Bangladesh’s Sour Aftertaste

Bangladesh’s Sour Aftertaste

I may have spoken too song in singing the praises of Bangladesh. Or maybe it’s because I’m a stupid tourist.

…but in my defense, nobody mentioned this in the guidebooks:

I learned the hard way today that when you arrive in Bangladesh and take money out of an ATM, it’s pretty much impossible to exchange that money back into US Dollars, Euros, or any other form of foreign currency at the airport when you leave the country. This is because the exchange counters in the airport (and there’s quite a few of them) won’t accept Bangladesh Takas without a receipt that shows you exchanged foreign currency when you first arrived into Bangladesh. The ATM receipt does not suffice as an alternative; they specifically need a receipt from an exchange counter.

So because I never exchange US Dollars at foreign exchange counters (partly because I’m saving all my US Dollars for ATM-less, dollar-hungry Myanmar) and since I prefer my ATM overseas exchange rates, I did not have such a receipt. But I did have a crapload of Bangladesh Takas that would have been rendered useless overseas (find me any exchange counter in a foreign country that’s even heard of Bangladeshi Takas…).

So what did I do to prevent $150 USD of Takas from becoming potential Monopoly play money? I apparently broke a few rules by performing a shady backdoor exchange at one of the duty-free shops for a $10 USD commission. It was so shady that the staff made me go around the counter, made me talk in whispers, and would reply with “thank me for what?” when I, well, thanked them for letting me exchange my Takas for US Dollars.  So if you ever find yourself stuck in my situation, walk over to a duty-free shop, flash your fat wad of unused Takas, and if they whisper “secret secret. shhh!” then you know those precious Takas won’t go to waste.

Therefore, when arriving into Bangladesh:

  • To minimize headaches, skip the ATMs, exchange your cash for Takas, and SAVE THE RECEIPT. That way you can easily exchange it back to your preferred foreign currency when you leave.
  • If you choose to take Bangladeshi Takas out of an ATM, or if you have lost your receipt, either:
  1. Spend all of the Takas before leaving
  2. Exchange all of the Takas at a bank outside the airport
  3. Exchange all of the Takas at a duty-free shop in the airport and get a silly rush for giving the finger to the man.

 

- At time of posting in Bangkok, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: very cloudy

 

Bangladesh’s Sour Aftertaste

“Where You Come from?” “USA” “No, Where You *Really* From?”

During the last 3 days in Bangladesh, I’ve come to develop a fondness for its brutal honesty. Given its complete lack of exposure to tourists and foreigners, rickshaw drivers and touts charge surprisingly such low fares that there’s very little need to haggle. Furthermore, the prices of everything in Bangladesh is so low, sometimes you’d want to give them even more than what the locals ask.

That said, poverty is unfortunately just as rampant as anywhere else in South Asia (it’s probably even worse here), but interestingly, street beggars here would rather come up to take a good look at what a foreigner looks like instead of asking you for money. There has been more than a handful of times where street kids with outstretched hands have stopped what they’re doing in order to get a good look at us. They become so completely befuddled they still stand there looking confused, even as we walk away.

 

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One thing I particularly like about the Bengali people is that they actually accept me as an American. Too many times while traveling through the Middle East and all of South Asia, I’ve been asked

“Where do you come from?”

It doesn’t matter if I tell them “America” or “U.S.A.” or “United States” or “Canada” or “Australia” or “Assam” or “Nepal” or “Pakistan” or any other country, nobody is satisfied until they hear either “China” or “Japan” or ”Korea.” So when I say “I’m from the U.S.” I’ve  gotten responses as nutty as:

“I don’t believe it!” (Nepal)

“You don’t look American.” (a western educated chap in Amman, Jordan)

“Not possible!” (many places, India)

“Shut up you motherf—. Stop BSing me. Tell me where you’re really from.” (a belligerent clubgoer in Beirut, Lebanon)

“Ching chong.” (a belligerent Western educated drunkard in Mumbai, India)

…and don’t worry, all responses have been met with the appropriately informative explanations (“I was born in America, but my parents are from China.”)/quick comebacks (“Well I don’t think you look Indian. What country are you really from?”)/indignation/my fisticuffs.

Since the idea of a heterogeneous population is still a relatively new concept being introduced to the rest of the world, this was to be expected. Moreover, I’ve dealt with this sort of “where are you really from” questions back home in the United States (which has no excuse; you would never ask a Black man or woman in the U.S. what country in Africa he’s or she’s from!). So it was so refreshing to hear Bengalis not press any further when I answered that I come from “America.” I mean, out of a hundred times I’ve been asked “what country?” in the last 3 days, not a single person has questioned my answer, “America.”

