A solo trip to Bangladesh is definitely not for the faint-hearted! Get ready for crowds of people photographing, videoing and following you (I even had excited people sprinting after me)! and being asked hundreds of random questions (one man piped up out of a group of 40 spectators at a train station: “Madam madam! please what are you?”). I should point out (before I put potential travellers off in the first paragraph), that being the centre of attention is all part of the Bangladeshi travel experience, although after a while it does leave you a bit exhausted (sort of like an in-demand celebrity on tour).
Getting negatives out the way first, it’s important to bear in mind that travelling in Bangladesh can sometimes be difficult if not impossible. Although it’s easy to find a cycle or auto-rickshaw in Dhaka – there are literally tens of thousands of them zipping through the traffic-choked roads – exiting the city is another story.
I ended up getting stuck in the Gulshan area during a political rally, with the city on almost total shutdown (a hartal). Leaving was proving to be impossible. It was only by a stroke of luck (I found a guide on an online travel forum and he managed to secure a train ticket) that I managed to reach Srimangal in the north-east. So if you can afford a driver/guide, I definitely recommend it to ensure you actually get to places.
It’s not all hassle though, and it’s definitely one of the best countries I’ve been to for people photography. Bangladeshis are friendly, trustworthy and helpful – and most seem to love having their photo taken. As there’s very little tourism, the rip-off mentality is a rarity and hotel staff are keen to help organise chaperones, informal guides and transport. But Bangladeshi men are very over-protective and I was warned not to go out, well, anywhere! My hotel staff in Dhaka were extremely unhappy about me going out alone, especially after dark, and were absolutely bemused by why a European female tourist would choose to visit Bangladesh. They so want you to be there for something sensible like a conference! Ladies: I should also point out that I didn’t need to wear a headscarf, just a long printed cotton kurta top (from India) with a shawl and leggings, which seemed pretty much OK as an outfit choice.
At the train stations, (despite all the staring), there’s always someone happy to help you find the platform, or guide you through the sacks of produce being piled up onto the train – people even help you find you the right seat (imagine that in the UK!). I found the train journeys a welcome respite from the outside chaos; with tea elegantly served in china crockery by white uniformed waiters. Dhaka stretches for miles and after hours rumbling through the city’s industrial outskirts, we finally emerged into bright green paddy fields that stretched for miles. It was the rural Bangladesh I’d been hoping to escape to.
The sun turned into an enormous dusty ball of faded crimson, drifting lazily towards the horizon. We rattled over dizzying iron bridges, where far below flat glass-like rivers flowed molten copper and rose-gold, mirroring the sunset. Bangladesh was amazingly photogenic. I watched groups of boys hurrying off to village mosques in jewel-coloured kurta shirts, their caps little spots of bright white in the shadowy dusk. As night fell further, the train trundled on through busy trackside markets, their stalls lit by single tungsten bulbs overflowing with shiny fruit. Wisps of smoke from cooking fires cloaked the palms and in the distance I could hear the hypnotic sounds of the call to prayer.
My fellow train passenger to Srimangal was a chivalrous but rather cross little man who held himself totally responsible for my ridiculous solo trip. “Madam” he said, “please close the window there’s robbers out there.” “Madam, just watch your luggage please.” “Who is this man you are meeting. What? You don’t know him? Why are you meeting someone you don’t know alone?” I’d been keeping in contact with my well-reviewed guide Tapas Dash by text (local SIMs are easy to get at the airport by the way), and I was confident he would be there to meet me on the platform. He was, and luckily easy to spot at over 6ft! We walked to Green Leaf Guesthouse, which was welcoming and homely. There were a good few independent travellers staying there too (a rare species in Bangladesh!). Srimangal turned out to be superb for photography. Tapas arranged some excellent eco-focused excursions to places I wouldn’t have had a clue how to get to. The Wetlands area was stunningly beautiful, where lotus-covered lakes glow gold at sunset. (feature image) We wandered around pineapple plantations, serene national parks with interesting walking trails, a tea estate and a Manipuri village. If you go in mid-February, the weather is perfect too.
We also stopped at the Nilkonthi Tea Cabin to try a glass of their famous seven-layered tea. Sipping each coloured stripe slowly, we tried to detect the flavours – a subtle mix of black, green, milk tea and spices. A unique taste experience for tea lovers for just a few taka.
When we left Srimangal there weren’t any seats left on the train, but one of the kind guards brought me a little wooden bench for the five hour journey (nobody cared about it blocking the aisle either!) Finally back in Dhaka, I decided to take a boat ride from the main Sadarghat out on the Buriganga River. It was a nerve-wracking experience being perched in a tiny wooden rowing boat while hulking cargo ships ploughed through the black sewagey water only a few feet away, but worth it for the photo opportunities. (One of my Sadarghat photos was runner-up in a competition). As I made my way home by cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets of Old Dhaka, I was rewarded with crowds of people cheering and waving, a typically enthusiastic Bangladeshi send-off on my last day!