Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer’s Wet Dream

As I lounged around my buddies apartment escaping the hectic potholed streets of Dhaka

I started reading an older version of the Bangladesh

Lonely Planet guide book laid out on the coffee table. What stood out most from the guide book was the introduction aimed not at travelers, but aid workers instead. The author wrote that to its audience, that if you’re reading this book it’s because you are probably already in Bangladesh for a work related reason. Now here are some places to go for a short trip. But if you’re a regular traveler you will be disappointed because there are no specific sites to see, besides the people.

All in all I chilled in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka for two weeks because after doing more research I realized the lonely planet authors are more or less correct. But the guide book also says,

“Dhaka is more than just a city, it is a giant whirlpool that sucks in anything and anyone foolish enough to come within its furious grasp. Around and around it sends them, like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. Millions of individual pursuits constantly churn together into a frenzy of collective activity – it is an urban melting pot bubbling over. Nothing seems to stand still. Even the art moves, paraded on the back of the city’s sea of 600, 000-plus rickshaws, which throb with colour and restlessness even when gridlocked.”

And this description is the truth. I suppose one of the more interesting claims to fame is that Forbes names Dhaka as the second dirtiest city in the world!

“Mercer Health and Sanitation Index Score: 29.6

Located in southern Asia, between Burma and India, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh battles with the constant threat of water pollution. Surface water is often thick with disease and pollutants from the use of commercial pesticides. With an estimated 150 million people living in a relatively small area, cleaning up the problem won’t be easy.”

Why Travel to Bangladesh?:

During my first independent trip to Ecuador in 2007 I met a western educated Bengali guy in my hostel. We got along really well and over time has became a great friend.  Since 2007 we have met up in Toronto one year, Miami the next, Thailand more recently, and finally in his country, Bangladesh. Over the years he had told me about his friends and stories about living in Dhaka from the insane daytime streets to driving rickshaws drunk at 3AM. I had to see it for myself. So I went.

My Arrival in Dhaka

I flew from Bangkok, Thailand to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with a stop in Kolkota, India for $150 US one way on Air India Express. My flight was dominated by Indian and Bengali men transporting goods via plane. Each man had carried at leats 5-10 huge boxes filled with products to resell in their countries. I’m guessing the Bengali’s bags were filled with alcohol considering it’s prohibited in Bangladesh, seeing as its a Muslim country. What was in the Indian’s suitcases I have no idea.

Rather than wait in a line short of people but long because of all the suitcases waiting to be checked in a younger Indian merchant offered to have me cut in front of him! The airline actually asked to see my ticket out of Bangladesh, which rarely happens. I checked in halfway but then rushed to an airport internet cafe to print out my flight information from Dhaka to Kuala Lumpur. This satisfied the check-in agent, allowing me just enough time to rush through security to meet up with a Thai friend and Spanish traveler I had spent some days with in Bangkok. The Thai friend works at the airport and the Spanish traveler had a flight to Myanmar around the same time. It was kind of cute in a way. I had friends seeing me off to Bangladesh!

Upon arrival in Dhaka I felt excited to visit such an obscure country that few tourists visit. It’s become a running joke to myself that this trip is all about visiting secondary, more obscure countries. Rather than go to Russia I visited Ukraine. Bangladesh instead of India. And Hong Kong rather then China. I blame this on visas.

Bangladesh is certainly on another level compared to other countries I have visited.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

But the airport my friend described as a chaotic mess was nearly deserted because of Iftar, the time that people break the fast during Ramadan. In minutes it was my turn to pass through customs. Most western foreigners must pay for a visa on arrival and word on the internet is that Bangladesh only gives 14 day tourist visas. When the custom agent asked how many days I wanted I told him 14. Then I started wondering. I asked him how many I could have and he offered me 30 days instead. Sweet. The agent also gave me a banana.

