It’s one of the least visited countries in the world. And also, one of the most interesting one. Let’s dive into tumultuous Bangladesh for a week of adventure.
When you think of the “least visited countries”, you may picture the dream-like beaches of Nauru, Tuvalu or Kiribati, that we visit on our “Least visited countries combo tour”. But Bangladesh, which used to promote itself with the slogan “visit Bangladesh before the tourists come” can be considered the world’s least touristy country, with 1,273 local per tourist according to data from 2016. I went there with YPT in June 2023, and here’s what I saw.
Dhaka, the most chaotic capital in the world
Some capitals make a mark on you due to the amount of stuff to see. Others, on the other hand, are completely forgettable because there is nothing to do there. And then there’s Dhaka, a capital where, objectively, there’s not much to visit, but which is so incredible that it will leave a deep impression on you.
My trip there didn’t start well, though. Exiting the undersized and clearly obsolete Shah Jalal International Airport (which will fortunately be getting a third international terminal at the end of 2023), I wondered why I decided to come here. 40°C, 80% humidity, people everywhere, a mess of cars, lorries, CNGs (the local tuk-tuk, which runs on compressed natural gas, hence the name CNG), no organisation… “Dhaka airport is the seventh gate to hell”, I wrote to a friend.
Then, little by little, I got used to it. And began to appreciate this strange capital, one of the most densely populated in the world, with an estimated population of 21 million. Lalbagh Thana, the central district, is considered the densest in the world, with 168,151 inhabitants per km². This compares with 20,000 in Paris.
Our exploration of the city started at the Kawran Bazar, one of the biggest markets in Dhaka. Here you can find wholesale goods (clothes, kitchen utensils, etc.) as well as fruit, vegetables, and spices. The deeper you go into the aisles, the more you are plunged into another universe, right up to the spice market, where the air is so saturated with flavours that it’s hard to breathe.
We then crossed the river in a small motorboat to one of Dhaka’s large shipyards, located just opposite Sadarghat, in old Dhaka. The workers there dismantle or repair old ships, in dreadful health and safety conditions. We wandered to the throbbing sound of hammers striking metal under hulls the size of buildings; a setting that looks like it’s out of a science-fiction movie to us but is the reality of many locals.
I wrote above that there’s nothing to see in Dhaka. That’s not entirely true. There are a few pretty mosques that we visited during the day. The Baitul Mukarram mosque, one of the largest in the world (but not particularly beautiful); the astonishing Hussaini Dalan mosque built by the Shiites in the 17th century; or the magnificent Star Mosque (Tara Masjid), decorated with Chinese porcelain.
We also visited the Pink Palace, officially known as the Ahsan Manjil Museum, a 19th-century palace, and the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection, founded in 1781. Since the Armenian community has left Dhaka, religious services here are rare, but the monument is listed as one of the country’s national heritage sites.
Another important historical monument in Dhaka is Lalbagh Fort, built in 1678 and the best-known symbol of Mughal rule in Bengal. The fort was built as the official residence of the governor and the complex also includes the tomb of Pari Bibi and a mosque. Finally, Curzon Hall, a building from the time of the British Raj, houses the Faculty of Science at Dhaka University.
But the most interesting thing to do in Dhaka is to walk around, talk to the locals, explore the bazaars (including the Shankhari Bazaar, in the heart of a neighbourhood that is 80% Hindu), or simply sit in a café, order a mango lassi and observe this hive.
Last stop before leaving: the National Parliament. Built between 1961 and 1982 (with a break due to Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971), it was designed by the American architect Louis Kahn. It covers an area of 800,000 m², making it one of the largest administration buildings in the world.
Barisal, the Venice of Bengal
After Dhaka, we headed south to Barisal. Situated on the banks of the river Kirtankhola, this city of 500,000 inhabitants is one of the oldest municipalities and river ports in the country.
We are here less to visit the city than to see Kuriana, the largest floating market in Bangladesh. After sailing for an hour along many small rivers linking villages that seemed lost in time, we arrived at Baukathi, a popular floating vegetable market where many traditional handmade wooden boats are filled with farmers selling their freshly grown vegetables to the town’s vegetable vendors. As in Dhaka, we are the only tourists here. So much so that one man came up to me and asked if I was Chinese.
We continued our journey through this maze of canals, passing numerous boats loaded with vegetables, cows – the Eid festival is in a few days’ time – and logs. The quietness of the rivers was very welcomed after the hustle and bustle of Dhaka, even if the monsoon prevented us from enjoying it totally. But it’s all part of the adventure!
We returned to Dhaka by ferry, the most popular means of transport between the two cities. The night crossing was quite comfortable – at least for us, who had first-class cabins (many of the passengers slept on mattresses on the floor). The good atmosphere on the boat and the extreme friendliness of the Bangladeshi people made the crossing very pleasant!
Panam City, a time-capsule
The last major place we visited; Panam City is one of the oldest cities in Bangladesh still standing. Capital of the Bengal ruler Isa Khan in the 15th century, the city was once an important commercial and political centre. The uninhabited site now features buildings from the Sultan, Mughal and British colonial periods. We were lucky to be the only ones there, as the site was supposed to be closed due to Eid, but the guards let us in. One of the perks of being in a YPT group!
There are other places in Bangladesh that are well worth a visit – notably the mangrove forest that covers the south of the country – but that was the end of it for us, as we then took off for Bhutan.
Far from being just a quick stopover before Bhutan (in a “kill two birds with one stone” way, which is the original reason I went there), Bangladesh was a wonderful surprise. I really fell under the spell of this country and its people!