5 tips for the solo traveller in Bangladesh

Travelling in Bangladesh can get pretty hectic and confusing at times, especially if you’re travelling solo. But if you planning to ditch your group and set out alone into the unknown, you need to know that it isn’t as hard as it is made out to be. If you can remember some basics, you’re good to go.

Here’s a hands-on guide to help you navigate through the jungles and alleyways of this land of adventure. Buckle up.

Pack light (Comfortable clothes, Accessories, Medicines, etc.)

If you’re travelling solo, chances are, you’ll be backpacking in most places. Even if you’re not, there’s no point in carrying loads of trousers and tees on a trip.

Pack light, take only the essentials.

It’ll help you move faster and it’ll be easier for you to keep your belongings in check. Make sure you carry a few wearables, nothing too heavy or uncomfortable, considering we’re not travelling in winter. Remember, you’re on a trip, not casually hanging out in Dhanmondi Lake.

It’s not important that you look your best, but that you feel your best.

So be comfortable and chill out. If it’s summer, always keep a water bottle in your backpack. Bangladesh is a humid country. 

Do not forget your phone charger, earphones. Pack a few common medicines for headaches, stomachaches and such, just to be prepared. 

Get small packets of toothpaste, soaps, hand sanitizers etc. You never know where you’ll be staying.

Always keep mobile data on your Phone

The worst part about travelling solo in Bangladesh is probably the lack of navigational accessibility. The roads and streets aren’t marked. The local people will definitely cooperate but sometimes mislead too. If you’re looking for directions or trying to select the best routes to your destination avoiding traffic jams, Google Maps is your best friend.

Keep some mobile data always to help you find your way.

Also, you need to maintain a Snapchat streak, right? (No? Okay)

Communicate with the locals

You’ll need to talk to people on your journey. There’s a lot of talking involved. You’ll need to ask for directions, clarify your intentions of travelling to a place (I know right?) and so on. But most importantly, people in Bangladesh are generally curious and they’ll ask you a lot of questions and try their best to show you around and help you. Be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you. Bangladeshi people have the reputation of being the nicest people on the planet. You’ll get a glimpse of that reputation when you’re out on the streets.

Keep in mind that Bangladesh is a conservative country and it will be better to maintain appropriate attire to avoid harassment. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone. It will be best to get used to people staring at you. Most of the time, they stare because they’re curious.

Know about the fares when taking a rickshaw or a taxi. You have to bargain right to get a good deal on fares. Ask the locals for help and they’ll gladly help you out.

Keep your documents organized

Keeping your travel and personal documents safe and organized is one of the most important parts of your preparation. Keep your tickets, hotel reservations, your ID etc. all organized in a wallet. Keep your money and your credit card safe. If something gets lost, the return policy isn’t particularly user-friendly in Bangladesh.

Always keep some extra cash in hand, merely a precaution.

Be safe

Although it’s generally safe, it doesn’t hurt to stay prepared. Small robberies, muggings and stealing isn’t uncommon in Bangladesh. Keep a pepper spray or a small knife with you to stay vigilant. Don’t get trigger happy though.

Travelling solo can actually be more fun than travelling in a group. You get your own freedom to relax and explore. If you do it the right way, travelling solo can be the best experience ever. So, follow these checklists on your next destination and most importantly, do enjoy.

Wari-Bateshwar – finding traces of a 2500 year old civilisation

Waking up at the last day of the Bengali New Year was a tedious task, but  thank lord it’s Friday. The curse of an off-day persists as well, as boredom caught on to me pretty fast. After freshening up, an old letter hiding away in front of my computer caught my attention. After picking it up and checking out the content of the letter, I found some beautiful pictures of Wari-Bateshwar. I collected these pictures a few years back, and forgot about them. I made my mind up to visit the place as I shuffled through the pictures. And so, I readied up and left for Narshingdi.

Blessings of Friday also meant wide-open roads free of traffic. I climbed onto a bus going from Mohammadpur to Abdullahpur to reach Bisshoroad, and as soon as I reached the place I got on a BRTC bus going towards Bhulta, Naranganj. After a brief wait, the bus went through 300 Feet and Kanchan bridge and reached Bhulta bus stand within an hour and half. From here, I hopped onto a local bus going towards Pachdona bus stand, which took another hour to reach. And finally, I hitched another bus towards Marjal which reached the Marjal Bazaar in 40 minutes.

