As my close friends can tell you, I like to make lists. I have loads of them – what I want to accomplish in any given day, week or year. I also make “bucket lists.” This tradition started not long after I saw the actual movie, on my first solo journey abroad to Costa Rica in the summer of 2008. Obviously, I don’t plan on “kicking the bucket” anytime soon, so my bucket lists are a conglomeration of eccentric and personal items I want to do. Of course, there’s something to be said for letting things happen as they happen, but my lists give me something tangible for post-journey reminiscing and a basis for planning.
My Bucket List for Bangladesh, or more fittingly, Bideshi List (BL for short), includes various places of interest I had heard about or found in my Bradt guide (I prefer this over Lonely Planet for Bangladesh). Bangladesh is a beautiful country and foreigners should take each and every opportunity afforded to them to travel and learn about its rich culture. I am copying my personal BL experiences below, since the following places enriched my view and experience in Bangladesh.
*Disclaimer: This list does not at all encapsulate all I have seen, visited or learned, but my hope is that travelers to Bangladesh will gain inspiration to discover some of these jewels and do some exploring of their own!
Bangladeshis are very proud to let you know that Cox’s Bazaar is the longest natural beach in the world. Cox’s Bazaar is visibly up and coming; there were numerous construction sites for new hotels around town. The beach itself is beautiful, but you can tell Bangladesh faces problems with changing shore lines from the miles and miles of sandbags lining the shore to prevent flooding and beach erosion.
And despite what you might think, a weekend trip to Cox’s Bazaar is possible. My crew took a bus that left Friday night, traveled through the night, and got to our hotel early Saturday afternoon. We were a bit worried before our bus left Dhaka, when we heard of heavy flooding in Chittagong that had stopped all buses en route to the city. Our bus left with no problems, and by the time we had gotten down South, the flood waters had receded a bit, though we could definitely tell that parts of entire villages were completely submerged still.
I was lucky enough to catch some waves with Zafar Alam and his crew while at Cox’s Bazaar. Zafar started surfing in Bangladesh about a decade ago; presently, the Bangladesh Surfing Club, founded by Zafar and the first and only club of its kind in the country, teaches surfing to more than 30 boys and girls. The easy-going and genuinely happy nature of the surfer community I encountered in Costa Rica was also alive and thriving here. You can find out more about the Bangladesh Surfing Club in the documentary called “Gum For My Boat.” Or watch the trailer below!
My trip here was relatively spontaneous. The campus is green and peaceful, and the buildings are a beautiful blend of European-Mughal architecture. Definitely worthy of a visit, if not for its style and location, then definitely for the prominent role the campus played in Bangladeshi history as the breeding ground for dissent during the Liberation War and continued political violence and activism thereafter.
Old Dhaka, referred to as “Puran Dhaka” in Bangla, is a must. Among other places in the area, I was lucky enough to visit Chawk Bazaar during Eid. Right before iftar (when Muslims break their Ramadan fast at sunset), hundreds and hundreds of food vendors fill one street for several blocks in the city. They sell all sorts of fried foods and veggies, deserts and fruit. Thousands of people rush the street, packing their bags full with iftar snacks to bring back to their families. Walking on this street is akin to jumping in a big mosh pit, which luckily I had past experiences with due to our basketball prowess at the University of North Carolina. Chawk Bazaar during Eid is Cloud Nine for photographers and adventurous snackers, alike. I definitely attracted attention as a white woman, but everyone was generally so good-natured. The entire ordeal also gave me a great opportunity to practice my conversational Bangla.
As a public health junkie, I make a point to see as many hospitals as I can in the countries I visit. In Bangladesh, I spent time in United Hospital, lived on and observed the Emirates Friendship Hospital, and paid several visits to smaller clinics (including a dentist and chiropractor) whose qualities would predictably seem unreal to most Westerners not accustomed to traveling in low-resource settings.
Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP)
Following the theme of hospitals, CRP in Savar works with disabled people (mostly those with spinal injuries) with health services and programs designed to help them re-integrate back into society. CRP is very multifaceted in nature; the continuum of its services really impressed me. The Center provides skills trainings to patients through woodworking, electronic and textile workshops, continued physical therapy and a community of support. Again, talk about another one of those instances when my public health background alone created a positive outcome. Due to traffic, I arrived at the Center past its open hours, but once I told the front reception nurse that I was a public health student, they welcomed me so warmly. A nurse who had been working there for 30 years gave me a private tour of CRP’s facilities. The entire experience gave me chills; I had the very special opportunity to see and communicate with all of their patients. What a progressive organization – as you can see below, the signs right in front of the Head Office say “ABILITY NOT DISABILITY” and “SERVICE TO SUFFERERS IS SERVICE TO GOD.”
