M&M trot the globe

Posts tagged “Bangladesh

Our top picks for Asia (purely subjective)

Vietnam:

Getting suits tailored in Hoi An, Vietnam. Martin had been looking forward to this experience for a very long time; the service at Yali tailors did not disappoint.

Thailand / Bangkok:

Making full use of the butler service in our double suite at the Sheraton Grand in Bangkok.

North India:

Visiting the Taj Mahal in all her stunning beauty.

South India:

Getting lost among the ruins of Hampi – a totally unexpected gem in India which took our breath way.

Cambodia:

WALKING Angkor. The experience of walking the main circuit and exploring temples in a totally different order from the crowds really made our visit.

Myanmar:

Visiting Shwedagon at sunrise. Watching monks pray, locals make offerings and families gather between the Buddha statues at dawn was truly magical.


Laos:

Seeing monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang in the cool dawn light.

Bangladesh:

Drinking tea at the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute.

Sri Lanka:

Fun in the sun on the idyllic beach in Tangalle.

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Good Samaritans

Looking back on the three months we spent on the continent of Asia, we realised that there were several people who went the extra mile to make our trip special. While it is impossible to mention all of them here, a few modern day ‘Samaritans’ will remain in our memories for years to come. We wanted to share some of these experiences with our readers as a reminder that the one of the greatest surprises when travelling is the kindness of strangers.

Joenga Lee


We met Jeonga Lee, a Korean Architect volunteering at the local university, while she was buying a live chicken for dinner at the market in Rajshahi (little did we know that 24 hours later we would be tucking into the very same bird with her!). So rare are foreign visitors in that part of Bangladesh that although she had not used English in years, she generously invited us to dinner at her house the next evening. She patiently bore with our almost non-existent Korean, making a commendable effort to regale us with tales of the challenges of life in Bangladesh e.g. motivating unmotivated university students; tips on making an apartment less attractive to rats and her firm conviction that spending half a month’s salary on having a Western style toilet installed (to replace the two bricks either side of a hole in the concrete floor) was worth every Taka! Eating a homemade Korean meal including kimchi, bap (rice) and kim (seaweed) with her and a colleague was pure heaven!

The Nameless Driver at the Thai-Lao Border

Our first ‘Samaritan’ in Asia was the man at the Thai-Lao border, who was minding his own business when we knocked on the window of his van in the mistaken belief that he operated some sort of taxi service to the capital, Vientiane. After agreeing to take us all the way from the boarder, we were shocked to find that he absolutely refused payment for the lift. It was only at this point that we realised that this ordinary man had simply taken pity on two foreigners arriving in Laos late at night in the rain.

Deborah of Kayia House in Varkala, India


After a day on buses from central Sri Lanka to the capital and a night spent at Colombo airport, we flew to Trivandrum in India and took a train for 2.5 hours, followed by two rickshaws… and we still hadn’t found what we were looking for in Varkarla! Frustrated and on the verge of losing it with each other, we passed a building on the main road advertising rooms. When we enquired whether there were any vacant, Deborah the American co-owner told us that she was full. One look at our faces (and perhaps a whiff of our unwashed bodies), was enough to convince her to give up her own room for us. Thus began a wonderful 48 hour stay in the ‘African Room’ at Kayia House. Homemade Indian breakfasts, a free personal tour of the town conducted by Deborah herself, use of the library and lounge, Internet access a non-stop supply of tea and coffee and free filtered water made it very difficult to leave this home away from home.

The People of Bangladesh


Throughout our two weeks in Bangladesh we were helped by a changing cast of passers-by, shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, bus and train passengers. From Ahmed the jovial Immigration Officer at the airport who taught us our first words in Bengali, to the NGO worker who played interpreter during negotiations with a rickshaw driver in Pirojpur, we experienced nothing but the most genuine of welcomes everywhere we went. Time and time, again bearded Muslim men who fit the dangerous stereotype of ‘Fundamentalists’ so senselessly promoted in Western culture, came up to us to shake our hands and welcome us proudly to their country. It was with a sense of shame that we realised that men and women dressed in shalwar kameez, hijabs, abayas and niqabs would not receive the same open hearted welcome in many parts of Europe.


Our route in Bangladesh


Frugal Bangladesh – Travel in the cheapest country in Asia

Where do rooms cost as little as $2.5 a night (without cockroaches)?

Where is it possible to have a decent breakfast for two for $1.5?

Where can you travel in a 1st Class cabin on a 12 hour paddle boat trip?

The answer to all the above is: In Bangladesh!

If you are looking for a holiday destination that really offers value for money, then Bangladesh definitely fits the bill.

