My Short Visit to the Country of Bengals

Let’s dive right into my short visit to Bangladesh. First, I want to start by telling you a few exciting things about the country. For starters, its name literally translated means “the country of Bengal.” It is a secular, democratic, and independent state located in South Asia, and it has the eighth-largest population in the world, with nearly 163 million people. In terms of landmass, it is the 92nd-largest country, spanning 147,570 km² (56,980 sq mi) – making it one of the most densely-populated countries on earth. It is also one of the leading countries at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels.

Bangladesh shares land borders with India to the west, north, and east, Myanmar to the southeast, and the Bay of Bengal to the south. Accordingly, my trip to Bangladesh fit in well after the visit to Myanmar, and on my way to India (both much longer trips).

I spent a total of three nights and two days in Bangladesh, and despite it being a short stay, I was excited to see the country. My brother – who studied international relations and had an internship working at the German embassy in Dhaka four years ago – had given me insights about the country, and ever since, I had wanted to visit the place myself.

So, I flew from Yangon, Myanmar to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, with an hour layover in Bangkok. You can also take direct flights for this route, but I chose to fly over Bangkok, which was about an hour detour. The trip from Bangkok to Dhaka was 2.5 hours, and I landed at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport between 12 and 1 am.

Unfortunately, the airport in Dhakka was quite chaotic, there was already a lot of waiting time due to coronavirus, and because we were coming from Thailand, we had to go through the tunnel scanner and fill out a bunch of forms, this on top of having to line up to get the visa-on-arrival. Bangladesh has a simple procedure for visa-on-arrival for most nationalities, but because I didn’t print out my onward ticket and the hotel reservation, the guy at the counter game a hard time. Thankfully, in the end, it all worked out, and after a long process, they finally let me into the country.

A representative from the hotel greeted me at the arrivals gate. He was holding a sign with my name and brought me straight to my hotel. I stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton, which is a lovely tower, one of the tallest buildings in Bangladesh, actually. It has really nice amenities, with a beautiful rooftop pool, and amicable employees. They brought me up to my room after checking in, and I was ready to go straight to sleep!

As I mentioned before, I only had two full days to explore Bangladesh, so I made sure to make the most of my time there. I had two excursions planned, one for each of my days there, and I booked them both online, but from different companies. I should note that the tour on the first day was a bit nicer than the one on the second day, the guide was much friendlier on day one! Either way, the first day, I discovered Dhaka, the capital and largest city of the country, and the next day I went a bit outside of Dhaka to Sonargaon – The Ancient Capital of Bengal and surrounding rivers.

The first day we had a lot of driving to do. My guide picked me up a the hotel early, and we were pretty lucky because the days I was there (Friday and Saturday) were Muslim holidays. At this point, I thought Bangladesh was a very conservative Muslim society, and even though around 90% of the population is Muslim (9% Hindu and 1% Buddhist), they are not very orthodox. So you can buy alcohol and you don’t see a lot of women wearing hijabs. In reality, the Muslims around there are very open, with noticeably liberal attitudes.

The first stop on our tour was to visit the oldest university in Bangladesh, Dhaka University. It was established in 1921 during the British Raj, and it has made significant contributions to the modern history of Bangladesh. For instance, After the Partition of India, it became the focal point of progressive and democratic movements in Pakistan. Its students and teachers played a central role in the rise of Bengali nationalism and the independence of Bangladesh.

Dhaka University Campus

The buildings in the university were wonderful; the campus spreads over a few ponds, which makes it very charming. Today, DU is the largest public research university in Bangladesh, with a student body of 37,018 and a faculty of 1,992. However, since the 1990s, the university has suffered from intensely politicized, partisan, and violent campus politics promoted by Bangladesh’s political parties. We didn’t notice any of this climate while there.

More of the DU Campus

While at the university, we walked around and took some pictures of the campus. There was a prominent student event happening while we were there. The event centered around technology and pupils were showcasing their inventions. It was quite refreshing to see how much they care about technological advancement. Something that also shows by Dhaka being one of the most densely industrialized regions in the country. From what I saw on the streets and in real estate, Bangladesh has excellent development going on.

After the university tour, we made a brief visit to a nearby Hindu sacred site, the Dhakeshwari Temple in old Dhaka. We saw some goddesses shrines and old buildings where people gather to pray and worship.

Dhakeshwari Temple in Old Dhaka

Hindu sacred area and place of worship

From there, we made it to the leading tourist site in Dakka: The Lalbagh Fort. It is an incomplete 17th-century Mughal fort complex that stands before the Buriganga River in the southwestern part of Dhaka.