From there, I got onto a “Easy Bike” (a battery operated vehicle) and told it to go to Wari. On asphalt surrounded by nature, the Easy Bike soared through the lazy noon as my eyes feasted on the beauty of nature. The driver of the Easy Bike provided quite some historical information behind the history and heritage of Wari-Bateshwar village and gave me some ideas about Sir Habibullah Pathan.

Having quite little time on my hand, I decided to finish my exploration by daylight; so I decided to visit the Wari-Bateshwar Open Museum. This is the first open museum in Bangladesh, and here lies evidences of 2,500 year old civilization based near the old Brahmaputra river. The excavation of this place started around 2000, and around 50 archaeological sites have been uncovered til now. From these sites, printed silver coins, glass and terracotta pottery, metallic objects, and several Buddhist temples have been uncovered.

I took some time and explored this museum built on a massive land. A lot of pictures from the excavation can be found here. I must say, the museum being based under the open sky is quite educational. In this museum one can find a 2500 year old dummy of the map, banners describing various facts. A documentary based on Wari-Bateshwar is also available in here.

After exploring the museum, I started for the residence of Habibullah Pathan. His house holds some of the archaeological vestiges from the sites. It takes around 10 minutes to travel to the residence from the museum. I met with Sir Pathan as soon as I reached the place, as cupboards held various historically significant artifacts excavated from the sites.

This man is the reason why the Wari-Bateshwar region is quite known as an archaeological site. Back in 1933, local school teacher Hanif Pathan wrote to the Weekly Mohammadi newspaper on this forgotten region, and his son, Sir Habibullah Pathan decided to write on this place understanding it’s importance. Hearing his calls, on 1989, Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti from the Cambridge University’s Archaeology department arrived to Wari-Bateshwar and predicted it’s 2,500 year old history. I had quite a nice conversation with Mr. Pathan, and brought a book on the history of Wari-Bateshwar along with me.

As I was returning home, some rural festivals celebrating Chaitra Shangkranti caught my attention. I got into one of them and checked out the offerings from the stalls which are mostly related to the last day of Bengali year. Rural sweets and mouth-watering food was also being served.

The sun was nodding to the west, and daylight slowly started fading away. Sitting in a nearby paddy field, I enjoyed the the last sunset of the Bengali year. With hopes of seeing a brand new sun rise in the next year, I headed home.

Getaway of the week #6: Munshiganj

Munshiganj, also known as Bikrampur is located about 33 kms away from Dhaka city. An ideal location for a day’s visit, Munshiganj is a little bit underrated as a travel destination and the lack of selfie savvy tourists is perhaps on of the best things about travelling to Munshiganj.

To get to Munshiganj, get on a bus from Gulistan. There’s a BRTC run bus and a few private run buses that’ll take you to Munshiganj in 1.5 to 2 hours. The tickets cost around 60-70 taka. Try to leave very early in the morning and get down at Sreenagar. Take an autorickshaw to Gadhighat to visit Arial Beel and hire a boat for an hour or two. The boats should cost no more than 500/600 taka.

The Arial Beel is a massive waterbody between the Ganges and Plain. This depression remains submerged in water during the wet seasons, thanks to accumulated rain water and green farmland reveals itself in winter when the water dries up. During the rainy seasons, the Arial Beel offers a beautiful view of endless watery horizon along with a garden of pink water lilies grown in the water. Life is simple and peaceful there. Watch the local villagers catch fish and harvest water lilies. Spend your time in silence and bliss.

Check out Shyamshiddhi Math on your way back. The massive tower was constructed by a rich merchant of Bikrampur in 1836 AD, over the pyre of his father. The tower stands tall as the highest in the sub-continent, taller than Delhi’s Kutub Minar. The tower has compartments on it’s sides where birds have made their nests. It’s a site worth checking out. Ask your boatman for directions.

Head over to Munshiganj sadar, the central district and take a rickshaw to Idrakpur kella or Idrakpur fort. Idrakpur fort is a Mughal era fort built in 1660 AD by Mir Jumla II and is one of the most historically important constructions ever constructed by the Mughals. The fort acted as one of the three triangular naval defence points protecting the capital of Dhaka from Portugese and Mogh Pirates. Admission to the fort is free.