From the Airport to the Expat Club

My buddy picked me up and we drove straight to Dhaka’s American club, a country club hangout for diplomats, aid workers, and wealthy Bengali’s. In Dhaka all of the expats spend much of their time at one of the expat country clubs for the facilities (pool, gym, restaurant), but more likely because it’s the only place for reasonably priced alcoholic drinks.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

It’s easy to blame them as being out of touch with the country and unwilling to blend in with the locals. But come on, what would you do if there was only one reasonably priced place to drink alcohol and  eat western food. If I actually lived in Dhaka, which I never would,  I would quickly become a regular there.

At the American Club my buddy introduced me to his friends from Australia, America, and the U.K., all working for institutions like the United Nations, US AID, and NGO’s. These are not just the workaholic save the world types. But from talking to them just a bit I noticed they all had a love-hate relationship with Bangladesh. They loved their work opportunities, salaries, and ease of meeting other Western friends while also living in a really different country. But they hated the condition of every day live, the traffic, lack of Western conveniences, and ease of meeting suitable mates.

I personally learned that my overall goal since early high school of living abroad would shatter if I ever chose to live even for a year in a city like Bangladesh. I could never feel satisfied living in a place in which I am destined to have a love hate relationship.

Most of my time in Dhaka was spent hanging out around my friend’s apartment doing work and going out for meals around the neighborhood because unless planned perfectly I would sit in traffic for at least an hour when venturing outside the small area. My time is worth more than that.

When I say just chilling in the neighborhood of my buddies house its not like it meant I was isolated from actual Bangladesh like its possible to do so in other countries. Even if my friend liked to joke that I was. On the way to the supermarket one afternoon I saw some construction in progress.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

And a barber working in his makeshift barbershop.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

The Fun Part: Exploring Downtown Dhaka:

I tagged along with a group of new Australians starting a program similar to the Peace Corps which placed them with an agency like the United Nations to work for a year or two. Seeing as it was their second week they were eager, like myself, to see downtown Dhaka. Like the Lonely Planet wrote the people of Bangladesh are the most interesting part of the country and downtown was the best place to see them going about normal life.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XvzDos4_5E[/youtube]

I shared a tight $3  CNG with two of the guys continually snapping photos on the way. Each CNG is equipped with a cage that locks from the inside which is on every one of them to prevent quick muggings which was previously common.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

We exited the CNG straight onto the set of Slumdog Millionaire. Downtown Dhaka was colorful and friendly with men balancing buckets of dead fish on their head or others carting around merchandise twice as tall as them.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

The lack of street food disappointed me but it was Ramadan and most of the prepared food was hidden away from the public.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

One exception were the small snacks like dates or a special Ramadan dessert, Jalebis. The crunchy Jalebis are made from flour and curd batter deep fried and soaked in a sugar and saffron syrup. Drooooooool!!!

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Every time I turned my back around a new sight appeared, never any less interesting than the previous. Takes this man riding in a rickshaw with his naked mannequin. It could have been a blow up doll but I only got a quick look 😉

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

As I wrote earlier we took two CMG’s downtown and didn’t find the Aussies from the other until midday after touring arguably the world’s most disappointed museum/palace featuring light bulbs from the the 1920’s.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

But the tour guides were enthusiastic about the history of the palace and entry cost just two cents. Yes, you can still buy something for less than five cents in some places in the world. The highlight of this hour was was eating a snickers bar and seeing two women wearing stilettos and full black burqas.

Since the entire group of us rejoined after the museum we found one of the city’s ports offering boat rides on the river. I paid the port’s tax for our group which came to $.75 cents and we crawled into the first available boat.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Even without a motor boat it appeared like one of these paddle boats would actually arrive at a destination in less time then road transportation considering there is no traffic. The river was full of people doing just this or transporting product across the city. That is my guess at least. Despite no rain umbrellas were common as a way to block the sun.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

I think the best part of the museum was overlooking it from the river. I can imagine it was an even greater site way back before the river became horribly polluted or crowded.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Just like us, the people on the river usually smiled and waved. It’s not to often they see people on the river just to enjoy it.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

People were everywhere. Even from bridges high above the Bengali’s would spot our boat and wave.  But it’s not like we were complete novelties because just as many people were indifferent to us.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

On the shores some people live and work doing who knows what.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

It’s not just small paddle boats on the river but also some bigger ferries and ships. This particular one was comical as it was almost submerged under water from its heavy load.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Our journey down the Buringanga river continued as we found ourselves way out of the city center. Our captain chose to keep on paddling for over and hour when all we really cared for was no more than ten minutes. None of us spoke Bengali and none of us really dared to ask how much longer. It soon became a running joke that we would never return.

