Thursday, February 20, 2014

Preface: Why Bangladesh?

Bit wordy title with apologies to George Harrison, but going to Bangladesh without that song in one's head would be like heading to Kathmandu without Seger.  A question asked by many is "Why Bangladesh?" or perhaps "Bangladesh!!!  WTF???".  Both good questions.  For the past 20 years, I've had a real focus on SE Asia and have managed to pick off every country surrounding Thailand.  During that time I've also developed a fascination with India, which I believe to be the most interesting travel destination on the planet, a place where  every day evokes mind-blowing moments not experienced elsewhere.  Having never made it to northeastern India, my original goal was to visit this area and include Sikkim and Darjeeling; my timetable, however, wasn't really suitable for the cold and damp of Sikkim at this time of year.  I remember a Satyijat Ray film (Katchenjungha) that involved a trip to the area, with hopes of seeing the mountain peak through the fog.  Everyone seemed to be freezing, so I dismissed this idea while looking for somewhere else nearby that wouldn't be full of tourists, yet would still at least enable a visit to Calcutta, or Kolkata as it's now commonly spelled.  Bhutan would be too cold, so I started investigating Bangladesh, without really much hope of finding a month's worth of things to do.  WRONG!  A few guidebooks from the library (Bradt and LP) revealed a fascinating country with national parks (the Sundarbans being the most famous and home of some of the few remaining Bengal tigers on earth), a thriving hill tribe region (Chittagong Hill Tracts), the longest natural white sand beach in the world and some lovely tea growing regions which afford bicycling opportunities.  One real concern was that the population of Bangladesh is 155 million people in an area the size of Iowa (3 million).  Fortunately, the vast majority live in a few cities and there's plenty of room to get away from it all, most notably in the region of hill tribes that interests me the most.  I jotted down a flexible plan that would involve several days in the capitol city of Dhaka, 6 days in the Sundarbans and its adjacent villages, a few days in Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city, a week in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a few days at an elephant reserve at the southeasternmost tip of Bangladesh near the Burmese border, a few days at the beaches of Cox's Bazaar and St Martin's Island and a few days in the tea-growing region of Srimongol  Then I booked a deal on Qatar Air from NYC and, with a bit of good luck, was later given a schedule change that turned a brief layover in Doha into an 8 hour layover, enough time to walk into the city and have a look around.  Feel free to subscribe to this blog and with luck from the rural internet Gods, I'll be updating it every couple of days.
PS  Since I'm writing this for myself, friends, family AND fellow travelers who would like more info about Bangladesh, may you forgive references not applicable to your being here.  I'll try to add a special travelers section to the end of most posts, with various travel tips.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

NYC to Dhaka via Doha

The trip began uneventfully enough with a subway ride on the E train out to JFK.  My flight schedule dictated that I head out to the airport during rush hour on a Friday night, not a fun time to be juggling a carryon-sized suitcase and a backpack.  This is the lightest I've traveled in years for a trip of this length (40 days), but after lugging a huge suitcase around Laos in 2012, I never wanted to do that again.  This time I'm traveling with 4 days of clothing, a water purification system, a laptop, Kindle, iPod, noise cancelling headphones, two guidebooks, camera and a white noise machine along with various meds and toiletries and a  book on beginning yoga for those lonely nights in hotel rooms without wifi.

Doha at Night From the Corniche
I decided to fly Qatar Airlines based on its stellar reputation and it truly earned the raves; even in coach, there's a great individual entertainment system with over 500 movies and TV shows to choose from.  The flight started with a tasty dinner (yes, a tasty meal in economy), then I watched the Stones most recent concert in Hyde Park followed by a 1972 Stones concert film.  Finally popped a valium and managed to get 4-5 hours of sleep prior to arrival in Doha.  I had learned that Qatar offered a free hotel room to those with an 8 hour layover or more; since my flight got in an hour early, I made a vain attempt to argue that I would be there for 8 hours, but they weren't buying it, so I hit the streets and walked the 3 miles into town.  Lovely city and nothing like the Middle East I remembered from a 1982-3 job in Saudi.  Friendly people and incredible architecture.  A nice blend of the old and new.  The final leg of the 27 hour trip began with a huge scrum at the ticket counter.  I had been warned that Bangladeshis get a bit rowdy at airports (surely in response to the natural instinct to fight for every inch of space in a country with such population density), so as I found myself becoming impatient with the ordeal, I realized that I'd better chill out or face misery for the next 30 days.  Boarded another excellent Qatar Air flight, listened to Highway 61 Revisited (the entire album was on their entertainment system) then watched Blue Jasmine (is it unPC to watch Woody Allen movies now?  Probably) and some highlights from No Country for Old Men (i.e. all the Javier Bardem scenes).
We touched down in Dhaka right on time at 9:45 AM, so the trip that began at 6:30 PM Friday night in NYC finally ended on Sunday morning.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dhaka Blues

