Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bangladesh Fortuitous Jolt of Surprise – A New Introduction

Bangladesh has always fascinated me. Didn’t Rabindranath Tagore come from this country? Considered by United Nations as one of the world’s 50 poorest nations, Bangladesh populates itself like there's no tomorrow. It has a population of 162,221,000 spread across 147,570 square kilometers of mostly agricultural land. The Philippines has an area more than double Bangladesh –299,764 square km and a population of 92 million. Now compare this to the state of Texas which has an area of 696,241 square km, more than 4x that of Bangladesh, but a population of just 24,700,000.

The country’s population increases by 2 million a year, and is expected to reach 185 million in 10 years (2020). A country this size may hardly be sustainable in a decade’s time if this isn’t regulated. Sure, the precepts of the largely myopic Roman Catholic doctrines may dismiss any forms of contraception, but thank heavens Bangladeshis are mostly muslims, with a government hang up on political grandstanding. This topic on density is something I strongly believe I should emphasize in this post.

Until the early 70’s, Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan, East Pakistan to be exact. This was a result of Islamic solidarity - when political and religious divisiveness segregated people into India's Hindu populace and the muslims who had to move to either West Pakistan or East Pakistan. But decades of neglect, as well as declaring “urdu” as the sole national language were a direct affront to the Bangladeshis who don't speak urdu. This triggered a Bangla Language Movement, since you really can't ignore a people's dialect. This was eventually followed by successful secessionist movements. On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh (which means "land of the Bangla speakers") was a free nation.

Map of Bangladesh. This photo only courtesy of

The Pink Palace or Ahsan Manzil is a majestic and cheap visit. I paid only 2 takas for the entrance.

Dhaka, the capital, sits on the bank of the Buriganga River. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and forms the world's 9th largest agglomeration. It is home to about 600,000 rickshaws plying the metropolis everyday. In one part, these facts frighten me; In another, they challenge the crazy spirit in me. But as long as I envision myself actually coming out unscathed from a visit, I am there. Bangladesh is one of these bewildering countries. And this September, we shall pay homage to a country that has endured decades of separatism and sovereign struggle.

Bangladesh doesn’t have a lot of foreign tourists, and if you find yourself standing on a street in Dhaka, you will become circus attraction. Suddenly, you’re the most unique being in their universe. Do they steal glances at you? Heck, no! They will gather around you, blatantly stare at you, and they will be unapologetically shameless to satiate their curiosity! Occasionally, someone will come over and send the throng away, just so he can take over the staring business. This can get hilarious at times. I remember crossing a street where people to my right – and to my left were attentive of my presence, instead of the chaos on the streets. During such street-crossing, I was asked 5x by 5 different people. Which country you from? Are you student? Are you married? Do you like Bangladesh? Yes, I like Bangladesh, except all the staring! Haha! In fact, I have blogged how they have turned staring into an art form.

In Dhaka, you can experience how Hollywood superstars feel, and enjoy the attention, until they start asking obtrusive questions. You think I am exaggerating? Think again! If you’re looking for peace and quite, boy, you are in the wrong place! But if you’re free spirited and don’t mind the inquisitive world around you, then you can relish on the extreme curiosity of the Bangladeshi people. There are very few international tourists in Bangladesh, thus the ones who make it there are met with brimming curiosity.

Despite stark poverty, overpopulation, and an inefficiently delivered public service, Banglas remain one of the most hospitable people we’ve ever encountered.

Bangladesh and Philippines Eye to Eye

Bangladeshis have interesting parallelisms from the Philippines. They love to opinionate on matters of national and international concern. A big chunk of the population finds migration to the United States as one step to heaven, and getting a U.S. visa is viewed like winning the lottery. Bangladeshis also value their freedom of expression so much that it has grown into a tired excuse of redress in forms of hartals (strikes) and demonstrations. At some point in time, they have actually halted economic growth. Too much freedom can sometimes halt progress. Journalists are also attacked and assassinated much like in the Philippines. In Transparency Organization’s ranking of the world’s corruption index, the Philippines and Bangladesh – along with Belarus and Pakistan, rank 139th in a list of 180 countries (number 1 – New Zealand - being the least corrupt, and number 180 – Somalia – as the most corrupt). Finally, this is a country frequently ravaged by storms and cyclones. Sounds familiar?