For the last destination of the day, take an autorickshaw and visit Panditer Bhita, the birthplace of the famous Buddhist scholar, Atish Dipankar. This is where Atish Dipankar was born and grew up. This is also where he first started is learning on Buddhist teachings.

If you have time, you can also visit the Padma resort and Mawa ghat. However, if you do not have time, you’re not missing out on anything. And of course, you can always come back. Get a rickshaw and go to Munshiganj Sadar again to get on a bus to Dhaka.

Munshiganj is a beautiful destination carved by nature and adorned by history. If not anything, the random walks down the streets of Bikrampur and the taste of daal in that local eatery will be a break from your daily life. As Anthony Bourdain used to say “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Traveller’s notebook: in the Land of the Blue Dragon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is not the first destination that comes to an average Bangladeshi traveller’s mind when thinking of getting out on exploring a new place. But it’s a country boasting a proud South East Asian culture that has a rich colonial history and filled with warm, welcoming people, mouth-watering local delicacies and a crazy coffee culture. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon is also the key city that played a pivotal role in the US led Vietnam war during the 70s. But the best part? Ho Chi Minh city is crazy cheap. With a budget of BDT 5000 to BDT 6000, you can fully experience everything Saigon has to offer you in just 2/3 days. And that includes the cost of your accommodation, food and travel (Unless you plan to stay in 5-star hotels). The airplane fare is the hefty part since Bangladesh doesn’t have a connecting flight to Vietnam. The cheapest one would be Scoot air that’ll cost around BDT25,000 if you can book early, with one stop in Kuala Lumpur. Nonetheless, you can travel an entirely new country and experience a beautiful new culture within just BDT 30,000 and that’s something.

Getting to Vietnam

As mentioned already, the airplane fare is a bit tough on the wallet and the journey could take roughly 6/7 hours with stopovers. But Bangladeshis don’t need a prior visa to visit Vietnam, so just book your ticket, pack your belongings and you’re good to go. After you get down in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, get your on-arrival visa and complete immigration. Keep a few passports sized official pictures with you in case required for the visa. After you’re done with immigration, head over to the exit and you’ll find stalls selling traveller sim cards. Get one for yourself and activate a data plan. You’ll need to use the internet a lot. It’ll cost around 100,000 to 250,000 VND. It’s best to mention here that in Vietnam, everyone is a millionaire and handling your massive piles of cash can be quite a task for first timers. But you’ll get used to it. And in Vietnam, you definitely need to be cash-savvy.

After you get your sim and activate your data plan, head over to the bus stop located right outside the exit gate. Bus 109, the yellow colour marked bus will take you right to District 1, the most happening area of the city and also where you will find plenty of cheap to mid-range hotels. The bus will cost you around 20,000 VND.

Staying in Ho Chi Minh City

District 1 is filled with hotels and hostels of all sorts. It is also known the as the Backpacker street as the area is popular with backpacker tourists, tightly packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. Although one can easily get a room in any of the hotels, all of them equally decent, it is best if you pre-book it before your journey to get the best deals. You can get bunk beds in the hostels if you’re looking for the cheapest stay just to sleep for the night, or you can head over to the countless mid-range hotels just a minute of walk away from one another. Bich Duyen Hotel is recommended for a comfortable stay at an affordable price. The rooms are small but cosy with amenities one can only dream of in a mid-tier hotel somewhere else. The front desk receptionist is a lovely guy who’ll fire up a conversation with a smile. He’ll even make you a nice breakfast at the small kitchen at the back, if you ask for it. Free of charge for one meal.

Getting around

Ho Chi Minh isn’t that big of a city and it is best to walk around to really absorb the culture. However, it is a packed city with hundreds and thousands of people commuting by motorbikes on the roads. Fitting for its title of Motorbike Capital of the World. You think Dhaka has the worst jaywalking scenario? Think again. Crossing the road here can be an art. You can find bikes for hire almost at every corner of the city. They’ll keep calling you. But it’s best to use a ride sharing app to save the hassle of bargaining. Download Grab on your phone and use Grab MOTO to commute around points of interest. You can also rent a bike yourself and ride it around if you have a valid license. Watch out for the rental sign boards. You can use the bus 52, the green colour marked bus to commute inside the city. But beware of the tight traffic. Vietnam has Right Hand Traffic. Don’t get confused.