Much credit to the kind people at the Dhaka airport.  Was able to obtain a visa on arrival and go through immigration and customs in about 20 minutes, no small feat given other stories I'd read.  A brilliant young man set me up with a SIM card and 1GB of data for the princely sum of $10, enough to keep my phone functional for the 30 days I'll be here.  He asked where I was from and (to make it easier for people who would stare blankly if I mentioned Oregon) I told him LA.  He asked if I'd ever been to Hollywood then told me his favorite show ever was Breaking Bad.  FIST BUMP!  He had every episode on disc and we both bemoaned the end of the series.  Now it was time to head outside and face the unknown.  Checked the taxi rate to my hotel (1500 taka, lowered to 1300; roughly 80 taka/$1, or about 1.2 taka/dollar).  Previous research indicated that I could do better outside the airport and, sure enough, I negotiated a CNG for 600 ($7.50).
What Smog?
CNGs are like tuk tuks in Thailand and run on compressed natural gas, hence the CNG name for these small motorcycle driven, caged, taxis.  Now it was time to get into the real Dhaka, which involves horrible traffic jams and continual honking.  The pecking order in traffic is diesel trucks, buses, cars/taxis, CNGs, bicycle rickshaws and pedestrians.  There are also hand-lugged carts, horse carts, cycle driven carts, bicycle driven carts and even a few bicycles.  The smog is atrocious, much like Mexico City, Beijing or '60s Los Angeles.  Smog mixed with dust and you've got some real respiratory disease.  Oh, and a large percentage of people smoke cigarettes.  The trip to the hotel took almost two hours and we traveled less than ten miles.  We were involved in 3 accidents, but with such slow traffic, they were just minor scrapes that didn't warrant stopping.
Light Traffic..Buses, Horses, Cycle Rickshaws
 Finally arrived at the lovely Hotel 71 (named after Bangladesh independence from Pakistan in 1971).  The hotel encompasses the top 9 floors of an office building.  I got a nice single in the back for $29, but the street noise is still very loud.  After the exhausting trip, was only able to take a stroll around the neighborhood (Dhaka neighborhoods all seem to have their own individual businesses; mine involves auto accessory shops, auto repair shops and electrical lighting outlets).  Ate a little street food (2 excellent veggie pakora for 7 cents and some sweets--the Bangladeshis, like the Indians, love sweets and they've got an amazing variety to choose from in shops that specialize only in sweets).  Ate a wildly expensive Indian dinner at the hotel ($6), popped a couple of valium and the street noise disappeared for 12 hours.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dhaka--Takin' it to the Streets

After a nice long rest, availed myself of the excellent free buffet breakfast in the 19th floor restaurant.  Some Trip Advisor reviews have bemoaned the lack of European or American breakfasts, but I quite liked the Bangla breakfast which included Paratha (unleavened bread cooking in layers), daal, goat shanks, papaya and pineapple juices, coffee (instant!), mixed veggies, pancakes, toast and a few desserts, one of which was a carrot pudding that tasted much like rice pudding.  I ate a lot of the excellent daal.

Since it wasn't far from the hotel, I decided to visit the War Liberation Museum first.  After reluctantly forking over the 7 cent admission fee, I was able to learn about the ins and outs of the liberation war of 1971, the war from which East Pakistan became Bangladesh.  The atrocities committed against the Bangla people by the Pakistanis are well-documented, along with the heroic actions of the Bangla freedom fighters which included students, women and some military defectors.  One section detailed worldwide reaction to the war of liberation, including photos of the Bangladesh concert and the US reaction (Nixon backed the Pakis, but there was a lot of Democratic resistance to Nixon's support as well as various US student groups in favor of Bangla independence.  Fucking Nixon lives on, even in the hinterlands of the 3rd World).  I'll digress a bit here and say that the Banglas are big fans of the US.  Several people thanked me for the US aid as well as the movements to ensure safe working conditions for garment workers and their knowledge of US politics is quite good.

