 minutes also as a minimum. The main problem you will
have is judging the traffic. The hotels will want you to leave
3 hours before your flight but even they don’t know how
bad the traffic will be. But still it's only a 30 minute drive
at worst so compromise with them and leave 2hrs and 15 minutes
before your flight. The airline check in is quite quick and
efficient, but the Immigration queues are long, sometimes chaotic
and slow. For some reason I passed through the first check in,
joined the Business Class/Premiere Line as directed by a very
pleasant airport man, and then after waiting for 20 minutes
when nothing happened all 10 of us in the queue were taken on
a safari of the airport to another Immigration are where we
had to join another queue and wait. Fortunately the processing
was quick, but there were people running to catch the flight
as we were leaving. Be warned, the airport is really basic and
just a little smelly in some areas as lots of people try to
sleep across the really hard chairs and don’t seem inclined
to move to allow you to sit. The Business lounge is ok, just,
don’t sit in front of the aircon unless you an Eskimo
or want to catch influenza. There is a fast food place if you
like fried stuff and there is an ‘official’ souvenir
shop, but really you will have it all already.
Hotels: There are not a lot of International
standard hotels in Dhaka, but there are enough. I will not name
the one I stayed in last time as I am told the whole hotel has
been renovated and is now very nice. This time we stayed at
the very new Westin in Gulshan district. It was two weeks old
and it was fantastic. Service was excellent without being overbearing
and the food and beverage selections were so good we were tempted
no to eat out often. Other hotels in the city include Pan Pacific
and Sheraton, these are in one of the business districts called
Karwan Bazar. The Westin is in the Gulshan Diplomatic district,
lots of embassies, banks and Hi Tech headquarters here. Nearer
the airport is the Radisson and the Regency, each of which I
am told are very good but not in the same standard as the Westin,
I cannot comment. The advantage of staying in the Gulshan District
is that it is relatively safe compared to Karwan Bazar and other
areas, there are lots of restaurants and lots of security around.
Traffic: Well we arrived on the first working
day of Ramadan. At no time have you ever seen a traffic jam
like this. (See photos to right). Leaving the hotel by 8am meant
a 20 to 30 minute drive to the office. Leaving the hotel at
9am meant a 3 to 4 hours drive to the office, as was widely
reported in the newspapers and also by local residents we met
with. During Ramadan local office hours are 9am to 3pm (obviously
there is no lunch break during Fasting Month). It was never
quite so bad as the first day, but we did observe the traffic
outside the office windows not moving most mornings for at least
1 to 2 hours in the morning. The afternoon traffic was the same.
Transport: There really is only one option,
take the hotel car. The Trishaws are ok for short trips around
Gulshan but do not consider the tuk tuk’s, or the taxis,
and absolutely do not even think about getting a bus! The hotel
cards are not expensive and they will deliver you to and come
back and pick you up from wherever you are, if you give them
your schedule they will be there when you need them, or call
the hotel and they will come and get you. Off peak it's not
that long. The trishaws are ok for shorter distances, but negotiate
the price first and ask the hotel staff what is a fair price
Food: Well the food was really magnificent.
Our hosts took us to a number of interesting places. We ate
in the hotel a lot because it was just easier and the food was
so good, but outside we had Thai, Pizza, Bangladeshi and Indian.
They were all fantastic. We even visited two very interesting
Clubs, the Dhaka Club and the Gulshan Club. The Dhaka Club was
like stepping back 100 years into the time of the British I
am sure. It was smoky and comfortable in the way that your favorite
old uncle’s living room might be. Lots of historic photos
on the walls and lots of places for members and their guests
to have discussions without being overheard but could still
be seen by others. It was really very interesting. We had some
local foods there including the beef and the chicken kebabs,
they were surprising and really very nice, the texture is interesting,
they must grind the meat and then repack it somehow, the taste
was spicy without being overpowering, but you certainly needed
a drink with them. The Gulshan Club was slightly more modern,
but still had that olde world feel about it. Very comfortable
and the food was wonderful. Here we tried Hilsa fish, which
I am told is a local delicacy and I can say that I would certainly
be happy to eat it on a regular basis. It looked a little like
a Mackerel fillet but the flesh was very white and very sweet.