Ho Chi Minh has its own version of the Rickshaw. It looks more like a cradle than a rickshaw, but they are a dying form of transport in the city and will ask a lot for a ride, if you find one. Nonetheless, they can be a nice experience if you’re willing to pay for it.

Places to see, things to do

The streets of Saigon are a bold mixture of the old and the new. One cannot but notice the stark contrast between the small street vendors selling local authenticity in the old ways and the burgeoning Saigon skyline just on the other side housing malls, 5-star hotels and corporate offices. Saigon has a lot to offer. From to narrow alleys of the local neighborhood to wide and polished avenues with lush green gardens and colonial structures between them.

Saigon is the French Riviera of Southeast Asia. Old colonial structures pop up everywhere in this cacophonous city. The city hall built in 1902 is a remarkable structure, a reminder of the French Colonial history of this region. Although it isn’t open to the public, the structure has been preserved and is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Saigon.

There is of course the Notre Dame Basilica. Built in 1863, the Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most sophisticated French structures in Saigon. One of the many fine architectures built by the French in Vietnam, the Notre Dame is a worthy counterpart of its namesake in Paris in terms of Grandeur.

Right beside this, is the Saigon Central Post Office. This magnificent building has yet again a French architecture and is always buzzing with post office employees and tourists alike.

There is the historic Ben Thanh market which is basically the New Market of Vietnam. Visit Ben Thanh for a shopping spree of the traditional Vietnamese goods. Haggling here is an art form, but visiting from Bangladesh, you shouldn’t be a stranger to it.

Saigon has countless old pagodas. Visit one to experience a unique South East Asian Buddhist culture. The pristine environment will certainly take your breath away and is surely a spiritual experience for some.

Take a walk along the Dong Khoi street to experience what life was like in the old war era Vietnam or head over to the Thu Thiem Bridge during dusk to see the magnificent Saigon Skyline in sunset.

Visit the war remnants museum and see the exhibitions solely dedicated to the infamous Vietnam war. The atrocities caused by the US Army, the horrors of chemical warfare and how the Vietnamese people fought back under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

At night, the area where you’d most likely be staying comes out alive. Just around the corner of District one is the famous Bui Vien Walking street. Just as the clock strikes midnight, the cafes, bars and clubs of this street spring open and you will see both locals and tourists sit on the side of the road on small plastic tools, enjoying music, mingling and having local beers. The entire street remains open the entire night and keeps buzzing with loud music and people everywhere. Take a walk down this street to experience a nightlife like nowhere else in the world.

If you have time, head outside the city to explore the Vietnamese countryside away from the bustling city. The Vietnamese countryside is adorned with lush green rice fields and rivers and small hills in between them. Head over to the Mekong delta to see what it is like to live in a Vietnamese village. See the Cia Rang floating market, and entire market place in boats on the river Saigon. Visit Chu Chi Tunnels, a massive network of underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese guerillas during the time of war. The tunnels are extremely narrow so be advised if you have claustrophobia.

Most important of all, take random aimless walks down the streets of Saigon, visit local shops, local eateries, talk to local people and absorb the culture. That is the best part of exploring Saigon. People in Saigon are very friendly and often curious. You will often find random locals asking you where you’re from, engage with you in a friendly chat and invite you over to Saigon again in the future.

The weather in Saigon is extremely humid. Wear light clothes and always keep a bottle of water with you.

Bon Appetit!

Saigon is an eater’s heaven. Mouth watering local delicacies are found in countless street stalls on almost every street corner. Try Banh Mi, the Vietnamese style ham sandwich or a bowl of delicious and warm Pho noodles on any of the local street stalls. Street food vendors are here like vampires. They come out at night. You will find so many individual and groups of stalls scattered around the city. Locals love sitting on the sidewalks and enjoying a hot bowl of Pho or a dish of rice after a day’s hard work. Check out Co Bac and Co Giang, two of the most famous street food alleyways. Most of the dishes here will cost you around a 15,000 to 20,000 VND.