Curzon Hall of Dhaka University, the elegant European-Mughal style architecture is eye-catching, erected in 1905.


I’ve always hated visa applications, but since I wanted to visit Bangladesh, I had to submit a slew of paper work. Upon realizing the volume of these requirements, I actually thought I was migrating instead of visiting. When I submitted my documents at the Bangladesh Embassy (Universal Re-Building, 2nd Floor, Paseo de Roxas, corner Perea Street in Legaspi Village, Makati City -+63-2-817-5001, +63-2-817-5010 and call before going there), the girl (a Filipina) assigned for the documents asked what my purpose was in visiting Bangladesh. I said, “As a tourist.” Then she replied with a sarcastic, “Owww? Di nga!” I had to force my brow against unwarranted elevation, then told her what my profession was. These are moments that place you on a defensive stance, and telling her my educational attainment was a faster way to shut her up. How was I to know that the people at the Bangladesh Embassy could hardly believe there was actually someone stupid enough to visit their country? Was that it? And why would anyone illegally migrate to South Asia’s poorest region - to sew jeans for export to India? I don’t sew garments, honey. I suture eyes! Later that day, the same lady offered a conciliatory gift: a 90-page color book called “Bangladesh Basic Facts”, published by the External Publicity Wing of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which I must have read half a dozen times. Nice.

I only planned on a few days in Bangladesh, to be honest about it. It was just a protracted transit en route to India via Kolkata. I planned on crossing the border overland. I applied for 3 days, and I was given 7 by the Bangladeshi Embassy in Manila. Upon arrival in Dhaka (from KL), the immigration officer read my immigration card – this one will ask about your profession and educational attainment (a question that is commonly asked even by the locals) – then stamped 30 days! Most other foreigners – Caucasians, especially – get 15 days, unless their visa specifies 3 months! This was a more generous people, not the 7 days that the local embassy gave me. I was initially weary that such attitude from the idiotic embassy staff would actually extend to the immigration counter once I was in Dhaka. But I was so wrong!

One wonders why embassy people are so uptight. It’s easy to be strict without being rude or a pompous ass. I remembered how business-like the staff at the French Embassy was, but my Schengen was a generous number of weeks. Same story with the Danish Embassy who gave me 1 week more than what I requested. And these are very rich countries, aren’t they? Then we have something like the Bangladesh Embassy who treats tourists as though we are out to pilfer their precious land? Check the country’s history and you’d wonder if there’s anything left for anyone to pilfer.

Baitull Mukarram National Mosque in Central Dhaka

Anyway, after a very welcoming arrival (late in the evening), I carried my stamped out passport to the immigration hall of Zia International Airport. People were queuing towards custom inspection (they had an xray machine, but for some reason, they were manually opening the suitcases) prior to the main exit door. When they saw me, the only Asian in a sea of Indians, Bangladeshis and 2 Caucasians, they just nodded at me, and signaled that I could take my bag out without further inspection. And I felt like royalty! With someone from my hotel picking me up, it was a relief to be welcomed late in the evening by friendly faces. This was turning out to be more pleasant than I expected.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tara Masjid - or Star Mosque - considered by Lonely Planet as Dhaka's most popular tourist attraction. This has a striking decoration of colored glass set in white tiles - and a very accommodating mullah who "rolled the carpet" for me. I was just so honored. They thought I was Japanese. The sitara's recent renovation is funded by Japanese money, in fact there's a tile there somewhere showing Mount Fuji.

5 taka rickshaws at the Sadarghat area.