Lalbag Fort

Its construction was never finished, and it remained unoccupied for an extended period. However, much of the complex was built over and now serves as a tourist attraction. Today, the fort is comprised of different areas and buildings, and some of them have museums inside. In these areas, you can find out more about the history of the place, for instance, you can see in display some of the weapons and guns used to defend the city. It was interesting to see, but we didn’t spend much time there.

Unfinished parts of the Lalbag Fort

After the fort, we went to the Armenian Church, which was very interesting. Did you know that there were quite a few Armenians in Bangladesh in the olden days? History states that after the Persians dominated their homeland, Armenians were sent by their new rulers to the Bengal region for both political and economic reasons, and although the Armenian presence in South Asia is now insignificant, their presence in Dhaka dates back to the 17th century.

This church is a historically significant architectural monument since it bears testimony to the existence of a vital Armenian community in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. We went in briefly to check it out and to pray to God, so to speak, and then we left. I should note it was a charming Armenian style church, and it was gorgeous on the inside as well.

From there we went to the Padma river. I was excited to finally see what Bangladesh is all about – the big rivers that run through the city. We went on a little boat ride on a small boat that didn’t even have a motor.

Riding one of these boats through the Padma River

We had a guy rowing boat, taking us around and showing us the skyline of the city from the water. Sadly, it’s not the best skyline I’ve witnessed; it shows a city that is not yet very civilized, a dirty place with a lot of rubbish in the water.

Skyline from the Padma River

Because Dhakka is so densely populated (20 million inhabitants,) it faces numerous challenges such as flooding, groundwater depletion, inadequate sanitation, polluted river water, unplanned urban development, and vast slums where more than one-third of its population lives. This was all very apparent throughout the boat ride.

More views from the river

Did you know that Bangladesh is famous for building boats – both seaboats, and riverboats? Due to the riverine geography of Bangladesh, ships have been playing a significant role in the trade affairs of the country since ancient times.

View of a boatyard from the Padma river

Moreover, locally made ships began to be exported in recent years, and shipbuilding has become a promising primary industry once again. Today, Bangladesh has over 200 shipbuilding companies, mostly concentrated in Dhaka, Chittagong, Narayanganj, Barisal and Khulna. The seaboats are by the sea, and in Dhakka, most people have riverboats, like the one we were on. We used the boat ride to take pictures and enjoy the gentle breeze you get while in the water.

Enjoying the views and the breeze on the river

After the boat ride, we had a lot of time to spare. Because the traffic was so mild, and several other sites like the Bangladesh National Museum were closed due to the holiday, we were done with our morning program much earlier than expected – actually two hours earlier than scheduled. So we decided to have a long lunch near the port and enjoyed some really delicious biryani. If you haven’t tried biryani, it is a mixed rice dish with its origins among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with highly seasoned rice, meat, vegetables, or eggs, and it is super spicy. It’s basically all we ate during the day.

We finished our long lunch at around 1:30 pm and still had to wait quite a while until the Pink Palace opened its doors at 3:00 pm. The Pink Palace (Ahsan Manzil) is another main tourist attraction of Dhakka. It was the official residential palace and seat of the Nawab of Dhaka. Its construction started in 1859 and it was completed in 1872. Today, it is designated as a national museum.

People waiting to get into the Pink Palace

So, to kill more time after lunch, we walked around for about 45 minutes and then waited in front of the gates of the Pink Palace for another 45 minutes. At the gates, there were multiple dozens of others who were also waiting for the building to open with nothing else to do.

This is when I took most of my pictures from Bangladesh, or should I say where most of the photos of me in Bangladesh were taken. I was a big attraction in this country. Over the two days I was there, I probably had my photo taken about 200 times by the locals. It was mostly young people and sometimes families who would approach me, wanting to take a picture or have a selfie with me.

The main attraction in Dhaka: Me 😉

It’s funny to think that my face is now hanging in about 200 livingrooms homes across the country! These people seemed really eager and happy to take pictures with a foreigner, probably because there are not too many tourists who visit Bangladesh – certainly, not many that are as tall as me!

So, particularly during that waiting time after lunch, pretty much everyone around took pictures of me, and they were all really excited about it. This happened basically at all of the sites we went to on the first and second day. Some people were not even asking; they would just come near me and try to take a selfie with me in the background. On the other hand, some people were very kind and asked first, and of course, I would stop and give them 5 seconds to snap the shot.