Vietnamese are crazy about their coffee. It makes sense since Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world. You’ll find Ca Phe Sua Da, the Vietnamese cold coffee almost on every street. The Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese version of Starbucks is everywhere and they sell the special French pressed Vietnamese coffee. Almost all the variations of coffee can be found in Vietnam, starting from Coconut coffee to cheese coffee and everything in between. They even have coffee flavoured Coca-Cola.

Of course, there are international food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King as well, along with numerous mid to high end cafes and restaurant selling local delicacies in traditional environments. Eat to your heart’s content and don’t forget to leave a tip.

Goodbye Saigon

To get back to the airport you can either get a grab or take the bus. But taking a grab is recommended because you’re more likely to get a cheaper rate thanks to Promo codes and you really get to see most of Saigon on your way back to the airport travelling on the back of a scooter. Leave well ahead of time, keeping in mind the traffic.

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon is a city that can be explored in just two days. But the same cannot be said for Vietnam as a country. There are hundreds of places and experiences waiting for you. From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and more. Saigon will surely leave you hungry for more of Vietnam and its never too late to start planning another trip to the land of the blue dragon.

Getaway of the week #4 – Dohar

It’s called the mini Cox’s Bazar. And for good reasons too. The endless horizon of water and splashing small waves at your feet on the muddy banks does remind one of Cox’s Bazar. Yes, talking about Moinot Ghat or Dohar as many prefer to call it. About one and a half hours journey away from Dhaka, Dohar is the perfect place to spend a day away from the busy urban life. The best time to visit Dohar would be now, as the continuous rain has filled the river Padma to the brink and the overcast sky and the calm Padma waters together make an unforgettable view to feast your eyes on.

Buses to Dohar leave from Gulistan from as early as 6.30AM. This one bus, Jamuna express will drop you off right on Moinot Ghat and costs 90tk. If you start early, expect to reach your destination by 8.30AM. If you’re lucky and the sky stays overcast, you’re in for a treat. Walk around barefooted by the river and let the small waves slowly break down at your feet. You can sit there if you like, or on any of the boats tied there to the ground. Maybe you’ll even get to listen to folk music from the half distorted Chinese mobile speaker of a nearby fisherman. It doesn’t sound bad at all in that setting.

Hire a boat for 200tk per hour and go deeper into the river, float around aimlessly, watch the villagers fishing, feel the cold and calming river winds against your face. If you’ve had a hectic week at school or work, that’s all the therapy you’ll ever need.

You can get down and take a bath in the river if you want. But do not try it if you’re not good at swimming. Dohar has had a disturbing history of drownings and a few danger spots even. If you’re adamant, make sure you take advise from the locals on how to avoid the dangerous spots. Above all, stay safe.

For lunch, you can find decent hotels at the river bank. Maybe give the “Bhaat, Bhorta, Ilish maach” platter a try. It certainly brings a little different local taste to the mouth. After lunch, you can start heading back, but this time instead of getting on the bus, why not explore around a bit?

Dohar falls under Kartikpur and Kartikpur is a small and quiet village-town. You can walk in the narrow village roads, among the tree lines, exploring a village life from a more personal point of view. The idea is not get to Kartikpur Baazar and from there you’ll find a bus to Dhaka. You’ll get auto rickshaws that’ll take you to Kartikpur Baazar. Hop in one and after arriving at the Baazar look around for Niranjan Mishtanno Vandar to try one of the best sweets ever produced in the country. If you’re into sweets, of course. (Who isn’t!)

There’s a small bridge, and across it you’ll find the ruins of an ancient temple. Visit the temple if you want.

The last bus to Dhaka leaves at 6 so get your exploration wrapped up by then and hop on the last bus to get back to Dhaka by 8.

We will be traveling down this road again, for our next Getaway of the Week, Munshigonj. Happy exploring!

Getaway of the week #3 – Cumilla

Cumilla is a famous and historical town with a bagful of surprises. With a rich history spanning from ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms to the British Era, World War 2 and home to the famous Rosh-malai, Cumilla is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Bangladesh.

Located 100 km away from Dhaka, you can get to Cumilla in about 3 hours by bus. Comfortable AC buses operated by BRTC leave from Kamalapur from 7AM onward. The ticket costs TK 150. The cost is cheaper if you choose non-AC buses.

