I had great expectations for my solo trip to Bangladesh.
It started with wanting to explore a country which relatively few foreign tourists make it to. Bangladesh – let’s face it – has yet to make it to Lonely Planet’s top 10 bucket list, and is rarely in the news for positive stories.
Most of us (myself included) know mostly about Bangladesh through stories of natural disasters. Perhaps here, was an opportunity for tourism to really do some good.
As a frequent visitor to India, I had always been intrigued by what secrets neighbouring Bangladesh (once a part of India) held. I decided the best way would be to find out in person, so I started to make plans to visit.
A week prior to departure, pre-travel panic set in. Worsened by concerned comments and suggestions from loved ones questioning my decision to go to Bangladesh as a solo female traveller. I started to question if I really was crazy. But then I imagined all of the beautiful places that were waiting and returning to write about my adventures and “succeeding” in Bangladesh as a solo female traveller.
I’d love to sit here writing “well, I did it!”. But I didn’t. This is not the story I expected to be writing.
What Happened to me as a Solo Female Traveller in Bangladesh.
I arrived in Dhaka, the pulsing heart of Bangladesh with only the beginning of my trip planned. I’d be joining a trip in Bangladesh by boat with Bangladesh Expeditions to the world-famous Sundarbans (the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to the illusive Bengal tiger) for a few days. After that I had a few options but no set arrangements.
Travelling back to Dhaka after my time in the Sundarbans, I felt exhausted. It had been a long day of travel by many different modes of transport and so I was grateful to be able to relax at an upscale hotel. Walking into the Dhaka Regency hotel, it felt like I’d been welcomed as family immediately.
Over drinks on their rooftop terrace, I mentioned I’d been thinking of visiting Srimangal and Sylhet (the country’s tea region) by train in the next few days. I woke up the next morning not only to find that my train tickets had been booked for me, but that the hotel were sending one of their receptionists to accompany me, whose native home and family were in Srimangal. Being a) used to solo travel and making my own travel plans and b) just a little bit stubborn; I protested. I said that it was too much, that I’d be just fine on my own. But my objections fell on deaf ears – I was told that the regular solo female travel safety tips would not be enough and it was better I travel with someone (a man).
And so I explored Srimangal and Sylhet in the company of kind and fun Jubayer, who had worked before as a tour guide for the region of Srimangal, now working at the Dhaka Regency whom the hotel had sent along as my “chaperone”. Over the days a pattern emerged: meeting his family and friends, receiving countless invitations to lunch and dinner by strangers we met along the way as we travelled around. I saw some of the most beautiful tea gardens and parts of Sylhet district thanks to his knowledge. We shared jokes over endless coconuts and photo opportunities and I came to understand a little more about Bangladeshi culture.
Having Jubayer show me around as a local was the ultimate luxury, but also was just one example of the kindness that I experienced in Bangladesh.
That kindness was continued on my return to Dhaka as I explored the city for my last couple of days: time that I was also expecting to spend alone but instead myself invited to travel industry events, invited to more dinners by people I’d met on my travels, and generally not allowed to go anywhere alone.
Reflections on my time in Bangladesh.
After my time in Bangladesh was over, I couldn’t help but look back on my time there and feel two strong emotions. One was how surprised and overwhelmed I had been by the friendliness and hospitality of people there. But the other was that I had failed in my mission to travel in Bangladesh as a solo female traveller.
Sure, I took the odd train journey and taxi ride alone, but there was not a day of my trip where people were not there to help or guide me. I was not able to get a true barometer for how it would be to travel completely solo in Bangladesh to share with other women who would be interested in doing the same. It has taken me some time to move past that sense of “failing” at solo female travel and to move into a place of acceptance.
What I’ve come to realise – apart from being immensely grateful for all the hospitality I received – is that sometimes, we can’t “do it all”. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to gratefully accept the help that we are given and trust that there is a reason for it.
I didn’t get my stories of what it’s like to be truly travelling alone in Bangladesh, but I did get to enjoy a safe experience and have the pleasure of making many new friendships.
What Hides Beneath.
Beyond the generosity of my hosts and the kindness of all those that I met and offered me help, one has to ask: is it unsafe for a woman to be travelling solo in Bangladesh? Is that why people were so determined that I should not travel alone? What did I need “protecting” from?
Seeing as I did not experience solo travel in its truest sense, my answers to these questions are informed guesses, based on what I saw and heard. Clearly as a developing country with an exploding population of 140 million, Bangladesh is not without its troubles.
