Bangladesh Travel: Know Before you Go.
My time in Bangladesh in December 2017 was a whirlwind and full of surprises (both good and occasionally uncomfortable). It was all the more full of surprises because of the lack of information available online about travel in Bangladesh – many Bangladesh travel blogs were written several years ago, pre 2015 when already low international tourist numbers decreased. And of course, Bangladesh is a country which (sadly) not many foreign travellers make it to…Yet.
So with that in mind, these I’ve put together these Bangladesh travel tips to help you determine if travel in Bangladesh is for you, and information to help you plan your trip to Bangladesh!
Is Travel in Bangladesh for You?
Bangladesh is without doubt one of Asia’s undiscovered gems, but unfortunately (mostly due to a mixture of political instability and natural disasters), Bangladesh has gathered not the best reputation internationally. Bangladesh has yet to experience much tourism and is mostly un-touristed: a foreign face will excite a lot of attention and interest, almost always of a friendly and kindly nature. “Excuse me mam, your country?” were probably the words I heard spoken most to me on my trip.
As an un-touristed destination, Bangladesh is relatively free from the tourist-scams that are common in neighbouring India. On the other hand, Bangladesh also lacks much of the infrastructure of neighbouring India, and travelling around can be hard work. Roads can be unpaved, traffic is dire in some places (mostly Dhaka) – for more see the transport section – and transport conditions are basic at best. English is not widely spoken, which can make independent travel difficult in more rural areas.
Bangladesh can also be raw: along with the beautiful landscapes, people and places, expect to see a lot of poverty, and a huge amount of pollution and dirt. Don’t come if you’re not comfortable with dressing conservatively, sitting in crowded transport, and experiencing a variety of conditions. Perhaps the best description of Bangladesh I’ve heard is a “more raw version of India” – but even that comparison falls a long way short of the variety and richness of culture available in Bangladesh, and the positive surprises that this small but bustling country has in store for travellers who make it there.
Perhaps it’s time to find out about Bangladesh for yourself?! 😉
Travel to Bangladesh: Visas.
1. First things first: do check the current political situation and travel advisories of your country for Bangladesh before booking your trip. The country has experienced political turmoil in the past, and the situation can change quickly. You can find the UK travel advisory for Bangladesh here. Make sure you take out good travel insurance.
2. Visa on Arrival. Citizens of many countries can get a Visa on Arrival for Bangladesh if flying in to Dhaka airport, if you are travelling for tourism (tourist visa) and plan to stay less than 30 days. You can find up to date info on the Bangladesh visa on arrival here.
3. Overland from India. I took the Maitree Express international train from Kolkata (India) to Dhaka, however train travel between India and Bangladesh is not valid for the visa on arrival. At the time of writing visa on arrival was available at the land border crossed by bus between India and Bangladesh. I found this thread on the Lonely Planet forum helpful for planning my visa. Because I was travelling by train between India and Bangladesh, I got my visa in advance at the Bangladesh High Commission in London, UK, a couple of months before hand. Processing time was slow (the embassy held on to my passport for nearly 10 days) so plan well in advance! My visa was valid for 3 months from date of issue. Another option from India would be to get your Bangladesh visa in Kolkata (Calcutta). In addition to the twice weekly Maitree Express, there’s also a train that runs from Kolkata to Khulna, which can be useful for heading straight to the south west of Bangladesh from India.
Bangladesh Travel Intro: Customs & Culture.
4. A little history. Until 1947, Bangladesh used to be part of India and was known as “East Bengal”. In 1947 when India gained independence from British colonial rule, the sub-continent was also partitioned into India and Pakistan, leading to the largest migration crisis in history. 14 million people became refugees as many Hindu families moved from Pakistan to India and Muslims from India to Pakistan. Bangladesh was known as “East Pakistan” and was governed from Islamabad in (West) Pakistan – something that was unpopular with many Bangladeshis. In 1971 Bangladesh (with the support of India) fought Pakistan for independence and became the independent country of Bangladesh that it is today.
5. Bangladesh’s population is a staggering 140 million, 14 million of which are packed into the capital, Dhaka. But that number is growing every day – as more and more of the rural population come to the capital city in search of work that is more lucrative and secure than agriculture. Things get a little crowded from time to time!
