Prior to my visit, the Dhaka on my mind was an exciting plunge into the unknown. The words used by news reports incessantly associate the city with descriptions intimidatingly morbid: congestion, poverty, cyclones, riots, floods, boats capsizing, ramshackle trains colliding, epidemics, drought, massive deforestation in the northern hills, starvation, pollution, corruption. Every flagrant description overwhelms from the next. It is enough to send the paranoid schizophrenic to lithium overload. With such ideas of modern chaos, a tourist has to psych himself for any eventuality. Dhaka, after all, is considered one of the world’s most intense cities.
Dhaka existed as early as the 4th century as a town, but its historically dominant powers-that-be have alternately promoted and demoted Dhaka as capital – from the Turkic to the Pashtun governors; the Mughals to the Mogh pirates; from the British monopolies that first occupied Bengal, into the establishment of East Pakistan, until the Independence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country in 1971 when Dhaka finally regained its capital status. The bulk of the city sits on the northeast bank of Buringanga River. With a capital of close to 13 million, Dhaka – the rickshaw capital of the world - is frantic, bustling and congested; a flurry of activity where locals strive daily to survive.
The city has 8 thanas (county/barangay) and 16 auxiliary thanas (including Gulshan), but is more easily divided into three areas: Old Dhaka, which might as well be the heart of the capital, overflows with bazaars and narrow streets; Central Dhaka is the industrial area; and the upscale trio of Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara where most embassies are located, as well as the best restaurants, hotels and malls. I chose the middle ground. I wanted to stay closer to the heart of Dhaka, without finding myself way over my head.
My Malaysian Airline flight left KLIA at 10:50PM and flew westward. For 3 hours and 45 minutes, the flight crew tried to entertain us with Meryl Street singing “Mamma Mia” from the dancing queens of Santorini. Even my meal was a delightful set, except for the fine strips of carrot salad that seemed too “raw” it needed dressing/garnishing; unless they thought they were feeding rabbits.
After my pleasant immigration formalities (read previous post), I stepped out of the airport. It was almost 1 AM, local time. There were a few men waving at me for a taxi, but I immediately saw my name on a board. I could tell my pick-up service was surprised, they expected someone older. There were two of them: the driver and a guy in hotel uniform. My stomach still had butterflies flying around in anxiety, like most arrivals in a strange new city. Zia International Airport, now renamed to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, didn’t have much of a front yard so our exit was brisk. My welcoming committee didn’t speak much, but they were receptive of my few queries. I ventured to ask something silly, like “Is the sky over Dhaka velvet?” or “Has Chewbacca eaten a Bengal Tiger?” to test if they spoke English, but I decided against it. Late hours aren’t polite to a stranger’s humor.
The roads looked dark and there were areas in construction. I saw some interesting monuments on the way, and wanted to ask, but I kept mum. In less than 30 minutes, we arrived in front of a dimly lit multi-story hotel, the Hotel Pacific, located in Motijheel – the area's industrial center.
Whenever I was unsure of a place I am visiting, I'd book for a hotel/guesthouse ahead of time, although these days, I just head straight without reservations. A pre-booked hotel assures your security and well-being, although this will also cost a little more than necessary. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet and crossed out “budget” and “top end”. Mid-range listed down “Hotel Pacific” as its first entry describing it as “the best mid-range place”.
My pick-up guy turned out to be the hotel concierge too. Shahidul Islam was on the card he gave me. “Marketing officer” was written there. He checked me in. I insisted on paying for my next 3 days, and though there was the initial resistance, I had my way. Would you refuse a customer’s money – even if its 2AM?
The lobby was cozy and beautifully decorated with medium-sized chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. I was led to my room (#1008) at the 10th floor, just beside the elevator. My room had a gray carpet and spotless cream-colored walls, a queen- sized bed, a desk and its chair, an AC and a clean hot-water bathroom. What I didn’t like was that after showering, my shower water took a couple of hours to drain off the floor, thus I had to eventually walk over my own puddle. Other than that, everything else was peachy.
That late night, I tried to list down the details of my travel like I usually do, but I could only come up with a few. Spirit was willing, flesh was weak and sleepy. I found my 2-round prong adaptor and left my phone to charge as I drifted off to a light and bothersome sleep. By 6:30AM, with adrenaline on unregulated overdrive, I was wide awake and alert. I looked through my glass window and saw few souls stirring down the almost deserted road. In a few hours’ time, the same road will be filled with thousands.
I headed to the restaurant at the 2nd floor, the New Alamin Restaurant – a fairly popular joint frequented by businessmen and lunching families. Since I had no idea what to order, I carefully read through its menu but I was clueless. Food in the sub-Indian territory was, at that time, alien to me. I am never gastronomically adventurous. I refuse to experiment with food that might leave me hungry while I am walking around; and you just don’t waste travel money on something you aren’t sure of, do you?
As my luck would have it, I was to be ushered into Bengali and Indian cuisine. I had not much of a choice. I ordered parata at 50 taka. It is bread made with wheat flour, then fried to golden brown in the oven. This was a bit crunchy at the sides, and chewy at the middle. This was a staple breakfast, much like rice. I ordered Omelet with green chilies, at 35 taka, and a bottle of sprite. That would be my first Bengali breakfast! And much like any new experiences, I dug in, took a hearty bite from my alien bread, as though it was gonna be a fabulous day.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport took almost 10 years to complete to commemorate the Independence of Bangladesh. It was inaugurated in 1981, and named Zia International Airport, after a slain former President. The new name was implemented by the government as of 2010. This is to honor a famous Sufi saint, who is associated with the Muslim conquest of Sylhet. Approximately 4 million international and 1 million domestic passengers, pass through Shahjalal. Compare this with Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) which serviced 24.1 million passengers in 2009, or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Georgia) which had a total passenger of 88,032,086 in 2009 (thus, the world’s busiest airport). London Heathrow Airport is just a paltry second placer with just over 66 million passengers.
Shahjalal International Airport. These photos only courtesy of wikipedia's bromora (above) and skyscrapercity.com's Tmac (below).
Distance between Dhaka and Manila: 3,356.63 kilometers (2,085.77 miles); KL - 2,585.95 kilometers (1,606.88 miles); Bangkok - 1,534.65 kilometers (953.61 miles); New York - 12,661.82 kilometers (7,867.90 miles); Copenhagen - 7,098 kilometers (4,410 miles); Buenos Aires (Argentina) - 16,782.92 kilometers (10,428.71 miles)09
Flight duration from KL to Dhaka: 3 hours, 45 minutes
Time Difference between Bangladesh and Malaysia and the Philippines: 2 hours (Bangladesh is delayed by 2 hours)
Bus fare (at daytime) from the airport to the city center: 10 taka
Taxi from the airport’s fixed-rate booth to the city center: about 500 taka, although by meter, it would only fall around 100 taka or less. Take the main road just 5 minutes outside the airport and hail a taxi from there.
My hotel pick up (by car): $12 (and its taka equivalent)
Hotel Pacific: 120/B Motijheel, Central Dhaka, phone # (880-2) 956 7583 to 85 www.hotelpacificdhaka.net. Standard non-AC rooms will cost you 850 taka (including taxes), while Executive AC rooms cost 1,550 taka (including taxes). Email them here at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. They have airport pick-up service for a fee.
Parata - bread made with wheat flour, then fried to golden brown in the oven at 50 taka per order (2 pieces).