Me with my four new wives 😉

Anyways, back to the Pink Palace… We just walked around waiting for it to be 3 pm and went in after the doors finally opened. I took lots of pictures of the site and after, the program for the day was over. By this time I was exhausted, keep in mind I didn’t get much sleep the night before. So on the way back to the hotel, I fell asleep in the car, and then took a proper nap when I arrived back in my room.

More views of the Pink Palace

That night I had a lovely steak at the hotel; it was a real treat since that kind of beef is rarely available in Bangladesh. I already feared my time in India, where I would surely starve because they don’t allow the making of beef, and it is actually outright prohibited in many Indian states. Thankfully, my hotel had a really great steakhouse on the rooftop with a Brazilian chef, and I could get my fix while enjoying a nice view. After dinner, I just completed some consulting calls and went to bed.

Food from the best steakhouse in Dhaka!

Views from the rooftop pool at the Four Points… High over Dhaka

The next day I went to explore the outskirts of Dhakka. The first stop was a little park for Bangladeshis, where they can see a replica of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal of Bengal is a scaled copy of the original Taj Mahal, and it is located 16 km (10 mi) east Dhaka in Sonargaon. Unlike the original, building this replica took only five years. Ahsan Ullah Moni, a wealthy Bangladeshi film-maker, announced his ‘Copycat version of Taj Mahal’ project in December 2008, and the project cost about US$56 Million. Moni has explained that he built a replica of the Taj Mahal so that the poor of his nation who will never travel to neighboring India, can realize their dream of seeing its famed monument.

Tiny Taj Mahal

This mini Taj Majal is quite tiny, I have only gone to the real one a week later in Agra. This replica shows what the original Taj Majal looks like inside, but it’s around five times smaller. Seeing the inside wasn’t of much interest to me, so we just walked around the park.

Near the Taj Mahal of Bengal, another replica of one of the world’s seven wonders, the Pyramids of Egypt, has been built. This construction is also to show the Bangladeshi what the pyramids look like. You can go in to see mummies and the inner workings of the pyramids. By the exit, they also have a tiny cage with three komodo dragons – that is an extraordinary thing for Bangladeshis, but not all that interesting to me.

Inside the Sonargaon Museum in Panam Nagar

After the park, we went to Panam Nagar, an ancient town in Sonargaon. There are many historical and rusting buildings that were built centuries ago. This is one of the most visited tourist spots in Bangladesh, and I was again the main tourist attraction for the locals.

Sonargaon Ruins

We continued exploring Sonargaon, a historic city in central Bangladesh. It is one of the old capitals of the ancient region of Bengal, and it was the administrative center of eastern Bengal. In Sonargaon there is the big Royal Park, which has many attractions with many shops and restaurants with the main highlight being a museum that showcases the history of Bangladesh.

Island Village

After exploring Sonargaon, we went to the Meghna River, the widest river of those that are entirely inside Bangladesh. At the river, we did a boat tour, this time with a motorboat, to see how the people live by the river in tiny fishing huts. We also visited an island of local villagers with very poor but very friendly people.

Poor village – Happy Children

The kids there were very eager to get to know me, wanting candy, which I didn’t have. Despite not having sweets, every minute, more and more kids came running to me. By the end, 20-30 kids were running after me and my guide as we explored the village. It was actually pretty cool to pose for some pictures with these children.

Me with my tiny entourage of village kids

The village exploration was very brief, basically, the kids wanted candies, and I said I would sponsor their sweet cravings. I usually don’t do things like these, but an old lady came and took me to a tiny shed where she sold candies. It seemed like a nice way to support them, but in the end, she didn’t enough sweets for everyone, so we just didn’t go through with it. The kids were very sad, but it would have been unfair to give some kids candy and not the others. After this happened, we left the island and went back to the mainland and had lunch near the river. Again, we ate biryani.

After lunch, we returned to the city, it was a long ride through the town of Bangladesh to my hotel, but this time I used the drive to take a few more pictures of the city. Early the next morning, I was already on my flight to Delhi. But that’s content for another post!

Of course, you should know that Bangladesh has so much more to offer, especially Sundarbans near Kolkata. It is a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal. It spans from the Hooghly River in India’s state of West Bengal to the Baleswar River in Bangladesh. The forests provide habitat to 453 faunal wildlife, including birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and of course, lots of Bengal tigers – Definitely something I will be exploring the next time I’m in the country.