Next stop was a walk through old Dhaka which is far and away the most interesting part of the city.  Being a white guy who stands 6" taller than most locals, I became the subject of a lot of staring and questioning.  This was a good opportunity to exchange dialogue with English speaking folk, take some photos (Banglas love having their photos taken), shake hands and generally show a culture with quite an inferiority complex that they're a lovely people worthy of respect and admiration.
Cycle Rickshaw Driver
 As previously mentioned, trades tend to gather in groups and I could have spent hours watching the sometimes rudimentary ways people go about fabricating goods.  Though 16 million people somehow fit into an area the size of Manhattan (1.6 million people), there's a certain calmness in an area that might drive some foreigners crazy with traffic, huge crowds on the sidewalks, crossing streets, etc.
Yep, It Really IS This Crowded
 At one point I tripped over some barbed wire and went flying into the street, I got hit by a car (just barely) and just about walked into an open manhole.  You'd better be looking in at least 4 directions when you walk around here, but damn, it's just so fascinating to see things somehow come together in one of the most chaotic places in the world.

Then it was down to Sadergat, which is the riverbank where everything from huge ferries to rowboats take off.  I opted for a quick rowboat ride across the river and back after haggling with the rowers; one guy wanted 100 taka, but I eventually paid 5 taka (the locals pay 2). Like most SE Asian nations, everything here is haggled upon.  I'm trying to keep perspective and realize that 10 taka is only 12 cents and that 10 taka means a lot more to the guy cycling you around town than it does to most travelers.  While one doesn't want to get taken advantage of, one also doesn't need to fight like a Bangla for every taka.  That said, the rickshaw drivers will try to pull fast ones;  a ride yesterday that was agreed upon at 50 taka wound up with the driver demanding 500 taka (which is close to two days pay for some of these guys, even though the ride took only 30 minutes).  I followed proper etiquette and placed the 50 on the driver's seat and just walked away.  Today was quite a bit more difficult as three drivers agreed to take me places and none had a clue where they were going.  In one case I gave an old guy an extra 20 (25 cents) because he got me to my destination, in another I just got miffed and told the guy to stop and paid the agreed fare of 40 cents and walked the rest of the way.  The final guy got bad directions from one of his fellow drivers and wound up pedaling twice as far as he needed to.  He kept apologizing and when I patted him on the back I realized the guy was practically skeletal.  In his case, his 35 taka fare became 100 and I probably bought a little good karma.

Eating has been good.  Managed to make it to Haji Biriana for some mutton biriani.  Probably the most famous restaurant in town.  You get a plate of cumin rice with maybe 4 ounces of mutton and some hot green chile to munch on.   Total tab was 130 taka (about $1.75) for a filling meal.  You eat with your hands, though they will offer a spoon.  Also ate at a kebab house tonight and for less than $3 received a tasty spread that included mustard stuffed beef kabobs, two salads, rice and a large cold bottle of water.
$3 Buys a Lot of Food and Drink

Two days in Dhaka is quite enough.  There's limited sightseeing activity, beyond simply observing the mass of humanity.  I did make it to the National Museum, the Pink Palace, an old fort, Curzon Hall on the Dhaka University campus, and a shopping district specializing in clothing (most of it was junk and cut for much smaller people than I---too bad because I really wanted a t-shirt that had James Dean in a Laker jersey with Magic Johnson's number on it.  It just said "Angeles" instead of "Los Angeles".   One of the highlights was getting to play some cricket with a youth group.  I batted a bit and also bowled for the first time every.  Hitting isn't as easy as it might look.
My Cricket Buddies

I Liked This Guy's Beard
And Since I Needed a Haircut Anyways......

 Tomorrow I take a plane to Jessore, the gateway city for the Sundarbans National Park, home of most of the few surviving Bengal Tigers in the world.  Sorry about this annoying color; can't seem to get rid of it in this post.

Look for a uniformed guard near the pay station for visas on arrival.  You'll see this pay point a few minutes after dis-embarking.  He expedited things and while he didn't ask for a tip, I gave him a dollar for all his help walking me back and forth between the immigration authorities and the pay window.  The only form you need to \fill out will be given to you on the plane.  Once you have the stamp, head to the far left Visa on Arrival line.  When I was there it was much shorter than any other line.  Just opposite the line is the Bangalink phone center and you can buy 1GB of data and a goodly amount of phone time for around $10; the young guys there know what they're doing and will have you up and running in no time.  They do ask for a passport photo, so bring extras.  Hotels exist in all price ranges.  I opted for the business class Hotel 71 ($29 single with huge buffet breakfast) which is about a 2 mile walk to the river (or roughly a 50 taka cycle ride).  I wish it were quieter here, but not sure you'll find any quiet hotels in this town unless you head to the distant suburbs or perhaps find a hotel down a narrow alleyway.  Most restaurants do not have English menus (though there are a few listed in the Lonely Planet).  Please feel free to subscribe to this blog and ask any questions you wish.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dhaka to Khulna

