How to survive Bangladesh, an impression of Dhaka

Dhaka — city of noise. I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t woken up by one the thousands of klaxons each morning. Buses, cars, trucks, CNG’s (a modified tuk-tuk), motors and rickshaws all start hustling early in the morning. The city wakes up around 5 am. If it isn’t the klaxons, it’s the construction workers. If we’re not woken up by hammers and saws, there’s knocking and screaming hotel-boys trying to wake up the other sleepy hotel-visitors for work. We were always trying to stay at the cheap local hostels. Most hotels are geared towards business-tourists, paying hundreds of dollars per night. Accommodation for budget travellers isn’t settled like in Thailand and many local hotels refused us. They didn’t want a foreign couple in their place. Even if we told them we’re married and Muslim.

bit hard to see, but people climbed on top and were running around to get ahold of transport back to their home.

That’s what we discovered the first night we arrived in Dhaka. We’re experienced travellers by the way, not afraid to take local transport instead of taxi’s, talk with local people and accustomed to avoid the beaten path. But the day we arrived there was a strike by the transport workers and thus the few buses available were filled to the knock and some had 20+ people on top.

local people earning money by taking on passengers. You can see how many are trying to get in.

But our adventure started before — at Immigration. The police here looked at us very long without saying a word. It makes you nervous, awkward and you feel pressure. When one suddenly spoke we discovered how strict they are here. We couldn’t show a hotel reservation, because we didn’t book one. We like to just go and experience. After booking one online, they asked about Mevish about her background. Her British passport was not enough to answer their curiosity. Mevish has Pakistani roots, because of this she was worried about being discriminated (Note, Pakistan launched a barbaric war against the Bengali’s in 1971. This became known as the the Liberation War, paving the way for the State of Bangladesh).

average morning in Dhaka

First impression

She’s laughing in the same way when she teases me. While we’re walking around at arrival and searching for the exit she can’t stop laughing. Everyone is looking at us — the foreigners. So many taxi touts, money changers and other services all shouting at me; greedy for the money they see. I feel they’re fighting for me and this feeling returns many times later during my stay in Dhaka. While she’s laughing she’s taking charge too, walks through the guards that carry big automatic guns and ignoring anyone shouting at her while demanding me to follow. We exit arrivals and everything freezes. I look around and all I see is a fence, twice as high as the average length of the hundreds of people behind it. They balance their weight against the bars, some curling their arms as snakes around it, some others holding them — like a prisoner behind bars. Some of them are sitting on the ground, all piled up and hardly having any space to move. They’re trying to keep their seat, not giving a single inch while waiting for family or friends to come through the arrival gate. But they only see me. And I see their stares; it’s like everything stopped, the air couldn’t move and I could only see a massive pile of people behind the fence. Such a metaphor; emphasising my freedom and their imprisonment within their own country. Later I would learn this to be partly true. ‘Come, let’s go Lowen!’ she wakes me up. I wish I had taken a photo of this moment but the pressure of a new country, new smells, damp air, the guards with huge guns, shouting people and hundreds of stares, told my instinct to keep up with her. She seems to have seen it all along and walks through the gates, ignoring the guards, walking down the highway. There’s no space for pedestrians and I follow her on the asphalt. We try to stop a couple of CNG’s, but they’re too expensive. We continue to walk on a small path while everybody is staring at us — the foreigners. We are stranger for them, than they are for us.

It’s dark outside. When we arrive at the highway we see hundreds of people. With the street barely lit, most people are just shadows or silhouettes. Most are walking around, some are waiting, some with suitcases returning from work, others eating or talking. Suddenly a boy sprints past me, my first instinct was fear of our luggage, but he runs to a bus and climbs on top while others help him. Than I notice the 3m high buses with 20+ people on top. I wasn’t expecting this at all. It felt like we arrived in a war zone where everyone is fighting for themselves — hoping to catch the last bus home. People are standing in the entrance of the bus holding on for their lives while buses are driving at high speed and honking continuously. I feel so exposed; a couple of foreigners walking around with their luggage. We look so different. Suddenly we hear ‘taxi?’ and it was a man who couldn’t speak English. We tried to explain our destination, but when that didn’t work out suddenly 10 people were around us. It got me a bit nervous at first, until someone spoke almost perfect, accented, English. They were translating for us, but the taxi-driver didn’t want to take us. The first questions of our bystanders fired. Where are you from, where do you go, tourist or business? While questions were fired, one of them offered to help us. He introduced himself as a bank manager (I unfortunately lost his business card and thus name) and we followed him up on the bridge to cross the highway. He talks to a couple of CNG’s, but none want to take us. We didn’t want to take his time and thank him. He was bound to help us but we assured him it was alright. He wrote a translation for us, directions to our hotel, in his Bengali. After an hour of asking around we were finally able to get a CNG. Meanwhile so many people tried to help us and if it wasn’t for them, it would’ve taken us much longer to get a ride.