After getting off the bus, have breakfast in any of the local restaurants. There are a lot of local and highway restaurants around the bus drop off point.

From there you can take a rickshaw to the War Cemetery. Costs TK 30. The War Cemetery is a peaceful place that houses the deceased allied and a few axis Japanese soldiers who died during World War 2. The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth Society and is a calm and quiet place to spend some time and contemplate the fate of the fallen soldiers.

You can take an auto rickshaw to the ruins of the palace of Queen Maynamati, and explore the rich history once this region held. You can walk around and discover hidden paths that goes up the hill and leads to a temple, or another path that leads into a jungle. There’s all kinds of hidden gems to discover there.

From there, you can take a CNG to the Shalban Vihara, the ruins of an ancient Buddhist Monastery. There’s a new massive Buddhist temple there as well, built quite recently. Pay a visit there to experience a different culture. Explore the deep Shalban forest. Visit the Maynamati museum to learn about Cumilla’s history.

Visit the Jagannath Temple by an auto rickshaw. The Jagannath Temple is also called the seventeen jewel temple from the seventeen jewels it once crowned, but are currently damaged.

Besides the magnificent histories of ancient kings and Buddhist monasteries, Cumilla is also steeped in colonial history. Cumilla Victoria Government College in the city was named in memory of Queen Victoria. On the darker side of colonial history, communal tension spread over Cumilla when a Muslim was shot in the town during the partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1931, approximately 4000 peasants in Mohini village revolted against a land revenue tax. The British Gurkha soldiers fired indiscriminately on the crowd, killing four people. In a major peasant gathering, the police fired at Hasnabad of Laksam in 1932. Two people were killed and many were wounded.

You’ll find bits and pieces of the colonial era lying almost everywhere in Cumilla. After you’re done with all of that, visit Monohorpur to taste the Rosh Malai from the famous Matribhandar. Take a rickshaw and visit Rani Kuthir and Dharmasagar Lake.

It’ll almost be evening by the time you’re done exploring Cumilla. Go to the bus stop and catch a bus to Dhaka to get back in the city by 9.

Day tour from Dhaka: Chandpur

It feels nice to get away from the city once in a while. It feels nice to go somewhere, away from all the hustle, dust, crowd and everything else. What we lack is not the enthusiasm or the drive to travel, but time and money. And places near Dhaka which can be covered in a day are a blessing when it comes to getting away for a short time with a limited budget. Here’s the getaway of the week: Chandpur. The place you never knew you wanted to visit.

About a hundred kilometers away from Dhaka, Chandpur is a quiet and calm city situated on the banks of Padma and Meghna. Interestingly, Chandpur is the point where the rivers Padma and Meghna meet and the spectacular view of the two rivers makes Chandpur a coveted yet somewhat undiscovered tourist destination.

Getting to Chandpur

Chandpur is the only district in Bangladesh that is accessible by three transportation modes – bus, ferry and train. The best way to reach Chandpur is by ferry. The journey takes around three and a half hours and the view from the river is stunning. It’s better to start very early in the morning from Sadarghat ferry terminal. The first ferry leaves at 6.30 in the morning and there’s a boat every half an hour after that. You get to see the Dhaka morning on the river Buriganga as a bonus. Ferries usually cost a 100 taka for deck and 250 Taka for seats. If you want to have the full experience, go for the deck since you get a spot at the roof of the launch. The wind and the open view makes up for the lack of cushioned seats. And yes, it’s perfectly safe. The launch journey is one of the best parts of the entire Chandpur trip.

Things to do

After reaching Chandpur, you can have lunch at any local restaurant. Do try Hilsa – Chandpur is famous for the abundance of our national fish. Try the famous sweet shop “One Minute” in the Kalimandir area.  Roam around the city if you want. Every place has something new to see, something different. Here’s a secret – take a rickshaw to the city stadium and keep walking to its left. You’ll come upon a railway track. Follow the railway track to the left and keep walking. It’ll lead to an unexpected pristine getaway within the somewhat dull city. Tall green trees and village houses, the rail track crossing through this tiny forestry. There’s a small pond there by the houses. If you’ve always wanted to visit the famous rail tracks in Lawachara (Sreemangal) but never really got the time, this one is a nice little substitute.