Found myself awake at 5AM and rather than face the traffic nightmare in visiting the airport, I headed out at 6AM and made it in 25 minutes (vs the 1:45 trip from the airport to the hotel).  Airport security is pretty lax at DAC, at least for domestic flights.  Today I flew an AR-72 to Jessore, only a 30 minute trip by air, but about a 10 hour bus ride.  Upon arrival at Jessore, was placed on an airline-run mini-bus that took my group the further 90 minutes to Khulna.
This was a pleasant drive through rural Bangladesh and at one point we were only 20 miles from the Indian border.  Lots of rice paddies and farmers tending their crops.  A nice change from Dhaka, though for some reason there were also a lot of brick and cement factories in between the farms.  Khulna is a rather non-descript city of 1.5 million people, the third largest city in Bangladesh.  At one point it had a thriving port and one could take a ferry steamer from Dhaka to Khulna.
Bangla Logging Truck
 Apparently the river isn't deep enough anymore for this sort of travel.  Wound up checking in at the excellent City Inn...make that kind of excellent since they're doing a lot of new construction and what might have been a quiet night in a room at the back has now become a noisy night in a room up front by the road.  The choice was jackhammers or horns honking.  Looks like my trip to the Sundarbans might be moved up to tomorrow, so this may be the last post for a few days as there isn't any internet down there.

Airfare from Dhaka to Jessore is $45, plus an additional $2.50 for the bus to Khulna.  Unless you plan to visit Bagerhat and/or the Sundarbans, there's really not much to recommend in Khulna.  The City Inn is far and away the nicest place in town and a single with a/c and breakfast costs around $30 including all taxes.  Hopefully if you stay there, the construction work will be finished.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bagerhat and Khulna

Shait Gumbad Mosque 1459
Received a late night call indicating that the original planned trip to the Sundarbans was now back on, so spent a good part of the day at the World Heritage Site of Bagerhat.  In an effort to spread Islam to the hinterlands about 150 km S of Dhaka, Khan Jahan Ali, a Sufi began a huge building campaign in the mid 15th century.  The trip out to Bagerhat involves a one hour bus ride and several kms of walking from site to site, including some delightful paths through working villages.  I visited six mosques and the tomb of Ali and I was the only person at three of the mosques; I was shocked to visit one mosque and be invited in during prayer time, but this is more reflective of the relaxed nature of the religion as practiced here in Bangladesh.  In fact, both women and men pray at the same time here and that's a real no-no in more radical Muslim countries.  I continue to be amazed at how kind and helpful Bangladeshis are towards foreigners.  While there's little tourist infrastructure (meaning few English menus among other things), someone always seems to step out of nowhere and lend a hand.  While the food is tasty here, I've been a bit disappointed with the variety on offer; curries or biriyanis seem to be the same everywhere with mutton, chicken or beef being the only variation.  There are some tasty fish dishes as well, both fresh and salt-water.  With no alcohol available, it gets a bit old drinking water with every meal.  I've heard of a few clandestine places selling foreign beers at $5 a can, but so far a $5 can of some lousy domestic beer like Heineken just doesn't appeal.

A Ladder of Rope and Bamboo Reaching Nine Stories High!

Traveler Tips:  The entrance fee of 200 taka for foreigners is the most expensive yet in BD.  Cattycorner from the official entrance gate is an open, unguarded gate for townsfolk.  It's through this gate you can also visit two additional forest mosques.  I'm not necessarily advocating using this gate to avoid paying, but merely mentioning it.  If you choose to enter through the gate, you won't be able to enter the rather mundane museum on the grounds.  No other sites charge admission, though they'll try to shake you down for donations at Ali's tomb.  Bus fare from Khulna (or Mongla) is around 50 taka.  Be sure to ask the driver to drop you off at the first mosque, otherwise you'll have to backtrack about 4 km from the main bus stop in the town of Bagerhat.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mongla and the Sundarbans