When it really became ridiculous we tried even harder in our game of charades to show him that we wanted to return. When exiting the boat he also damanded $1000 Taka, $900 taka more than the going rate.  That’s like US$15 split between seven people. I could care less but the Australians set their sights on paying the actual price.I was pleased enough with his paddling performance. After all we did not capsize. The river is Dhaka’s main outlet of sewage waste and up to 80% of Dhaka’s sewage is untreated. Besides sewage, a number of industries spew out their chemical waste into the river.

We continued our aimless wanders now gathering even more attention because of the Australian women with us. You can make them out behind this photo of two young Bengali’s who asked me to take a picture. It never ceases to amaze me how much joy some people get when taking a photo and showing it to them on the camera.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Below is street food. I know the tiny balls in the dish in the back are actually peanuts. As for the other food I have no idea.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Islam is huge in Bangladesh with almost 90% of the population practicing it. They say it began in the Bengal area’ during the 12th century by Arab Muslim merchants and also Sufi missionaries. But today it’s a ‘secular’ country. But unofficially because practically everyone is Muslim the Islamic influence was really strong. Anyone eating in the daytime during Ramadan did so behind closed doors. My friend almost had a heart attack when he accidentally sipped some Sprite coming out of a supermarket. The adhan, Islamic call to prayer, is really loud and could be heard coming from all directions when relaxing on a friend’s balcony.

I personally felt that people were tolerant of other religions and westerners and of course did not feel threatened in Dhaka. But then you have stories like a famous Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury facing charges of sedition, treason, blasphemy and espionage since January 2004 for attempting to attend a conference of the Hebrew Writers’ Association in Israel which violates the Passport Act which forbids citizens from visiting countries with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations, usually punishable by a fine of $8. But he was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten and interrogated for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for Israel. He spent the next 17 months in solitary confinement, and was denied medical treatment. I highly doubt it’s the popular opinion of everyday people to agree with incidents like these.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

Back to walking around downtown the interesting scenes were endless. Take this man carrying buckets of paint for instance.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

By 1PM we were exhausted from the sun and endless activity of Old Dhaka. In any other place you could wave down a taxi and be on your way home in a matter of minutes. But in old Dhaka anything other than rickshaws and private cars did not exist. At this point some Bengali’s offered their assistance to show us where to catch a CNG. One man in particular had his eye on he Australian girl. He lead us out of Old Dhaka on an hour long goose chase through the jam packed street. We slithered around trucks and through tiny spaces in between rickshaws. When no opening existed he actually pushed away rickshaws. We kept on walking. Even the painfully cute at first but later annoying as hell child beggars followed us through traffic. Our helpful guide finally gave up and sent us out of old Dhaka on a bus, which my buddy claimed even before I came I would never figure out how to use. Hah!

Our reward after a half hour bus ride back to a familiar area was Pizza Hut. Stuffed crust pizza never tasted so good. Of course the the 45 minute, $3 ride home from Pizza Hut on a CNG meant breaking down twice in the middle of the road, followed by another $.50 cent rickshaw ride.

One highlight was passing by this monstrosity of a building, the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, or one of the world’s largest legislative buildings. We can blame this on an American architect, Louis Kahn

.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

And a shot from the CNG on the way home from an exhausting day. I felt so relieved to return to the apartment an watch movies on my laptop the rest of the day!

Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Photographer's Wet Dream

That was Dhaka. You can find a couple more of my adventures in Dhaka here

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Jason Bartoli
Jason Bartoli

"Jason is the best person you'll ever meet here. He's just a ray of sunshine. An adventurer, businessman, and has a 4.9 Uber rating. Lovely person inside and out. I say, go message him" - My Mom

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