So thank you, Bangladesh, for being the first country to grant me the freedom to identify myself as an American citizen. You’re already more forward thinking that even many of my fellow Americans!

 

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To sum it up, those of you who want to travel to a destination in South Asia where you can be the only foreigner, be respected as a foreigner, pay local prices without a fuss, and put up with a frenetic honest energy that has yet to see the creature comforts of the Western world, Bangladesh is the last bastion of South Asia at its most raw. Don’t miss it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Today also marks the conclusion of my extensive journey through South Asia (Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh all in the last 30 days!), and the beginning of what I call the “Triple Threat Territories”: Myanmar/Burma, China, and North Korea. Here goes nothing!

 

- At time of posting in Dhaka, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Remnants Of A Ghost Town: Panam Nagar

Remnants Of A Ghost Town: Panam Nagar

Alex left for Chittagong today while I stayed behind in Dhaka. While it’s only for 2 days, it’s fun to travel alone again!

In my brusque research of things to do around Dhaka, I’ve heard reports of a nearby abandoned ghost town called Panam Nagar in Sonargaon, which is 29km south of Dhaka. So I decided to take a day trip there.

Just having come back, I think I spent more time in transport than I did in Sonargaon. It took about an hour to reach the Sayedabad bus station by rickshaw, and then another 40min to reach the dusty town of Mograpara (telling them Sonargaon will only confuse them in taking you to a hotel named Sonargaon; Mograpara is the name of the village next to Sonargaon where you can conveniently start your exploring).

In getting to Mograpara, if you want a nice bus with ample leg space and reclining seats, pay 100 takas. If you want the local bus and save money (but not comfort), pay 20 takas.

 

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A pretty belligerent fight (I have no idea what it was about) in front of my bus to Mograpara.

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Mograpara.

Once at Mograpara, an army of rickshaw wallahs will scream “Sonargaon! Sonargaon” at you as if they’ve read your mind (or rather, it’s understood that Mograpara has nothing to satisfy a foreigner’s interest other than a trip to Sonargaon’s ghost town). Haggle it down to 200-300 takas for a little trip around Sonargaon, and they’ll take care of the rest. You don’t even have to tell them the names of the sights you want to see; they already know where to take you without saying a word.

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Sardarbari (Lok Shilpa Jadughar) Museum; unfortunately it was closed when I was there.

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Laundry by the Sadarbari

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I was eventually dropped off at the very eerie Panam Nagar, which is really, truly a ghost town.

A brief history lesson: As early as the 14th century, Sonargaon was the ancient capital of Bangladesh, or more accurately, it was the capital of Isa Khan’s Bengali empire. Panam Nagar eventually became a resort town for rich Hindu merchants, who built an extensive neighborhood of beautifully ornate buildings, grand ballrooms and columned facades. Then in 1965, the onset of the Indo-Pakistani war and the riots between the Hindus and Muslims compelled many of the inhabitants to vacate Panam Nagar. Only their servants were left behind to take care of the town, which instead has been reduced to a crumbling, vacant set of modern-day ruins.

 

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It really shouldn’t take you longer than 15 minutes to see all of Panam Nagar as it’s pretty small. And you’ll find that a lot of the buildings are in such a state of utter disrepair that you wouldn’t want to enter some of them (if they’re even accessible) anyway. Some are even still inhabited by a few families, who were too shy to come outside when I was there.

Currently, Panam Nagar and the rest of Sonargaon has been put on the “100 Most Endangered Sites in this planet” list by the World Monuments Fund. So if you ever had a curiosity to check out a ghost town on its way to total collapse, don’t wait too long.

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Returning to Mograpara

In returning to Dhaka, your rickshaw driver will take you back where you were dropped off. Once you’re there, simply yell “DHAKA! DHAKA!” You will be automatically directed to your choice of buses, don’t worry; one leaves pretty much every 30 seconds.

 

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The local bus back to Dhaka

Not surprisingly, the rickshaw ride back from Sayedabhad bus station back to the Banani district of Dhaka took another hour being stuck in traffic. The most interesting part of the ride was catching a glimpse of a major political demonstration:

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And with that, I’m now resting up before my flight to Myanmar. I’m going to miss you Bangladesh.

 

- At time of posting in Dhaka, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Bangladesh’s Sour Aftertaste

Dhaka Down Under

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Headed south today to check out the heart of what makes Bangladesh tick: Old Dhaka.