Books N’ Pages
However dorky this may be, I always, always make a point to visit an off the track, small bookstore wherever I go. I went to several of these in Bangladesh, but particularly liked Books N’ Pages, located in Gulshan. They have a good selection of books, including some well-known Western titles if that’s what you’re into, and wonderful customer service.
There are many fair-trade options for bideshis in Dhaka, or so I hear. This cute little store in Gulshan was where I picked up most of my small souvenirs for family and friends. They have a rich variety of handmade jewelry, art, cloth, and furniture that are all reasonably priced.
I was lucky to even enter the fort, as I arrived after its closing time (recurring theme here, I know). After a small conversation with the gatekeepers (during which I showed off all the Bangla I could muster), they allowed us to enter. So, essentially, we got a personal tour of the grounds and historic buildings that date back to 1678, to the rule of Prince Muhammad Azam.
The fort is a symbol of the Mughal Empire’s increasing power in Bengal during the 17th century, and today, is an enclosed space of serene quiet and deep green tucked into the hustle and bustle of the city outside its walls. My experience here was quite memorable – we climbed to the top of the fort and emerged to the sound of the call to prayer as the setting sun poured bright orange light onto the grounds. Absolutely magical.
BRAC is the largest NGO in the world and used to stand for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee before it expanded to work in all of Bangladesh, so it is no longer an acronym. The day that my friend and I visited the organization was especially memorable – it was the last working day before the weeklong vacation of Eid. We got stuck in traffic and made it to the offices, located in a big high-rise building, right before they closed at 5 PM. A Friendship colleague’s beautiful partner showed us around the Gender Unit, which is doing some great work around human rights and policy in the area of domestic violence and social protection. I was so thankful; everyone was so willing to talk to us about why they were doing what they were doing! My friend and I also unofficially snuck around the building as they were closing. As I mention in this blog post,the top floors of BRAC are amazing to experience Dhaka from a bird’s eye view…
Savar – TaraTari Shipyard
Dear naval architect amigos at TaraTari are working hard to innovate and create the next generation of durable boats for Bangladesh, built from jute fiber. How awesome is that, right? TaraTari is leading the current effort to restore LFH, and has deep ties with my organization (founder Yves Marre is also co-founder of Friendship and actually sailed the river barge that later became LFH from France to Bangladesh in 1994). The shipyard, located in distant Savar, is one of the most beautiful places in Bangladesh to me, and the workers and architects I met there are some of the loveliest and loving people.
Sat Gumbad Mosque
This seven-domed mosque, known as the finest example of Mughal-style architecture in Dhaka, dates back to 1680. I think (still not sure) the mosque was under construction during my visit, so just be aware of that possibility.
National Botanical Gardens
Took a CNG here by myself and had a really entertaining time trying to communicate where I wanted to go next, since it’s pretty out-of-the-way. The Botanical Gardens is right next to the Dhaka Zoo, and contains over 1,000 different species of local and imported plants. Great place for a cookout or a quiet reading day with friends. Avoid going alone if you can – this is most definitely a date destination for couples and I guess also a hangout spot for large groups of men. Entry fee is 5 BDT.
National Assembly Building
I made a point to visit Bangladesh’s parliament building, after hearing my colleagues express so much pride for its architecture. American architect Louis Khan originally designed the building, incorporating geometric shapes such as triangles and squares to allow large amounts of natural light into the building. What’s more interesting is that the construction of the building was commissioned in 1962, before Bangladesh was even a country, and completed in 1982, after the Liberation War halted progress on it for some time. Guess it was meant to be!
Dharmarajikha Buddhist Monastery
Located near Kamlapur Railway Station, this monastery is very worthy of a visit, if not for its tranquility and beauty, then for its collection of Buddha statues from around the world.
Near Lalbagh fort, the Dhakewshari Temple is the city’s most prominent Hindu temple. This site was a target of attacks for occupying Pakistani forces during the Liberation War. More than half of its buildings were destroyed and some of its custodians murdered, which is the reason behind the simplicity of the site’s current buildings (one main temple and four small mandirs).
Places I wished I had been able to visit!
- Sadarghat – Dhaka’s boat terminal
- Liberation War Museum – Dhaka’s most renown war museum
- The Original Grameen Bank
- Chittagong Hill Tracts
- New Market