Bangladesh was No.1 on the Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Best Value Destinations for 2011 (click here for more) list and we can see why.

Transportation


In service since 1929, the Rocket is a quintessentially Bangladeshi experience. For under $35 dollars we were able to book passage in a 1st class cabin for two adults, eat a mean fish ‘n chips on deck with the well heeled locals on board, feast on a huge dinner in the first class dining room and pay baksheesh to the crew.

At the other end of the scale, our TOTAL expenditure on train journeys to the four corners of the country over two weeks, came to about the same sum. The average 5 hour train journey in Bangladesh costs about $3 dollars in 2nd class and about 50% more for 1st class, making it incredibly cheap for tourists to see a large proportion of the country.

Although paying the 1st class premium might sound like a good idea, a big drawback of travelling in 1st is that the often dirty windows do not open because the carriages are air-conditioned, so photo opportunities are pretty much non-existent.

In 2nd class there are ample chances to people watch (and be watched). You get to see big families travelling together, children hanging out of windows, arms raised carefree to the wind and the hawkers are also a source of comedy at times, selling everything from ‘gold’ necklaces (presumably these are to be donned by city slickers returning to the countryside before they disembark, perhaps to spark bling-envy in the members of their welcoming parties?).

It is worth travelling by train for the stunning scenery.  Bangladesh feels like an endless expanse of rice paddies, unbroken save for rice farmers bent double against the sun in their brightly coloured salwar kameez. Occasionally a confetti of litter sullies the scene, but when you see your first Bangladeshi sunset, even this shortcoming will be forgiven.

Intra-city transport is largely of the CNG or traditional rickshaw variety. Traffic jams can make it quite hard to get where you are going, so it is imperative to leave early if you have a flight or train to catch. A typical CNG journey in Dhaka or Chittagong costs about $1, but you have to bargain. Rickshaws cost about $0.20-$0.50, though they are best reserved for journeys without luggage and short-hops as you are more exposed to dust, sun and exhaust fumes.

Accommodation


Cheap rooms can be found around the country, however not all cheap hotels accept foreigners and every hotel will expect you to verify the nature of your relationship if you are a heterosexual couple. At every hotel we repeated a synchronised flash of our wedding bands, accompanied by the slow enunciation of the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to gain entrance. It did feel a bit 1950s having to explain that we are indeed married to middle aged men who would otherwise have barred us from staying.

In Khulna, a town known for being the gateway to the UNSECO protected mosque of Bagherat in southern Bangladesh Martin found a room below for $2.5. The most expensive room we stayed in was $20 (including a breakfast buffet that was decidedly bikini unfriendly!). That was in Cox’s Bazar, the beach resort that middle class Bangladeshis go to for their holidays, so naturally prices were inflated.

Food

Bangladeshi food is good, filling and hygiene standards are reassuringly high compared to India, where street food is the preserve of those with exceptionally sturdy digestive systems. It is also cheap.

A bag of roti or naan, which constitutes a substantial snack can be found for $0.10. Samosas are everywhere and fried treats including onion bhajis are available for $0.5-$0.20 each.

A sit down meal in a restaurant was about $2 for both of us including soft drinks. Our most expensive dinner at the Mermaid Café in Cox’s Bazar was $13 for two courses and soft drinks, however this was an expat hangout frequented by wealthy and non-resident Bangladeshis looking to splash a little cash on holiday.

On trains, attendants clad in smart white uniforms rush up and down the carriage serving ‘cha’ (tea with milk, and heaps of sugar) in dainty china cups with saucers for approximately $0.10 per cup. Needless to say, we indulged.

So if you are looking for a value for money destination with beautiful landscape, lovely beaches and friendly people, we highly recommend Bangladesh.

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Green Bangladesh

It often seems that much of what is written about Bangladesh in the international press focuses on the negative: the annual monsoon floods, boat accidents, garment industry sweat-shops and its position as one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet in recent years, Bangladesh has become a torch bearer; an example to other poor, developing countries. Bangladeshis have started various initiatives to help their population on the journey to self sufficiency and environmental responsibility.

The most famous and celebrated of these homegrown development initiatives is micro-finance. Pioneered by Mohammad Yunus, who won a Nobel prize for his economic model, microfinance provided the framework that has enabled millions around the world to climb out of poverty with dignity; a win-win, which also allowed investors to recoup their investment (often with interest), though it remains to be seen whether microfinance will have a lasting legacy as a string of scandals in India and Mexico have raised questions about its merits.

In the two weeks we spent in Bangladesh, we discovered several less celebrated ways in which Bangladesh is trying to make the planet a better, cleaner, greener place.