Before I begin, I befriended a fellow Australian traveler named Alex at my hostel. We shared a lot of similarities in our style of traveling save for the fact Alex spends a longer time in each country than I do. Otherwise it’s been fun hanging out with him for the past 2 days as we’ve been exchanging a good number of travel advice and stories. Alex is also the first Y chromosome (i.e. A guy, male, dude, mate, whatever you call it) I’ve traveled solo with on this trip, no kidding. I’ll say it again: my male friends need to step it up!

Anyways, in getting to Old Dhaka from our place in Banani we took an auto-rickshaw (they call them ‘baby taxis’ in Bangladesh, which I find oddly cute). And unlike India’s or Sri Lanka’s autos, these rickshaws are like police cars, armed to the teeth with a lockable metal cage all around. I’m not sure if it’s for protection against wild traffic accidents, thieves, or both.

 

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Imagine spending an hour in traffic in one of these things. That's how long it took us to get to Old Dhaka.

 

Once reaching Old Dhaka we headed to the boat terminal of Sadarghat, where we witnessed the bustling life along the Buriganga River. Its unrestrained, brutally raw atmosphere reminded me a lot of the Ganges River in Varanasi, but without the spirituality. So if you want to know what it looks like to survive on very little means while working brutally hard for mere fractions of a US Dollar, come and see what goes on at the Buriganga River.

 

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And of course, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in one of these frightfully capsizeable rowboats. They literally play chicken with the multistory steamships, which have no qualms ramming into us like ants.

 

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For a mere 10 takas, we rode a boat over to the other side of the Buriganga River, where we disembarked and interacted with the awestruck locals. They acted as if they never seen a foreigner before. It wasn’t like India or Sri Lanka where we were met with glee or excitement; it was simple, bare, unrestrained, utter shock: “What are you doing here and why do you look so different?”

 

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A lotus flower of boats.

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Bewilderment.

 

Trying to avoid our unintentional celebrity treatment, we wandered about a bit some more to catch glimpses of dirty streets and a ramshackle old building complex that seemed to be a large shopping mall a long time ago. Now it just looks like a dilapidated concrete husk filled with squatters and what seems to be passing semblances of struggling local businesses.

 

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Then we took a boat back to Old Dhaka.

 

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We then asked around for Hindu Street, which according to many people is Dhaka’s most photogenic stretch of humanity. We found it pretty quickly, although with the help of a very friendly local.

Imagine it to be like the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu, but a tad wider.

 

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Hindu St.

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We also visited nearby Ahsan Manjil, (the Pink Palace), which has a museum I didn’t find very interesting…most likely because the power went down when we entered, so we did the whole thing in the dark. Oh well, whatcha gonna do?

 

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Prayer at the Pink Palace.

 

And we did more walking.

 

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Literal human traffic jam. No joke.

 

It was at this point, during the human traffic jam (the kind where not even us human beings can move around each other), Alex and I lost each other.

That’s just to give you an idea how much an assault on the senses Old Dhaka is. If you’ve been to Nepal or India before (particularly Kathmandu, Delhi or Kolkata), then Dhaka is either the same or a level higher in terms of frenetic street life. If Dhaka is to be your first taste of South Asia…good luck with handling the majorly steep learning curve.

So when I looked back to find Alex and realized he was gone, I backtracked for about 5 minutes but couldn’t find him. I then walked back to where I was and waited another 10 minutes. No sign. Finally, I kept walking ahead to a major intersection and waited another 15 minutes. At that point, I decided I was on my own.

So I kept walking.

 

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By the way, if you ever wanted to know what happens when a bus takes on a rickshaw, here you go:

 

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Death of a rickshaw.

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During the slow crushing of his vehicle, the rickshaw driver ran off and left his passengers behind without looking back.

 

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Tin Netar Majar: Mausoleum of Three Leaders

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After walking for 30 minutes and taking a 10 minute rickshaw ride around town, I got off at Lal Bagh Fort: a relative oasis of calm from the rest of Old Dhaka.

 

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And then as fate would have it, Alex and I ran into each other. We both had figured Lal Bagh Fort would be a proper spot to run into any foreign tourist in Bangladesh, especially when it seems like we’ve been the only ones (quite simply, in the last 2 days we haven’t seen another tourist in Dhaka; it’s just been us).

So once reunited, we explored the fort a bit more, walked around nearby Dhaka University, had a quick dinner, and then called it a day.

 

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Lal Bagh Fort just got served.

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We found this human-powered "thrill ride," in the park next to Dhaka University.