My impression was that women in many parts of Bangladesh are pretty free – there’s no “hiding away”, mandatory covering of hair, and many Bangladeshi women are well educated: in the major cities and towns at least. Even after dark, plenty of ladies were visible moving around in Dhaka. But when one starts to talk about travel – especially solo travel – the story changes.
I spoke to some strong, independent minded ladies who had travelled solo, but the notable thing was that they had travelled solo to places in South East Asia and Europe, they had not travelled solo in Bangladesh. Why? To a large extent, that seems to be because solo female travel is just not accepted as a concept in Bangladesh. People tend to assume that a woman travelling alone is a problem – one that needs protecting, or is inviting (the wrong kind of) company.
Opportunities for women in Bangladesh to discover their own country, alone, are pretty much non existent.
Just as persistent as some of the stares and friendly hellos a solo (foreign) female traveller gets in Bangladesh, are the strategies to protect her.
This desire to protect (undoubtedly in my case) stems from a place of kindness, but is it hiding a larger issue? The problem is that as long as women are not allowed or trusted to travel freely in their own country, how are attitudes towards (solo) female travellers going to improve? After all, if travel can help to build trust, expand the mind, and challenge stereotypes, it’s my belief that we need a lot more of that everywhere.
Based on my experiences, would I return to Bangladesh? Yes! I’m so grateful for the connections I have made and look forward to returning, to revisit some of my favourite places, and to see parts of the country that I missed. I would set aside some days for travelling with others, but also stay adamant that some days would be for travelling alone.
Are you interested in travelling to Bangladesh? Check out my post on Bangladesh Travel: 30 things you need to know.
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29 thoughts on “The Reality of Solo Female Travel in Bangladesh.”
Beautiful, Ellie..! I myself was wondering about the same issue when you first mentioned the locals were overly kind and protective. I also wonder how they would react to 2 foreign female travellers travelling together. Did you meet any other travellers? Men, couples?
Btw. I admire you that you went for it! I think I wouldn’t be able to get past the scares of friends and relatives.
Thanks Veronika! Yes I met some other travellers – for men they didn’t experience this and the same for couples. For two female travellers (I didn’t meet any) I can imagine that similar protectiveness would apply. Thanks for your kind words – I’m happy I made the trip there, Bangladesh is a beautiful place :-). Hopefully it will feature on the lists of more travellers in the future, which will also help with this issue.
Fascinating read! An interesting twist to the concept of solo travel in Bangladesh; I’m glad you related your experience as honestly as it can be done. I must say I’ve never thought of going there on my own ever. It was great that you met such hospitable and warm locals!
Thanks Kristine! Definitely; the local people were the highlight of my trip there. I hope that general public opinion of Bangladesh will start to improve soon, too.
Hi Ellie, a pleasure to see you in Bangladesh! I believe you should return to Bangladesh. Yes, traveling alone is still not much common yet. But surely there is a lot to explore and you’ll not be disappointed. BTW I’m from Bangladesh only, and will love to meet you 🙂
Hi Nafisa, thank you, I’d love to return! And especially now I have made some wonderful friends there too – would love to meet. 🙂
Beautiful post, love reading it and enjoyed all the photos. This is a country not high on most of the traveler, yet you ventured there, that’s admirable. Your story is a reminder that travel is all about connections. I love your attire, wearing clothes like locals not only reflects our respect for their culture it also opens their hearts easily. Love it!
thanks for the kind words! Bangladeshi clothes are beautiful so it was a pleasure to wear them. I hope more travellers get to see the beauty of Bangladesh in the future.
Wow. This is one of the best blog posts I’ve read on Solo Female Travel in such a long time! Not only did you talk about your experience but you questioned why you were given such hospitality and if it stems from a good or bad place. I honestly can’t love this enough.
Thanks April I appreciate it!
Hi Ellie, I believe you should return to Bangladesh. Yes, traveling alone is still not much common yet. But surely there is a lot to explore here and you’ll not be disappointed. BTW I’m from Bangladesh only and would love to meet during your next trip here 🙂
Thank you Nafisa, will let you know for sure 🙂
Even if you did not get to travel completely alone like you wanted, you got to see and experience much more of the local culture this way! You have plenty of other opportunities to travel solo in other countries, so take this amazing trip as the best opportunity you had to learn from the locals themselves. 🙂 What is that you enjoyed the most in Bangladesh? I’ve lived in India before and I go there every year, would you recommend me taking a few days to detour to Bangladesh and see it? Thank you Ellie!
Hi Raquel, thanks for your kind words! yes would definitely recommend taking some time to detour to Bangladesh- it’s very accessible from Kolkata (I took the train). I hope you make it there soon!