Fast Facts

Official Language: Bengali or Bangla

Currency: taka

Exchange rate: $1=69.65 (BDT) takas, PhP1=1.57 takas, 1 Indian rupee=1.50 takas, 1 baht=2.25 takas, 1 ringgit=22.39 takas, 1 euro=88.69 takas, 1 british pound=108 takas

Primary economy – Agrarian, it is the largest producer of Jute

Staple food: rice

Non-religious anniversaries: Bengali New Year’s Day or Pahela Baishakh on April 14, Language Martyr’s Day on February 21, Independence Day on March 26, National Revolution and Solidarity Day on November 7

Religion: Islam (88.3%), Hinduism (10.5%), Buddhism, Christian, Animists

Time difference from Malaysia and Philippines: 2 hours

Bangladeshi cars drive on the left.

Visas have to be secured from your country of origin. There are no visas on arrival. Visa extensions are possible once in Dhaka, but processing will take a minimum of 3 days, sometimes 2 if you’re lucky.

Shipyards at the Buriganga River as I was cruising. An hour's boat ride will cost you 90 takas.

At the beautiful Goaldi Mosque in the ancient city of Sonargaon with my friend Karin. She's a Swiss traveler whose day job is that of a surgeon in Bern. This shot was taken by Mahfuz, my guide. In a moment of sheer embarrassment, I realized that I had been calling her the wrong name - Helen- which she never corrected until later in the day. This was that moment.

Squatters at Painam Nagar. I was a bit embarrassed walking inside the houses, like I had all the right to do so, but the people who occupied the otherwise empty crumbling buildings were good natured enough to greet us with a smile. We will post our photos from that visit soon.

Mausoleum of National Leaders - 3 heroes rest here. They fought for the Bangla langauge and independence. Just at the southwest corner of Suhrawady Uddyan (garden).

100 year old houses in Sonargaon in state of decay.

Mograpara, Sonargaon. My guide Mahfuz made sure I could see the important sights during my short visit. He dealt with rickshaw and taxi wallahs, then I had to join his family home for cha and to see his mother who has hypertension, diabetes and cataract.

Potato economy at the bowels of Old Dhaka

Istara Masjid and the faithful

Bangladeshis are news-hungry. They will read about issues that concern local governance as well as U.S. headlines. Mornings in Dhaka will find you in streets lined with stacks over stacks of newspapers.

Sonargaon's crumbling buildings at the Painam Nagar district, remains of a tiny settlement on a narrow street, consisting of 50 dilapidated mansions built by Hindu merchants, who have since migrated to India to escape Hindu persecution during the war. Some people refer to it as a ghost city - buildings with no owners. It was eerie walking through the street. The deserted buildings later turned out to be occupied by squatters who live in derelict conditions: no electricity, no toilets, no water supply except for the river running beside these buildings.

Horse-drawn carriage at the back of the imposing Parliament Building, located at Sher-e Bangla Nagar area.

Auto-rickshaw: meter plus 20 takas. It is close to impossible for drivers to use their meters.

Next: Arriving at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and Hotel Pacific:

Bangladeshi taka: They are beautifully and colorfully drawn, they sometimes looked like play money.


Anonymous said...

Thanks - I enjoyed reading this. And I fully agree, Bangladesh has some of the friendliest people on the planet. Extremely curious - and starring - but very rarely harassing you.

Oh, and I am happy that my compatriotes at the Danish Embassy treated you respectfully :-)

Svend Olling

eye in the sky said...

Took me awhile to write about my Bangladesh visit as I was sure I wasn't sure I'd do justice in giving the country and its people the correct "picture", but it's now or never. LOL

Thanks for dropping a line. And yes, the Danes have been quite pleasant. ;->

Trotter said...

Hi eye! I’m back!! One week off, one week to deal with the mess created by the absence, a birthday almost no one noticed and a weekend to rest a little bit...

Fabulous post! when one hears about Bangladesh there is usually somthing sad connected with; but your post shows that there is also something good there... everywhere...

Meanwhile Blogtrotter Two is enjoying a fabulous hotel: the Cala di Volpe in Costa Smeralda!! Enjoy, comment and have a great weekend!

eye in the sky said...

Mygosh! Happy happy birthday! Wishing you all the best, good health, and more travels too.