6. Religious diversity Although Bangladesh has a Muslim majority, there is a sizeable Hindu population throughout the country. There are also tribal communities in the Chittagong hilltracts, and Bangladesh has a growing number of immigrants from Myanmar (both before and especially since the current Rohingya crisis). In many parts of the country there is religious harmony between Muslims and Hindus, although in other places there remain tensions.
7. A friendly hello It can be difficult to distinguish who is what religion to the un-trained eye – not all Muslim women cover their hair, some Hindu women do cover their hair… Why does it matter? The main greeting in Bangladesh is the Muslim “Asalaam Aleikum” however Hindus use the Bengali “Nomoshkar”. If you’re not sure, you can play it safe with “good morning” or “hello”!
8. Offers of hospitality the highlight of Bangladesh (for me at least) has to be its people. Expect to get lots of (usually friendly) attention, enquiries as to your family (ladies – if travelling with a man or solo – it’s best to say you are married) and offers of tea, dinner, lunch. Culturally, it’s important to Bangladeshis to be welcoming to guests so do not feel under pressure to accept dinner invitations unless they are repeated several times, although equally if you can spare a few minutes to have a cha (tea) with a new friend, it may make for one of your favourite memories.
Travel in Bangladesh: Practicalities.
9. Money. The currency in Bangladesh is the Bangladeshi Taka. Officially it’s not available outside of Bangladesh, however there are exchange shops in the Sudder Street area of Kolkata that will be able to give you Taka in exchange for your Rupees. If coming by bus from India, you can exchange money at the border, although beware of touts! If flying in, then get your Taka at the airport at am ATM or exchange counter. It’s easiest to change USD into Taka at exchange shops in Bangladesh. Not all ATM’s accept foreign cards, and there are reports of cards being frequently swallowed (eek) so check before pushing your card in the slot. I used Standard Chartered bank ATMs with my visa debit card and found that to work OK.
10. Language. Bangla (or Bengali) is the language of Bangladesh and is largely the same as the Bengali spoken in India. The major difference you will find is in levels of spoken English in Bangladesh: English is not widely spoken, especially outside of cities, and announcements on transport, at stations etc are not in English. Younger people (eg students) are more likely to speak English than the older generation. Numbers are written in Bangla script, which means checking coach numbers for trains, uber registration plates, and even prices can be a bit of a pain. If you can learn how the Bangla numbers look in advance you will be at an advantage!
11. Timings and weekends. Bangladesh is on GMT+6, making it 0.5 hours ahead of India. The weekend is either one or two days (depending on what job you do) – everyone has Friday (the muslim sabbath) off, and government, bank and (some) office workers also have Saturday off.
12. Political Demonstrations and Strikes. Given the unstable political situation in Bangladesh, avoid politics and any demonstrations. Hartals (strikes) are frequent, can cause transport chaos and demonstrations, the advice is also to steer well clear and say in your hotel if you encounter one (I did not during my time in Bangladesh).
Getting Around: Transport in Bangladesh.
13. All roads lead to….Dhaka. One of the more frustrating elements of travel around Bangladesh is that travelling between different regions of the country all too often means stopping back in Dhaka. It is possible to go by train directly from North West (eg Rangpur & Rajshahi divisions) to South West by train without going via Dhaka, similarly it is possible to travel from Sylhet (North East) to Chittagong (South East) directly by train. Buses connect the divisions to Dhaka, but not commonly to each other. So consider that some extra time to get familiar with Bangladesh’s bustling capital!
14. Take to the water. In Southern Bangladesh, it’s all about the water. Although, despite being famous for its waterways, Bangladesh’s waterways are actually shrinking. Due to lack of maintenance and dredging, Bangladesh’s rivers are silting up, resulting in fewer being usable for (large) shipping and ferries, and also causing an increased level of flooding. Today, Bangladesh has 4,800km of navigable waterways in the dry season and over 8,000 in rainy season. Ferries are common due to the shortage of bridges (rivers are very wide here!), and overnight ferries, called launches, ply the route south from Dhaka to cities in Khulna division and Barisal, which are good jumping off places to explore the famous Sundarbans.