It is served deep fried, it has many small bones but most of
these can be chewed, pick out the larger ones or it's off to
the hospital. The Indian restaurant was a combination of Indian,
Chinese, Thai and European, but what we had was just fantastic,
started with the Dosa which was a real treat for my colleague
as he had never seen let alone had it before, it was really
very special. So no problems with the food, from local to western
to Indian to Thai it was all good.
Tourists: Bangladesh is not really a tourist
hotspot. I know people who have been tourists there in years
gone by and they say that outside of the main cities it's really
very beautiful. The most popular locations are Cox’s Bazar,
which is a beach resort area past Chittagong on the way to Burma,
and an are they call the ‘Hilly Walks’. This is
where Bangladesh kisses the Himalayas. I am told they have elephants,
rhinoceros, tigers, antelope, crocodiles and all sorts of wild
and wonderful animals in this area. Unfortunately due to the
activity of some insurgents it is out of bounds for tourists,
and probably will be for some time. Our hosts recommended a
visit to Cox’s Bazar for a weekend next time, and from
the photos I saw, most certainly a good idea. In Dhaka itself
there is not a lot to recommend for the tourist. There are some
old mosques and temples, the parliament building is apparently
architecturally magnificent, but that’s about it.
Chandlery: This was a real surprise and something
I had forgotten about Bangladesh. Every 10 metres there is a
shop selling salvage from old ships. Bangladesh is home to one
of the worlds biggest ship graveyards where they pull old ships
apart for scrap, and the shops in Dhaka are full of everything
you could imagine from ships. If you want to be able to say
‘Full Steam Ahead’ and ring the bell and move the
levers, Dhaka has thousands of them, everything you could possibly
imagine from a ship is here and all in brass, you could go mad.
I nearly did.
Politics: Bangladesh is one of the more volatile
political landscapes. It is a relatively new nation, having
separated from Pakistan in 1971 and before than from India in
the 1947. So just over 30 years of self rule punctuated by bloody
and bloodless coups. Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh
) has a great summary of the political history of Bangladesh,
it's interesting reading. Currently both the most recent President
and Prime Minister are under arrest pending criminal trials
for corruption. The military is running the country right now
with an agenda to clean up all the corruption of the past ten
years or so before they allow elections. Editorials in the local
papers are supportive of their efforts, after all Bangladesh
is listed as the most corrupt country in the world on the Transparency
International Corruption Perception Index.
Language: The official language is Bangla/Bengali,
however English is very widely spoken, and it is easy to be
understood and to understand. In this matter Bangladesh and
Pakistan are very similar.
Shopping: I mentioned the Ships Chandlery for
sale, that is however the second most pervasive items for sale.
Cotton is number one. The markets are full of sarong, sari/saree,
shirts, trousers, skirts, dresses, jilbab, burkah, hats, caps,
towels, rags, you name it, if you can make it out of cotton,
it's here. There are tailors everywhere as well, will try one
of them out on the next visit, standard of men’s suits
I saw appeared to be very good, as did the men’s shirts.
As we were there during Ramadan the afternoon and night markets
selling food for Break Fast and clothes for Eid festivities
were extremely busy.
Climate: Bangladesh is one of the most flood
prone countries in the world. It is mostly river delta and a
number of major rivers converge around Dhaka and close to the
Bay of Bengal. Every year thousands of people drown in the monsoon
season and millions are left homeless. The weather is generally
warm and humid but in the winter months it is cooler with daily
temperatures in the mid 20’s and evening temperatures
down to 10’ or thereabouts, so generally pleasant except
during the monsoon. Bangladesh also suffers a very large number
of natural disasters, mostly relating to the flood, but in the
time we were there we experienced a few small earthquakes, the
largest was about 5.4 or 5.8, felt it and knew what it was because
of the constant activity we experience in Indonesia these days,
nothing much happened, windows rattled a little, that was it.
Being so close to the foot of the Himalayas means this is a
pretty common incident.
People: Leaving the best to last. To a single
person we found the Bangladeshi’s to be polite, gentle,
caring, hospitable and friendly. This of course is our experience
with Bangladeshi who live outside the country. There is a large
migrant worker force of Bangladeshi in Singapore and a trip
to Mustafa Centre on any Sunday will bring you into contact
with tens of thousands of them.