Can you swim?

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Where I stayed
Hotel Ramna

Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bangladesh was intense from the moment I stepped off the plane. The flight from Yangon (Rangoon) wasn't too memorable due to the haze and smog, however upon descent into the Zia International Airport in Dhaka I saw hundreds of slum highrises forming an urban landscape the likes of which I'd never seen. So this was Bangladesh!

I met a couple of other travellers at the airport, and one of them immediately began chatting with locals. In no time, one of these locals, Shonchoy, offered to help us find a place to stay. In hindsight this wasn't such a good idea! After breezing through customs and then ignoring the harrassing from the hundreds of taxi drivers outside the terminal we walked for some time with Shonchoy to find his driver. We met his mother, who was very friendly, but by this stage I'd worked out that they were very well off (both working for embassies) and probably wouldn't be able to help budget travellers like ourselves find accommodation. Shonchoy's mother, as friendly as she was had quite a dominant personality which was quite amusing!

We got a ride to their house in Banani, an upper class district of central Dhaka, and once there started to feel a little anxious as the sun was setting and we realised they couldn't help us at all. Eventually, after some tea of course, we went out to find a taxi. I had a guidebook and a recommendation for a hotel in another part of the town so I was determined to find that.

It took some time to find a taxi though, by which time it was dark. It was also the first time I would witness a crowd of 30 Bangladeshis gather round to stare at me! After having at least a dozen taxis refuse to give us a ride one finally, albeit reluctantly, agreed to take us to Hotel Ramna in Old Dhaka.

Once we arrived we checked into reasonably priced 250 Taka rooms (about $4US) and then had some dinner at the hotel's restaurant. Little did I realise that rice, rota, dahl and vegatables would be just about all that I would be eating for the next three weeks! Shonchoy was still with us, however we managed to send him home soon after dinner. I think he relished the opportunity to spend some time with some travellers. We later found out that he was in big trouble with his mother because he was out with us and didn't contact her though!

It was an intense and crazy afternoon. However, I didn't realise that the next day in old Dhaka was to be twice as intense, plus some! With the hundreds of car horns blasting outside, I popped in some earplugs and tried to get some sleep in preparation for the day ahead.

* * * * *

After a restless nights sleep Sookmui, one of the travellers I met at the airport, and I decided to do some siteseeing around Old Dhaka. My first look at the area around our hotel was a surreal one, with pollution and preybirds blocking out the blue sky, streets full of rickshaws and an uncountable number of people, and nearby the most decrepid looking park I'd ever seen. Once we began walking down the street we instantly became a tourist attraction for the hundreds of Bangladeshis in the area as every single one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at us!

We found a rickshaw for the short ride down to the port of Sadarghat to begin the day. A local helped us organise a boat for a short trip on the river, at which another man asked us if we could swim! I gathered that meant there was a high probability that our small boat would sink! We then spent the next 45 minutes drifting on the utterly filthy and putrid Buriganga River. It wreaked of all kinds of excrement, yet hundreds of people were drifting by on small boats, washing, bathing, selling, observing, everything! They continued to stare at us, and here amongst the black water I got my first look at the Bangladeshi raised eyebrow, grin and sideways nod of the head. Hilarious!

After leaving the boat our guide showed us the way to the Pink Palace, Ahsan Manzil. This European Mughal style building was once the residence of a number of Nawabs (Muslim princes). The exhibition wasn't spectuacular, but gave some insight into a part of history I knew nothing about. It also allowed us some respite from our self appointed guide and the thousands of curious onlookers on the street.

We spent about an hour at the palace before walking around for a look in the front gates where we could get a decent photo. I had to stop walking in order to take a photo, the people congregated around me until there was no way out! What on earth was this strange foreigner doing in Old Dhaka taking photos of old buildings?! The area was filthy, with open sewers and both men and women using the pavements as toilets. All this while people sold fruit and cut hair and transported good by rickshaws. There was no traffic here so the only sound was of the peoples voices and bells of the rickshaws. It was a truly unique seen, totally unlike anything I'd ever witnessed before.

We then wandered throughout old Dhaka, passing through Shankaria Bazar and the rickshaw art in Bangsal Road before seeing our final site before lunch, the Sitara or "Star" Mosque. This building seemed a little out of place amongst the decaying old buildings and dirty streets, with it's white star pond and glittering murals. I was allowed inside for a look although given it was prayer time I didn't stay long.

After lunch (hidden away in a booth to protect the locals innocence from the sight of a western woman) we got a rickshaw out to Lalbargh Fort, a somewhat surprising site. However before we even made it there we saw some people yelling near a bus and heard one of the windows smash. Police officers ran towards it from all directions and our driver pedalled as fast as he could in the opposite direction. I felt a little intimidated by the huge number of police officers armed with machine guns on almost every street corner, and was glad I wasn't around to see what became of that incident.

Lalbargh Fort looked nothing from the outside, but once we passed through the northern gate we were greeted by the surprising site of beautifully maintained gardens, four century old buildings (including Para Bibi's tomb, Lalbargh mosque and old quarters) and many locals. There was also a great view of the surrounding city. We spent a few hours here, wandering around slowly and chatting with the locals. The thing I'll remember about this place is the stunning beauty of the women! Some of the most amazing I've ever laid my eyes upon, dressed in their colourful saris. I'll forever regret not taking a photo of a group of four of them who actually spoke with me!

