There aren’t many means of transportation as iconic of the old days of traveling as steamboats. Along with steam trains (like the one that can still be ridden in Eritrea), steamboats or paddle steamers are the kinds of vehicles transportation geeks dream of riding. As it turns out, at YPT, we are quite the transportation geeks ourselves, so when we heard that it was still possible to go around on the paddle-steamers of Bangladesh, we just knew we had to go and do it.
The paddle steamers, a history
The paddle steamers of Bangladesh have been brought to the country in the early twentieth century, as the country was still part of the colonial British regime on the Indian Sub-continent. Back then, those boats were nicknamed the Rocket Paddle steamers as they provided with the fastest, most efficient and comfortable way to navigate the tricky waters of Bangladesh, a country below sea-level and thus filled with rivers. The boats were made in Scotland for the British East India Company and exported to Bangladesh, where they stayed and kept being maintained after independence. Nowadays, the king of the Bengal rivers has been dislodged, and ferries are overtaking its place as they provide a faster alternative. There are four paddle steamers left in the whole country.
While still called paddle steamers, the boats have actually been converted to diesel engines in the 90s. For the rest, however, they are still as they were in the colonial days, including its massive steam whistle!
The paddle steamer
The boats, which are four of the six left in the world, can run at nine nautical miles and accommodate up to 800 passengers. They have been maintained since the colonial days with not many changes apart from the engine and the roof, which has been changed to tin tiles. The paddle steamer still runs because of the sentimental value Bangladeshi gives it but also because they have an important role connecting smaller communities to the waterways, as the faster ferries, or launch, do not stop in these smaller villages.
The paddle-steamer rooms
The boats offer different classes of lodging. There are twelve first-class cabins. First-class cabins go for about $30, but they are often sold-out. In that class, rooms are either twin rooms or single rooms, they include a small bassinet to wash oneself, linen and a fan. First-class also gives you access to dining facilities and to an outside deck, where you can enjoy the view while a steward serves tea and biscuit, in a complete British Raj experience. The second-class cabins are similar, albeit smaller and about half the price, do not have the bassinet and linen. In the second class, it is not possible to access the outside deck but it is possible to use the dining facilities from the first-class ticket, for an extra fee.
There are also inter and deck classes which are much cheaper but also much less comfortable. In those classes, you won’t get access to facilities and are expected to bring your own sleeping bag to sleep.
Departure of the paddle steamers
The paddle-steamers leave from Dhaka on certain days of the week but as they are being taken out of commission quite quickly, there is less and less availability. It also happens sometimes that a paddle-steamer is out of order and its voyage, canceled. The safest day to board the paddle-steamer and have the most chances of getting the experience is on Mondays.
It is possible to take the paddle steamer from Dhaka, Sadarghat River Boat Terminal, to the following destinations: Barishal, Hularhat, and Morelganj.
Tickets can and should be pre-booked as they often sell out before departure. Tickets can be pre-booked up to a month before departure and will be issued two days before departure. It is necessary to keep in touch with the staff of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation to make sure that they do not sell your tickets out to someone else!
Like most of Bangladesh, the paddle steamer offers a hectic, exhilarating yet charming experience. You can expect to be amazed at how the captain steers this massive ship, without today’s contemporary electronic equipment, amongst the busy rivers of Bangladesh, filled with boats of all size, from barge taxis to massive cargo ships. You are certain to mingle with locals who will be very curious about you, as Bangladesh does not get many tourists yet. The steamers are preferred by some locals as they offer a cheaper, safer and less congested means of transportation to the regular ferries. The itinerary will take you through lush parts of the country as it goes past the mangroves of the Sundarbans, the largest of their kind in the world and habitat of the Bengal tiger, and makes for a formidable voyage.