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.
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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A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.