This was one of my favorite posts (maybe because my parents are from Bangladesh and I’m biased!). I love how you gave this tiny country a chance and I wish more people would visit as tourism would greatly help the economy. My mom is okay with me traveling around the world but she won’t let me travel within Bangladesh solo as it’s not the norm for women to travel alone. I’m glad you are breaking barriers and letting the world and Bangladeshis that it can be done. Can’t wait to read about your next adventure.
Hi Tahiya, thanks for your kind words, and yes that’s exactly why I went. I feel Bangladesh deserves much more (of the right kind of) tourism. It’s interesting about travelling solo elsewhere but not in Bangladesh – would love to hear more on your views on solo female travel in Bangladesh for Bangladeshi ladies themselves. Happy travels to you too!
Thanks For your true thoughts and long writing. I am in Bangladesh, I am a doctor. Bangladeshis feel proud to help others. Solo Female travel for foreigners are being safer day by day. Local police and administration took satisfactory steps to prevent bad occurings.
Hi Ellie, I’m glad you enjoyed Bangladesh even if you were not able to be very independent. In my month of travelling there in late 2013, the only concern I experienced was that people were worried I would get caught up in the firebombing of local transport (pre-election time). I guess being older may have made a difference, but no-one queried that I was on my own and had no travel plans. They saw it as a great opportunity to take me around and show me lots of things. The only other difficulty I had was the language barrier. I sometimes needed to find people with enough English to explain which dishes were vegetarian and which were not, and I love to talk about local politics. I found lots of people who wanted to discuss things with me but we were quite limited as to the depth of our conversation, which was frustrating for each of us. I met single girls travelling on the Rocket (returning home from studies in Dhaka) and found that life in Bangladesh was relatively free for females as they are often working in market places, hospitals, schools, etc. One other thing that I found very sweet was that the manager of my budget hotel in Old Dhaka insisted on putting me in a back room which he considered safer than others, and the staff seemed to keep an eye on my comings and goings so it was rather like being chaperoned. In general I found Bangladeshis to be very relaxed and open, though since late 2013 there has been a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement which may make a difference to solo female travellers.
Hi Sandy, thanks for sharing your experience of Bangladesh too, that’s really interesting to hear! It sounds like you had an eventful time in 2013 with the elections at least, and I completely agree, I also underestimated the language barrier. That makes things harder. It sounds like you truly experienced the best of hospitality in Bangladesh though and made some memories to be treasured! I identify with the chaperoning part :-). All the best,
One of my plans is to travel solo but I am having a bout of jitters just by thinking about it. 🙂 Guess that’s the fun part! I feel as though I will meet travelers along the way and I might even make a new friend or two. The possibilities are endless!
Hi Emily! I hope you have a wonderful time in Bangladesh, is that where you’ll be heading?
I might consider it. 🙂
Hi Ellie, what you wrote in ‘What Hides Beneath’ section in the article is absolutely spot on.
Hi Ellie, Great content and pictures it makes me want to visit Bangladesh on my next travel. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Meika, happy to hear that!
It’s great how you portrayed Bangladesh and it’s culture through your writings. I loved all your writing on your solo tour to Bangladesh. I have been planning for a solo tour since long ago. But as you know the culture in Bangladesh doesn’t necessarily approve a girl traveling alone, still, I am planning to be the change and soon I am about to step out, go alone, and explore my country. I am even more inspired after reading your articles. Hope I get to explore them like you already did.
Having just read this in preparation for my own upcoming trip, I have to say that you certainly DIDN”T fail at being a solo female traveler. I think what you experienced illustrates EXACTLY what it is like to be alone in many countries. In nearly every place I have visited, I have been met with so much kindness that it is hard to even comprehend. I have been welcomed into homes, chaperoned, given food when I didn’t have any and have almost always had people ready and willing to help me. This is the side to solo female travel that I wish more people could experience 🙂
I can totally relate to what you wrote! I’m currently in Pakistan with my Pakistani boyfriend and I’m in no way allowed to even set the foot outside of the house alone. I’m also used to solo traveling everywhere and especially if the alternative is sitting inside a room for days in a row, I’d much prefer exploring the streets on my own, but there’s absolutely no way I’m allowed to. Contrary to what you wrote about Bangladeshi girls, I also don’t see any girls in the streets alone, in fact, I rarely see any girls outside at all. Even in families as liberal as my boyfriend’s girls are accompanied all the way to work by their fathers to make sure they don’t get harassed. It can honestly get very suffocating here but overall, I still love being in Pakistan and experiencing the local hospitality inside the house.