15th – 26th October
Pristine and new?
Not exactly two words we thought we’d apply to anything in Bangladesh. But crossing the border from India, our first impressions of this little country are very, very good.
Leaving behind the dusty, decrepit block that passed for India’s frankly shambolic customs and passport control centre, we drive a few metres across the border and enter the pristine, gleaming white concrete and glass structure that housed Bangladesh’s customs and passport control divisions. Rather a pleasant and unexpected surprise!
In fact Bangladesh’s customs officials are so helpful we are through passport control and on the road within 45 minutes. Bangladeshis are acutely aware of how they and their country are perceived by the world at large. There was a real sense of urgency, pride and an effort to please that we didn’t see with any officials in India – plus they seemed to actually know what they were doing! Certainly a promising start, we thought…
We drive east from the border some 30km to the little town of Jessore where we planned to spend our first night – not a great distance but we’d had no idea how the roads would be, or how long the border may take. Happily, we are there by 3pm (even though the clocks have gone forward by 1 ½ hours) and can start to relax into Bangladesh life.
We spend our first night at the peaceful and clean Banchte Shekha Institute, a charitable centre designed for the advancement of women’s education and rights in Bangladesh. It is a worthy and well run establishment and we spend a while talking to Angela Gomez, the institutes founder and winner of the Asian Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
She’s been doing this for 34 years – no easy task in this corrupt and conservative Muslim state. She has endured death threats and attacks in the media and receives virtually no recognition from the government, yet in her easy going and modest style she tells us she is making some real headway in removing repression and advancing education and economic opportunities for Bangladesh’s women.
Suitably impressed, before we leave we visit the centre’s handicrafts shop (all locally made by women, of course) and considerably brighten Nina’s wardrobe – we’ve seen few such worthy causes on an individual scale on our travels and it’s a nice feeling to be able to support those that we have.
Our first night is really very relaxing. No beeping horns or frantic traffic, just the tinkle of bicycle bells and the chirruping of the birds in the gardens of Banchte Shekha. We are beginning to think we have seriously underestimated this country.
Where is everyone?
We found ourselves asking, after our first day here. This is the world’s most densely populated country (barring a handful of city states) – yet the main road to and beyond Jessore is almost deserted, save for cycle rickshaws, bicycles and a handful of trucks and scooters. Contrary to our expectations, it makes for very relaxed driving.
The countryside is surprisingly beautiful, too: most of it is water but that parts that aren’t comprise lush green paddy fields, plains of water hyacinth so thick they appear as dry land and areas of deep green evergreen forest interspersed with banana plantations. Every waterway is adorned with triangular bamboo framed fishing apparatus – river fish are a principle source of meat in the rural areas – which add a certain rustic decoration to the place.
We start day two here in high spirits, refreshed and positively looking forward to the 180km drive to Dhaka, which we understand should take about six hours, including a ferry crossing across the mighty Padma River.
Water, water everywhere…
… But you wouldn’t drink a drop. Bangladesh is the lowest lying non island country on earth, very little of it is more than 30m above sea level. Most of the country is dissected by the deltas of three vast rivers, the Meghna, Padma (Ganges) and the Brahmaputra. These three watercourses flood prolifically, causing endless problems and tragedies for the population but ultimately providing the countryside with the fertility it needs to support 160 million people in an area the size of England and Wales.
Ferry crossings and river transport are therefore part of everyday life but unfortunately Bangladesh isn’t particularly good at making these things float – there are, on average, five ‘major’ sinkings per year, usually resulting in over a hundred drownings. No concessions to health and safety here…
Happily for us, the rusting hulk that shifts us the two miles across the sludge brown Padma makes it without mishap – it’s not a river where you’d like to try your luck swimming!
Ahh… here they are!
The road east to the Padma is the same as yesterday: pretty countryside, happy, waving locals, the occasional bus and truck but otherwise little motorised transport. Alas, it all changes at the river.
After disembarking, suddenly and without warning, we run into Bangladesh’s (over)population. It’s like we’ve just entered a totally different country. The road becomes a congested mêlée of beaten up cars, buses operated by suicidal lunatic drivers, recalcitrant trucks, oxen and cart, carefree schoolchildren and auto rickshaws.
To get on bus here would be worse than taking your life in your own hands: more like putting it in the hands of someone whose testosterone levels are matched only by their total ignorance and disregard for anything resembling common sense of road safety. We thought we’d seen it all in India, but this is a whole new level.
At least in the car we can avoid the pretty much constant stream of buses coming towards us in the wrong direction, often triple overtaking. The verge is soft and peppered with humanity, but inevitably a better option than buses so dented and scratched they have no paintwork or headlights and not one square inch of bodywork that hasn’t made some vigorous contact, at least once in its life, with something or somebody else.
The most congested city in Asia
Remarkably we arrive in Dhaka in one piece.
But this is only a small mercy: it’s now 3.30pm on a Thursday afternoon and the working week being Sunday to Thursday, it’s a bit like arriving in London at 5pm on a Friday night. 16 million people living here, in a city the size of Birmingham with maybe four trunk roads at most. Gridlock doesn’t even come close. After an hour, we give up aiming for the centre and head north to the (relative) peace and quiet of Gulshan, Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, where we eventually spend the night.
We start very early the next morning to get to Chittagong. Avoiding the traffic here requires early starts and by 8am we are out of the centre and on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, an even worse example of a video game than the roads yesterday.