I look at her staring through the rails of the CNG. My first impressions were so strong, that now we can finally relax while driving. Even though the CNG feels like a little prison. They’re basically tuk-tuk’s with a cage around it, sometimes locked from the driver’s side. But my first impressions were diminished by the friendly people that helped us. Immediately I couldn’t help but feel a certain admiration for the people of this country.

This impression is the first of many I had in this country. I could write a long blog of each day we were there, but let me spare you the many, many details and cut to the chase (with some anecdotes here and there).

Disclaimer

This country is not for the fainthearted. If you have no experience travelling in a 3rd world country, I would not recommend you to go there. Not alone at least for sure. Dhaka is rapidly developing, but outside of the business districts, everything is chaotic.

The people

You HAVE to understand something before visiting Bangladesh.As a foreigner be forewarned of the stares. Don’t feel intimidated, it’s their way of showing appreciation, interest and maybe even some admiration. Mevish noticed a couple of women I walked by were staring and gazing with open mouths as if they were a couple of teenager girls that just saw Justin Bieber walking by.

say hi to everyone

The young and rich people all want to take selfies with you. You will feel like a celebrity. The other day we visited the pink palace. At the end of the tour, almost all the locals take selfies to show and post on Facebook. Once some locals saw me and took pictures with me it was just a matter of seconds to be surrounded by 50 others while more were coming over. I think I’m all over Bangladeshi’s Facebook. Quickly there after we decided to go, we couldn’t really relax. I now had a taste of celebritiness (is that a word?) and I’m happy that I’m not an actual one.

We found that many younger people spoke English quite well and some of the older ones knew some words at least. Often it was not a problem explaining ourselves. So many around us were eager to help and made sure we were safe and not scammed. There was always an ear listening when we talked to someone local. One example is when we took a CNG, the locals around us told the real price and then made sure the driver knew this.

selfies before they noticed us
The disfigured, the blind, the beggars, the street-kids, the people with leprosy. So many are sick or damaged in some other way. It’s painful to see, but it’s the reality of their current state. Don’t be in-compassionate, you’ll only hurt yourself. Spare any change or food on those in need.
sometimes traffic is chill, other times you’re stuck

Traffic

The feeling of being in a war zone where everyone is fighting for themselves returns in the behavior of the traffic. All traffic I’ve seen would drive up close to half an inch of other vehicles. This way others wouldn’t take the space. Traffic does NOT stop for you. Crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh city is peanuts compared to Dhaka. They don’t acknowledge you’re walking there and I see locals jumping around for their lives. Hold up your hand high when you cross the street.

Many of the drivers are illiterate. When you have a written address they will start asking other locals to translate.

some explain with utmost patience. This man tried to help our driver for a long while. Others however…

Prices are negotiable, but they charge a higher rate when there’s traffic jams. Only once we got the driver to charge us by meter. When you don’t agree with the price, there’s always another CNG ready to take you. Actually, while negotiating the price, other CNGs that see you will stop next to you, hoping to steal you away. Sometimes by offering lower prices.

Be sure to look up the area’s name where you need to go to. There are many streets with the same name, but within a different area. Drivers often don’t know the postcodes. One time we didn’t have this and it took us 2 hours to get to our destination.

Also take into account that traffic jams can ruin your day. When we looked up on google maps for the travel-time, it took on average 3x longer longer. Except in the weekend, which is on Fridays and Saturdays.

Hotels

We read from wiki-travel that there’s hotels in Dhaka from 60 taka and up per night. Besides the fact that some of the listed hotels didn’t exist anymore, all the budget hotels told us they’re full. Although I think they simply didn’t want a foreign couple in their hotel and there’s word most simply don’t accept foreigners. Whether this is for religious beliefs, for avoiding annoying tourists or for our safety.. we don’t know. After a couple of hours we finally found one that did serve tourists. But we still paid around $15 for quite a shabby room, no wifi, no hot water, dusty & unclean room. Sometimes there were no towels or toilet paper. In this particular hotel an employee stood outside our room eavesdropping on us. I caught one when I suddenly opened the door. This really emphasized how our every move was captured and the lack of privacy we had.