One of the highlights of my trip to Bangladesh was my trip on the “Rocket” paddle steamer from Dhaka to Morrelganj – these 1920’s vessels that used to be the fastest ferries in Bangladesh are now a fabulous way to slow down and travel back in time. Whereas many launches (ferries) have questionable safety records and can be dangerously overloaded during holidays, the Rocket is well maintained.
15. Take the Train. Apart from experiencing slow travel on the Rocket, one of the best ways to travel in Bangladesh is to take the train. Trains are in general comfortable (providing you’re not copying some of the locals who climb up to the roof), although the railway network is old. Intercity trains are generally good, comfortable and reliable. Mail trains however are slow, nearly always (very) delayed and use very old and decaying rolling stock. I loved meeting locals on my train journeys and had a good experience travelling by train to Sylhet from Dhaka on the Parabat Express.
Check train times on the Bangladesh Railways website (available in English) but tickets need to be booked in person at the railway station you’ll be departing from – trains open for booking 5 days prior and sell out quickly! If your train is sold out, then ask around and you may be able to buy a ticket from a shop inside or adjoining the railway station for a little extra 😉 . If all attempts fail and you need to get on a certain train, your best bet is to just get on and negotiate with the ticket checker once aboard…
16. Brace yourself… for the Dhaka traffic. I’d heard stories about the Dhaka traffic, and thought “it can’t be that bad” – well it was. So prepare yourself. Two hours to cross town is nothing unusual. Because of this many buses are slow and uncomfortable as a way to travel. Dhaka is supposedly building a metro.. but completion is nowhere in sight.
17. Getting around Dhaka on Three Wheels. One of the most efficient ways to get around the Dhaka traffic is on three wheels – either in a (cycle) rickshaw or in an auto rickshaw (called a CNG). Cycle rickshaws are only available for short hops and are to be avoided at night – hang on to your belongings and the rickshaw for a bumpy ride! Uber was recommended to me as a great alternative, especially at night. Communicating with the driver without Bangla can be tricky, but I managed to get friendly English-speaking locals in Dhaka to help with that.
18. Keep a watchful eye on your things while travelling. Petty theft is an issue – particularly of mobile phones. Cycle rickshaws are an open target and are best avoided during darkness, and CNG’s have been targetted too. If you have a fancy phone, consider getting a cheap one for use in Bangladesh. On trains, kids are known to climb on to the rooftops of carriages and dangle each other down after darkness to try to snatch belongings through open windows (I actually witnessed this) so – make sure windows are closed. This is mostly petty theft and from what I saw and heard violent crime is far less of an issue than opportunistic snatching.
19. The Buses. Many buses run overnight which is the most dangerous time to travel given that highway safety is non existent. There are often bad collisions, the Dhaka – Chittagong highway is especially notorious. Roadside conveniences (aka toilets) are also very few and far between in Bangladesh (especially for ladies!) making bus travel a nightmare for the tiny-bladdered amongst us (me). I suggest taking the train if you can! On buses, women generally sit at the front of the bus (and the men behind).
Safe Female Travel in Bangladesh & Tips for Solo Female Travellers.
20. There’s no denying, Bangladesh is not the easiest destination for (solo) female travellers. That said, I was overwhelmed with the respect and lack of hassle I experienced as a female travelling alone to Bangladesh from most people.
21. Understand that different rules can apply for women. A fact of travel in Bangladesh is that for many people, culturally, there are different expectations and roles for women than for men. For instance, most Bangladeshi women do not travel (alone) after dark – so to stay safe, it’s advisable to follow their lead. There are often “family” areas in restaurants (sometimes curtained off) for women / couples / families to sit in – they’re actually a great way to get some peace and quiet, but as a tourist it’s fine if you sit in the main area as well.
Want more on solo female travel in Bangladesh? Read about my reality of travelling solo in Bangladesh here.
22. Dress conservatively to respect the local culture as well as to project yourself in the right way. The best clothing for women in Bangladesh (I found) is a salwar kameez, which is local style Indian / Bangladeshi tunic, loose trousers, and a scarf which can be draped across your chest or over your head. Not only are these made of cool (cotton) fabric, but they’re possibly the most comfortable thing ever to wear! Plus you can get as colourful as you like. If local dress is not your style, stick with baggy full length trousers, long tops that cover your behind, and a scarf to cover your chest / head. In general make sure your full legs are covered, arms down to elbows, and avoid any tight clothes and cleavage. Covering hair is optional but in my experience covering hair definitely earns respect and decreased male attention.