After getting completely jerked around by not one, but two travel agents regarding my Sundarbans boat trip.  I got a call late Wednesday night asking if I’d be willing to change my travel date from Friday to Thursday because the Friday boat was booked.  Never mind that I’d made and paid for a reservation a month ago.  After getting everything packed and ready to go I got another call indicating that I would now be going on Friday but instead of leaving from Khulna, where I am staying and where I was originally scheduled to leave from, they decided that I would leave from Mongla, a two hour bus ride away.  Also, my departure time was revised from 7AM to 7PM, a loss of twelve hours.  Complaining did no good.  The man with whom I originally booked told me my complaints were “making him sick” and he hung up on me and refused to return my calls.  He's a well-known poster on various Bangladesh forums and I'll spare him the embarrassment of revealing his name here, but feel free to PM me if you'd like to know who he is.  His partner travel agent could not be budged and told me that because of fog, the boat would have to leave from Mongla.  He also indicated that my real issues were with the original booking agent.  Talk about passing the buck.  There has been zero fog in Khulna the past three days and other boats leave from Khulna.  It was my bad luck to deal with a couple of less than ethical travel agents and I later found out from the boat owner that I could have booked directly from him at a savings of roughly 40% ($165 vs $265).  His name is Mr Rahman and he can be reached via email at  His phone number is 01712-773361 (add 88 if calling from outside of Bangladesh).  There are thousands of travel agents in BD, but only 15 boat owners.  Mr Rahman owns two boats and is having a third built.
The Mongla Market

Anyways, I was escorted to Mongla on an old non-A/C bus (other passengers were driven in private cars) and arrived at 2:30PM, so I had almost 5 hours to kill before boarding the boat (the info from the travel agents was wrong once again).What a shithole is Mongla!  Just a dirty port town with a bunch of seedy characters hanging around.  Not a place you’d want to spend 10 minutes.  Let’s call it the Tijuana of Bangladesh.  At least dinner on the boat was excellent and the live chickens provided some fresh food along with some loud squawks as they were being butchered on board.

My Cabin with King Size Bed
 The cabins on our boat weren't luxurious, but represented good enough value (the luxury boat companies charge $500 for the 3 day/ 2 night tours).
All 8 of us passengers (2 young French backpackers, a Swiss guy about my age and four Bangladeshis) were all impressed with both the quantity and variety of the food.  We had chicken, beef, fish, pullao rice and plenty of fresh veggies for every meal.  There were as many crew members as passengers and they all went out of their way to make our trip as enjoyable as possible.  I can highly recommend Southern Tours and Travel for those looking for good value.  As I understand it, all boats go to the same various beaches and use the same jungle viewing platforms and hike the same trails.

Tiger Food
The main goal of visiting the Sundarbans, besides seeing the largest mangrove forest in the world, is to spot a tiger.  The owner of the company has seen 12 tigers in 20 years, so your chances of seeing one approximate a Powerball lottery win.
Our Boat
Along with the deer to the left, we saw a wild boar, some kingfishers and various other birds.  We got out of the boat for a couple of hour long hikes.  Our late start the first day meant that we pretty much all slept as the boat ran most of the night down to the Bay of Bengal.  From there the idea was to visit Bay of Bengal beaches, spend another night on the boat and then work our way back to Mongla with numerous stops along the way.  Unhappily, it didn't quite work out as planned since we experienced a steady rainfall that only enabled a few stops at government research stations.  No one was particularly dis-appointed since they kept feeding us well and, to be frank, how much mangrove forest does one really need to see?
I find it almost unimaginable that some folks book 5 day/4 night trips.  Although the guide books and travel agents would have you believe that single day, inexpensive trips don't give one enough of a true experience, I'm not sure that I buy that argument.
Nonetheless, the Sundarbans is rightfully considered one of the top tourist destinations in the country and shouldn't be missed, however you decide to go about seeing it.  Oh, and a most special thanks to my French buddies who shared a bit of their precious pastiche (Pernod) with me as we cruised the river on a magical full moon night on day 2.
Part of the Tour Involved A Trip Down a Narrow River on a  Small Boat

Fishing Village in the Forest
  Traveler's Tips:
They're pretty much all in the above narrative.  Unless you're traveling to BD during a special holiday season, you should be able to get on a boat with just a few days notice.  An email to Mr Rahman might also be a good idea if you prefer to make your plans further in advance.  Tell him Bruce from the US sent you.  I'll get nothing out of it, but I did tell him I'd post his contact info.  The French backpackers showed up less than an hour before the half-full boat departed and were able to negotiate a slight discount from the normal rate, though the negotiations ran hot and heavy.  My three day/2 night tour turned out to be a 42 hour tour, so it might be wise to get an exact accounting of the proposed trip and then hope that the plans are honored and the weather is good.