CNGs & Electro-rickshaws

The Bangladeshi government forced all motor rickshaw drivers to drive vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas rather than petrol or diesel. These vehicles, popularly known as CNGs in Bangladesh are much cleaner than their ancestors, however we loved the electro-rickshaws which were as quiet as golf buggies and produced no exhaust fumes whatsoever.

Banning Plastic Bags

A decade ago approximately 9.3 million plastic bags per day were discarded in Dhaka (the capital city) alone. Only 10-15% of these ended up in dustbins, with the remainder floating about in the wind and eventually blocking drainage pipes, which in flood prone Bangladesh was potentially life-threatening. Now all products are either wrapped in reused paper, or placed in net bags made from jute or cotton.

Reusing paper

Recycling old exercise books and exam papers as bags. We were surprised to find that several of the bags which we received samosas, fruit and roti in turned out to be covered in the handwritten notes of school children. The English tests and English sample sentences were especially amusing.

Of course not everything is perfect – rubbish can still be seen on the streets and it is not uncommon to see people throwing crisp packets or pet bottles out of the windows of moving trains, but considering that Bangladesh ranks 155 out of 194 countries on the IMF list of GDP at purchasing power parity, these achievements are definitely and example to the rest of the world.


The Best and Worst of Bangladesh

Best

+ Genuinely friendly people, who are proud of their country regardless of its bad image and humble size; we found that Bangladeshis were exceedingly happy that we were there.  Bangladeshis really want the world to see the positive aspects of their country and culture.

+ Bangladesh is beautiful. The endless rice paddies, long wide beaches, famous Sundarbans and the tea plantations of the Sylhet region, as well as the Chittagong Hill Tracts combine to make this one of the lushest countries in Asia.

+ A frugal traveller’s dream. Bangladesh is incredibly cheap, so you can do, buy, eat and see almost anything there. A basic double room can cost as little as 2 Euros and breakfast for two set us back 1 Euro. At the other end of the scale, a 12 hour boat trip in a 1st class cabin on the Rocket paddle boat from Dhaka to Pirujpur was 15 Euros.

+ Everyone is so helpful that whatever you need (help negotiating a taxi fare, information on when the next bus leaves or directions), a Bangladeshi is likely to pop out of nowhere in under 30 seconds and help you.

+ Bangladesh is orderly in its disorganisation. With a little patience, you will find Bangladesh an easy place to travel. The train system is computerised, so ticket purchases are efficient; trains and busses are usually punctual.


+ It really is off the beaten track. Seeing other foreigners is a novelty, so the locals are not yet jaded as they are in many other parts of Asia. Go now!

Worst

No matter where you go, you WILL be the centre of attention! Sunglasses (recommended by the Lonely Planet as an essential accessory to deflect “stare glare”) can only help you so much! Michelle even stared thinking that wearing a niqab would give her a welcome break from the stares.

Being asked:

Your country?

What is your name?

What is your relationship?

(Yes, in that order!) 30 times a day, by any and everyone.

Riding a rickshaw or CNG (Compressed Natural Gas vehicle) in Dhaka or Chittagong any time between 9 am and midnight. If you like white knuckle rides or seeing your life flashing before your eyes, then try it.

The Four Bs of Bangladesh – Beer, Bikinis, Begging & Baksheesh…

If kicking back on a deckchair with a cold beer is your idea of fun, forget it. Alcohol is hard to find (though not illegal) in Bangladesh – we only saw it on sale at the airport; because it is a Muslim country many hotels forbid the consumption of alcohol on their premises.

Ladies leave your bikini’s at home! A bikini has no place on a Bangladeshi beach – an abaya (niqabs are optional) is more suitable beachwear, otherwise a baggy T-shirt and loose bottoms (below the knee) will do.

Relentless begging can become difficult to deal with at times, especially on certain trains like the Khulna – Rajshahi train. The sheer numbers and persistence of some beggars would try the patience of a saint.

Baksheesh (defined as a little money under the table; a tip; a monetary payment to maintain good service). Baksheesh is a part of Bangladeshi culture and something quite alien to most westerners. A taxi driver may expect a tip for getting you to the correct destination in record time (alive); a waiter may expect baksheesh in a hotel on day one if you are going to be using the restaurant facilities repeatedly, it may prove wise to pay so that you ensure consistently good service. The man who collects the key to your cabin on the Rocket also expects a ‘lil something (even though this is the first time you have ever seen him and you are never going to use his key collection services again!). Just be sure to have some small change handy and accept that wealthier Bangladeshis also have to pay baksheesh too.