At around 4:30pm we finally made a move back for Hotel Ramna, where we were to meet a local, Mahmud at 6pm. I'd been corresponding with him and he surprised me by turning up at my hotel room door at 7am that morning! From Lalbargh Fort we got a rickshaw as far as Dhaka University, then walked back via the architectural gem that was Curzon Hall. Upon reaching the road of our hotel we were met by hundreds of demonstrators. There was a huge number of police officers clad in riot gear, yet for some bizarre reason my primary concern was where I could find toilet paper! Despite the trouble brewing, I felt quite safe as a tourist, as long as I stayed out of the trouble.

We met Mahmud at the hotel, and took a local bus out to the National Assembly building to see it lit up at night. Designed by a famous American architect whose name I don't remember, it was one of the most impressive pieces of modern architecture I'd ever seen. We also saw General Zia's grave nearby before getting a CNG taxi to Mahmud's house. The traffic in this part of Dhaka was insane, with hundreds of beat up buses packing the streets. Each one looked like it was straight out of a Mad Max film!

It was a massive day, and I was totally exhausted by the end of it. My first impressions of the Bangladeshi people were that they were a very curious and interesting bunch, as well as extremely friendly and very very helpful! In less than two days I was fascinated.

* * * * *

Sookmui and Thomas (another traveller I met at the airport in Dhaka) joined me for a second day of siteseeing, beginning a little later due to the opening times of the museums we wanted to visit. Our first stop of the day was at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque, the largest mosque in Dhaka. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to look inside, but as with the previous day we were met with lots of inquisitive looks from the locals!

Our next stop was at the Liberation war museum, which was quite difficult to find. After being pointed around a number of corners a helpful rickshaw driver guided us all the way to the ticket booth. We spent about an hour and a half at the small museum, taking in a wealth of previously unknown information about Bangladesh's struggle for independence, and in particular information about the war of liberation from March until December 1971. I had no idea that Bangladesh's independence was gained through a terrible war with the barbaric Pakistani army. The museum was biased somewhat, and the photos of bodies being eaten by dogs, scores of women raped by soldiers and thousands of refugees living in concrete pipes were really awful. At around noon we walked up to the National museum where we spent an hour and a half looking at exhibits on geography and geology, historical aritifacts, artwork and more on the liberation war.

We had a late lunch in the ladies room of a restaurant near our hotel and then said goodbye to Sookmui who flew onto India that afternoon. Thomas and I then went for a wander around Motijheel, the commercial district not far from our hotel. It was quite surreal here. There were a lot of banks and a handful of travel agencies but not much else. We met Mahmud later for a look at a bookfair at the Dhaka university before grabbing some dinner back near the hotel.

* * * * *

I spent the next day confined to my hotel room with a nasty bout of the traveller's bug, but ventured downstairs for a small breakfast the following day, and then outside to breath in some fresh Dhaka city air! I managed to contact my friend Mere's sister Cristy, who was working near Dhaka, and we arranged to meet at 3:30pm that afternoon. She was kind enough to let me spend a few days with her and her husband, and it would be good to be with some fellow Tasmanians for a while!

I had one errand to run first though, which involved heading out to passport office to get a 'change of route' permit; a document that would allow me to leave by land after entering by air. Ridiculous. It was a little frustrating, first finding the building, then the floor, then the window, then the next window and so on.

After I finally got my receipt I got a rickshaw down to the National Assembly building to take some photos in the daylight. The roads were blocked so it was a little difficult and I was also feeling a bit exhausted so I grabbed a CNG taxi back to the hotel. It felt really good to get some downtime for an hour but it went far too quickly.

It wasn't long before I was out at the New Market waiting for Cristy and her husband Gavin. There were plenty of locals willing to have a chat with me as I waited, but when Gavin called to say they were running ten minutes late I decided to check out bookshops. It wasn't long before Cristy found me, talking to a local about Australian politics strangely enough! It turned out that half the people at the market knew exactly where I was. If there are two foreigners somewhere in Bangladesh it's a given to the locals that they know each other and are probably looking for each other.

We met Gavin and two other couples from their NGO, Christian and Amy and Craig and Victoria. We split for three quarters of an hour, Gav, Christian and I making for the bookshops and the others for saris. Soon after we rendez-voused two locals found me and rather than greet me with the typical "your country?" or something similar, one said "Hey. My friend Taliban." Seeing the dumbstruck look on my face, due to the fact I wasn't sure if I'd heard him correctly he added "Afghanistan." I didn't find the joke, if that's what it was, funny and we quickly moved on.

We split into two CNGs, picked up my pack from the hotel and then made for the Australian Embassy Club. There was a bush dance evening on, so it was a nice way to wind down after a slightly busy day, with western food and dancing. Everyone was quite surprised to hear that I was just travelling through the country as they really do get very few tourists here. Some people seemed a little pretentious, unsurprising really after my experience in Cambodia. At around midnight we got a taxi for CRP in Savar, the hospital where Gavan and Cristy lived and work. It would be a nice way to chill out after a hectic few weeks in Burma and Dhaka!
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