Always lock your bags when you leave the hotel and don’t leave anything behind that’s worth something. I’m an experienced traveler and I forgot this one day. I left about $200 in NPR and didn’t lock my bag. It was gone when we were back. We had to go to the police, which sent 5 men with shotguns to get it back.

The culture

Always important, but especially in Bangladesh, is to know the history of the country. It was only 45 years ago that Bangladesh fought for their independence. Visit the Liberation museum to enhance your knowledge. Supposedly over three-million people had been killed in 9 month’s in monstrous ways. The hundreds of thousands of women raped go almost unmentioned. Many couldn’t continue to live, committed suicide or underwent abortion in inhumane ways.

Friday afternoon prayers

Bangladesh is a Muslim country. Don’t be afraid, it’s not the way the West portrays it. Except for a couple of extremists, 99% are good people. But always be cautious, tourists were killed last year by some of these extremists.

The hustle and bustle of the city, everybody is hustling. Think New York is about hustle? No way. Literally everybody on the street is dealing and surviving in this poor, ugly and filthy city. It seems so aggressive & hostile to anyone new. But once you understand it’s their way of doing, you’ll understand everybody is in the same boat (except you) and you see how they go all out to help each other.
The beautiful mosque’s. The mosque was closed, but for us they opened it

They know tourists feel lost in the chaos and many are eager to help. The first day so many people helped us. The other day, when my address was incorrect on paper, again so many people came to our rescue. This old man, who spoke perfect English tried to help he had to leave after 10 minutes. He even apologised and gently held my forearm and gave me a nod. It felt so compassionate. The nod known as the infamous Indian head-wiggle, is a form of respectful non-verbal communication. You’ll see it a lot and I came to really appreciate it.

Another example is when I asked the price to a rickshaw driver, a random man next to me translated and told me to only pay 20Taka and made sure our driver knew this as well and wouldn’t scam us.

People in the cafe told us they were so happy to see us and sad to see us go. They even told us everybody was so happy that we’re here.

The stares can feel intimidating. But once you understand it’s curiosity or admiration and keep calm, you will notice that many actually don’t know how to behave around you. They are shy and laugh or giggle when you’re near. Once you understand it’s all out of appreciation, the stares won’t startle you (anymore).

Some must-do’s:

  • A rickshaw ride
  • A CNG ride
  • Food: fish is the local dish. Curries, chapatis & roti (bread), fruit, etc
  • The hustle n bustle in Old Dhaka
  • there’s so many beautiful mosques. Make sure to take off your shoes before you enter them. Otherwise ask someone to help you.
  • Liberation museum
  • The docks and boats
  • Talk with locals. You’ll feel their love and admiration and you’ll understand their culture bit by bit every time you talk with someone.
  • see the docks, take a boat-trip from north to south (we unfortunately had no more time)

Random tips:

  • if mosquito’s love you, spray yourself before leaving the airplane. We were greeted by a couple of 50 in the bus that took us too arrivals.
  • don’t walk at night outside, but don’t be afraid of most people during the day. 99% are nice, but a couple of them spoil it. Basic understanding of this is important. We walked around the second night, but were sent back to our hotel by a concerned officer. Tourists have been robbed and killed before.
  • People want your money, so always be wary. Restaurants try to overcharge and it’s next to impossible to get discounts. When they overcharge be very firm in what you belief is the right price. I felt that often 30–40 year olds tried to scam us the most. The younger and older people hardly ever overcharged us and were always happy to help us and connect with us.
  • Don’t be afraid to eat on the street or at local restaurants, but check if the food is fresh. We ate street food every day and had no problems.
  • charpaties cost 5 taka, sugarcane drinks 10, fruit is 20 or around a 100 for a KG. Local restaurants cost around 300 taka for 2 people, offering grilled chicken, naan bread and a drink.
  • ALWAYS ask for the price first, so you won’t be surprised by any scams.
  • Give your change away. Hotelboys will expect tips, but in local restaurants and taxi’s it’s unnecessary, but appreciated. Instead give it to the poor, the sick and the old. They’re in much higher need for money than any high-class restaurant (in which they do expect 10% tips). Never throw away leftover-food, instead ask to package it (you can say pàkket including some hand-signals) and give it away.
  • Call the elder Uncle or Aunty, it’s a form of respect and they’ll love it. Learn how to say thank you (dan-ya-baad) or how to greet (salam alaikum), it will go a long way. Say bujina if you don’t know/understand (thats what it means) and it will bring up some laughs.
  • So we didn’t go outside of Dhaka. But I can imagine that there’s hardly anyone that can speak English outside of the capital.
Because everybody loves food, nah?
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