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The University of Dhaka just got served.

  

It’s worth mentioning that the autorickshaw ride back to our hostel in Banani took about a good 90 minutes, 45 of it was being stuck in traffic. You have been warned.

And on an unrelated note, during one of my many meditations while walking around Old Dhaka and waiting in traffic, I developed an algorithm on Bangladesh for those curious tourists/travelers who have only India to compare it to:

Dhaka = [(Kolkata + More Bengali Nationalism) + (More Islam + Less Hinduism) + More Traffic Jams (Reliance/TATA/Airtel advertisements + Tourists)] x 3

 

- At time of posting in Dhaka, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 71% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Damn Beautiful Dhaka

Damn Beautiful Dhaka

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This sign saves lives.

 

The standard reply when you tell someone you’re traveling to India:

“W..wow!”

 

The standard reply when you tell someone you’re traveling to Bangladesh:

“W..why?”

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what exactly brought me here. I didn’t get a guidebook beforehand and this was never on the original itinerary; I did post on Facebook a few days earlier in which Bangladesh eked out a slightly winning margin over staying longer in Sri Lanka. Maybe that’s it.

But don’t get me wrong, I always have wanted to come to Bangladesh, but there’s a widespread agreement among my friends (even the Bengali ones) that there’s really nothing to do or see in Dhaka; it’s just “a place to be” (but isn’t that the real point to traveling?).

 

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The other tough thing to swallow is that it costs a lot of money to get to Bangladesh. Due to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government, the Bangladeshi 7-day tourist entry visa for Americans costs a whopping $150 USD (it’s free in Sri Lanka, UAE, and Lebanon, and around $25 for Nepal, Jordan and Turkey). Furthermore, there are no cheap flights that fly in or out of Dhaka. Therefore, it took a lot of willpower in taking the plunge. But knowing myself, I had figured I would most likely be happier coming here instead of admitting that I skipped out on the opportunity.

 

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Dhaka has 600,000+ rickshaws, the most in the world.

 

However, my first few hours in Dhaka was frightfully identical to my first few hours in Jakarta: Gridlocked traffic. The kind of traffic where a supposedly 15-minute drive turns into pulling out your netbook and writing a blog entry about how this 15 minute drive isn’t going to be a 15 minute drive. I was stuck for about an hour in bumper to bumper carmageddon and I had been struck with fear that most of my time in Dhaka would be in a parked car.

 

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I eventually arrived at Sabrina’s Home, which has been the #1 reviewed hostel on both tripadvisor and hostelworld (which I’ve never seen before in my travels). It’s immensely popular among backpackers all over the globe and it’s run by a very friendly Chinese couple…which brings me to the best part: I finally get to practice my Mandarin Chinese, which has patiently remained dormant underneath all my failed attempts in learning and speaking Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil the last 5 weeks.

After settling in, me and 2 other travelers I met at Sabrina’s did a little circuit around Dhaka. Even though today was pretty casual, the great thing about Dhaka is that it’s very photogenic. And if I could make put this comparison bluntly: Dhaka feels like an honest version of Delhi. Or rather, Kolkata at its most raw.

But like anywhere else in the world, and in particularly most similar to neighboring Kolkata, it has its share of widespread street poverty.

 

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During our little walk, we whimsically decided to explore this random amusement park along Gulshan Rd. Suffice to say, for 100 takas (around $1.50 USD), we gained admission instead to a post-apocalyptic version of an amusement park…I don’t even know why they bothered to leave it open with all the rampant dilapidation going on.

 

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I'm not in a working train car or anything, I literally walked into their "tunnel of love" along their train tracks and nobody stopped me. Na na na!

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The Dhaka fitness regimen.

 

Afterwards, we walked towards Banani Lake and asked for a nice little boat ride. They were a bit taken aback when we asked, since it’s not something foreigners really do on Banani Lake.

 

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Uhmm, what are you doing here?

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We chat about what unifies all cultures in South Asia: cricket.

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Curiosity.

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Water pipes to the houses along the lake.

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After disembarking, we made a loop around back along Airport Rd., taking in all the street life. It reminded me a lot of walking I did in Kolkata: vibrant, colorful, and so full of character. I think this is what I missed from Sri Lanka among the cleaned up, modernized streets of Colombo.

 

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This is only the beginning; we haven’t even made our trek down to Old Dhaka yet, which is apparently where all the real action happens (that’ll be a whole day thing tomorrow). Until then, I think by reviewing all my photos, I made the right decision coming here. That much I can say.

 

- At time of posting in Dhaka, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: cloudy