But we arrive in Chittagong, unscathed, six hours later - in time to make our rendezvous with our shipping team who will handle the colossal paperwork involved with getting our little car on a ship from here to Malaysia.
Chittagong – the end of the road
All up, the shipping process requires us to be in Chittagong for four days - three days longer than any right minded foreigner would spend here. Major port cities the world over are dumps; Chittagong is no exception.
It is a congested, polluted place with virtually no saving graces. We find the best restaurant in town on our first night, which is thankfully excellent, and (following the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ motto) eat there for the next three nights. We spend one free afternoon sightseeing, which proves to be ample.
On our third day we spend 10 hours in Customs House with Zakir, our wonderful shipping agent, getting all the signatures and higher approvals we require in order to export our car by ship to Malaysia. Our file starts as a solitary letter, by the end of the day its 30 pages long and contains no less than 34 different signatures and official stamps. But, thanks to Zakir and to our great relief, we eventually load our car in to a container and rather nervously wave goodbye to it for two weeks.
Now alone, we are beholden to public transport and confined to living out a suitcase for the next two weeks. We initially feel utterly alone without our lifeline: our transport, storage, security and often our accommodation. It won’t do us any harm to get on public transport for a bit, but it’s a real shock to our systems.
Waiting for the train
As if in a final act of mischief, Chittagong conspires to keep us one more day. On the way back from the port we stop in the railway station to book tickets for the morning, but there are none left – so we’ll have to go the morning after! Resignedly, we trudge back to our hotel, drink our last beer (it’s a dry country and from our experience in Pakistan, we came prepared) and head out to the same restaurant, again.
When our last night finally beckons we hit the town proper. The Peninsular Hotel is Chittagong’s big western business hotel, and it has a bar… This alone merits a visit, and to our surprise we find pretty much the entire contingent of foreigners in the city, mainly American and Australian businessmen, all propping up the bar drinking expensive imported Heineken.
Happily we make friends with James, an American businessman from Detroit whose generosity in supplying us with round after round of beer is matched only by his encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient and modern history and global current affairs. If only all Americans were like this…
Peace, quiet and tea
Having decided we really should see more of this country before leaving, we head north to Srimangal, home to Bangladesh’s principal tea plantations. The train is actually surprisingly clean, comfortable and (in our carriage at least) air-conditioned - though the 250km journey does take 10 hours.
But it’s a journey worth taking. Srimangal is a world away from the pollution, poverty and squalor of Chittagong.
We spend three nights here, relaxing and doing not a lot. We hire bicycles to explore the picturesque tea plantations, take a guide through the rainforest in the nearby national park, make friends with some entertaining Dutch travellers who are far more intrepid than we are, and enjoy being somewhere rather less densely populated.
After three days here we are moderately refreshed, although still rather short on sleep. It seems that everyone native to the subcontinent is totally impermeable to noise. Even here, we are regularly disturbed at night by loud mouthed Bengali businessmen, late night calls to prayer and beeping horns, to all of which the average Bangladeshi or Indian is totally oblivious.
We take another train back to Dhaka, five and a half hours in an air conditioned compartment festooned with a biblical plague of mosquitoes. Despite us and our fellow passengers killing them with something approaching fanaticism they continue to erupt from the louvres of the antiquated air conditioning system. This pastime takes up most of the entire journey; the windows are far too scratched and fogged up to make anything of the verdant scenery stuttering by outside.
Much as it’s good to experience public transport in these countries, we now wholeheartedly believe that independent road travel really does give you a better all-round feel. No matter what the tie-dyed sandal brigade may say about ‘important cultural interactions on public transport’, these rarely go much further than putting up with next door’s B.O. and flatulence or (if you’re really intrepid or poor and travel third class) someone else’s chickens squawking in your face or dysentery-ridden infant bawling at you. Nope, car all the way for us…
Leaving the subcontinent
On our last day here we undertake a cursory tour round Dhaka’s principal sights – which takes about four hours including two sat in traffic just to get to the old town; before long we are back in the air conditioned coffee shop that we gleefully discovered in the relatively affluent Banani district.
Overall, we feel that we may not have given Bangladesh a fair crack of the whip. There’s no doubt it’s a poor, corrupt country that is wholly deserving of much of the bad press it receives, but at the same time we encountered friendlier people on a day to day basis than we have met since leaving Central Asia and some of the most picturesque and unspoilt scenery we’ve seen anywhere. We didn’t get as far as the Sundarbans, one of world’s great wildernesses, nor did we see the world’s longest unbroken beach at Cox’s Bazaar. We didn’t go fishing with otters either, sadly, thanks to four days in Chittagong.
But we did see and do enough to realise that this country is far better than the reputation that precedes it, its people (and landscapes) haven’t been spoilt by tourism as they have in much of India, and it really is one of the few places left on earth where you can live an exceedingly comfortable lifestyle for less than £15 a day.
Catching a night flight to Singapore, we are both, frankly, exhausted. It feels like two and a half months of fairly constant road travel through the subcontinent has left us temporarily worn out – not helped by the total lack of peace and quiet, the consistently terrible standards of roads and driving and the constant, wide eyed staring crowds that have followed us since we left Pakistan.
A little cleanliness, order and civilisation certainly won’t go amiss now – bring on Singapore!