23. Plan and book ahead. Bangladesh is not the place for winging-it or for finding accommodation after arriving in the evening in a new place. It’s better to book accommodation and travel ahead so that you can plan for how to reach your destination safely. Agoda.com and Booking.com both have a decent range of hotels that you can book online. I found using these, and calling hotels directly to be the best way to book accommodation – all too often, emails went unanswered. It’s best to avoid very budget accommodation, which in any case often is “not suitable” for women.
24. Be prepared for different reactions if you are travelling alone. The overwhelming reception I received in Bangladesh was one of kindness, welcome and respect. Solo female travellers, are, however something of an unknown in Bangladesh, and many people wonder why on earth a woman would travel around the country alone. Expect lots of questions about what you are doing, what you think of Bangladesh, and your family status (if in doubt, say you are married 😉 ).
25. Get a local SIM card to stay connected. This can equally apply for all travellers, but especially for solo ladies it’s useful to be able to open up google maps or call someone in case you need help. I got a Grameenphone SIM card in Dhaka – you need to go to one of the Grameenphone stores together with your passport and a passport sized photograph. 10 minutes later I walked out smiling with a fully activated Bangladeshi number! (Indian bureaucracy please take note…)
26. Bangladesh is not a high-hassle country. Since the country is not used to many foreign tourists, you’ll experience little of the hassle here that is prevalent in some other parts of Asia. Some cab / CNG drivers may chance their luck and up the fare, but I found these to be the exeeption rather than the rule. On the male-attention front, stares are the most notable thing and these can be diverted to some extent by covering your hair and dressing to fit in. 99% of attention is general curiosity. During my trip I had one bum-fondle on a bus – I turned around and shouted at the guy and gave him a good hard stare. That seemed to do the trick. If you experience any hassle, making a scene is generally a good tactic to get help from others.
27. Bangladesh is not for everyone. While Bangladesh is beautiful and full of travel delights, It’s certainly not a country that I would recommend visiting alone without some experience of travel in other developing countries under your belt. Expect it to be a little rough-going from time and be prepared to forego your morning Latte for a few weeks.
Food and Drink while Travelling in Bangladesh.
28. It’s all about the fish! Bengalis are passionate about their fish, and no less so in Bangladesh than in West Bengal on the other side of the border. Bangladesh is great for non-veg eaters: the staples are Biryani (chicken and egg – best eaten with hands!), fish curries, and for breakfast expect to enjoy your yummy Bengali paratha with egg and subji (vegetables). For vegetarians (such as me) it’s a little trickier- if you eat eggs then that helps. My staples became dal boona (thicker yellow dal – the standard Bangladeshi dal I found to be very watery), veggies, and of course.. lots of rice. Along with more than a few eggs thrown in by locals concerned by my lack of meat intake!
29. Tap water is not safe to drink and unfortunately, filtered water (UV or RO) is much less available in Bangladesh than it is in neighbouring India. I travel with a refillable water bottle so that I can avoid buying plastic bottles of water (there’s more than enough plastic floating in Bangladesh’s rivers already), but finding filtered water to refill it with on this trip was a little more challenging. On several occasions I resorted to asking for hot water (boiled water – so that I knew it was safe to drink). I also carried my Steripen UV water filter with me and used that to purify regular tap water in my bottle. I love and highly recommend the steripen having used it on several trips now.
Why Travel to Bangladesh?
30. The best for last: Why go to Bangladesh?? We read about over tourism and mass tourism on an almost weekly basis now. We see all too easily that tourism doesn’t always have positive consequences, particularly in places that become swamped with visitors. So why not take a country like Bangladesh that is little visited, and often perceived negatively by the outside world and give it go? It’s arguably places like Bangladesh that can benefit most from (the right kind of) tourism: bringing more connection and understanding from the outside world, and bringing economic benefits to communities that see little. So, why not give it a go?
Have you been or would you consider travel to Bangladesh? What else would you add to these Bangladesh travel tips or would you want to know? Let me know in the comments section below!
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