Boro Station Mohona, Chandpur

Take an auto rickshaw to Matlab. The journey takes about 30 minutes and auto rickshaws cost 50 Taka per person. The road to Matlab is a beautiful one. Canals and green paddy fields on both sides, tall trees bending over to the road, small village bazaars and a unique technique of fishing in these canals will leave you awestruck. Matlab has a marketplace where you’ll find a famous “kheer”. Don’t leave Matlab without trying it.

Getting back

Get back to the Chandpur city before sunset and take a rickshaw to Boro Station Mohona. This is the point where Meghna and Padma meets. You can find boats there that’ll take you for a ride on the river for an hour or two for 200 Taka or so and let you enjoy the sunset in peace, floating on the waters of Padma. The time spent there are times to be remembered.  The boats can drop you off at the launch terminal and from there catch a ride to Dhaka to get back before 9PM.  Let the cold breeze and a sky full of stars accompany you on your journey on the dark waters and keep Chandpur your to-go destination for a short getaway.

A foray into the mysterious hills of Bandarban

It was a summer evening when some of my friends and I met near the bus counter with a plan for a weekend escape. The destination is one of the most known districts of Bangladesh, Bandarban. We were visiting in summer despite me preferring Bandarban in the monsoon because mountain rain enhances the beauty of the hills. The bus arrived an hour early to the bus stand, which was great for us as the heat was getting unbearable. Without further adeu, we got on the bus.

The bus left right after we got comfortable in our seats. I had office beforehand, so I was pretty tired. As a result, I dozed off into sleep, missing the satisfying view of leaving Dhaka for a vacation. When I woke up, the bus stopped by a restaurant near Comilla’s Dhaka-Chittagong highway. I got off the bus, freshened up and finished my dinner, all done in perfect timing; The bus started within a minute or two after I was done. The Dhaka-Chittagong highway is almost like a NASCAR track. All of the buses run quite fast in a straight line, and nobody was willing to let anyone get past them. Eventually I got bored and closed my eyes for catching another nap.

By dawn, I woke up and realized that the bus was quite close to Bandarban. I was close, but I was unaware of the terrible traffic jam. it took the bus two more hours to get to Bandarban city. After reaching Bandarban,  I got off the bus immediately, freshened up, finished breakfast, and fixed on a jeep for going to Thanchi Bazaar as we had no time to spare thanks to traffic jam.

Passing through the zigzag, uneven roads of the hills, our jeep was on it’s way to Thanchi. After almost four hours, we reached Thanchi Bazaar. We finished lunch from here and went to secure permission from the police and BGB for getting on a boat by Shangu to Romacri Bazaar. And thus started the journey through the mesmerizing Shangu.

Shangu is a mountain river in the eastern hilly regions of Bangladesh. It is one of the rivers that originate within Bangladesh. Shangu is known for it’s natural beauty as the poison of urbanization still hadn’t reached the river. While on my way, loads of tiny hilly villages and the rural lifestyle based on the bank of the river caught my eyes. The river provides a brief glimpse of the lifestyle by a mountain river, as some travel the river on boats made out of bamboo, some are busy fishing with small nets and in some places while kids play with each other on the river. Clouds playing hide and seek with the mountains by the river was quite a sight indeed.

We had to reach Romacri on a boat through Shangu. The path from Romacri to Thanchi gradually elevates, which is how Shangu has strong currents. The river descends from a feet or two to upto four feet at places. The mountains on sides of the river are wrapped in in a pretty shade of green.

The sun sets quite quickly in hilly areas. Add winter on top of that and you get very little time to enjoy this beautiful sight. It was already dusk by the time we reached Romacri. The entire place is doused in pitch-black darkness. At the moment, our journey had to be halted, so we decided to spend the night in a house in Romacri Bazaar. After finishing dinner, we spent some exploring the Bazaar and went to sleep, since we had a long journey ahead of us from the next morning.

As soon as the light of dawn tore through the darkness,we started walking through the zigzag hilly path by the Remacri lake. Because of the fog, our visibility was quite reduced. We encountered massive boulders, uneven roads and even had to cross the lake a few times because the path ahead of us was blocked. On one side, we had the lake and on the other side we saw massive mountains wrapped in dense fog.

The atmosphere was shrouded with pindrop silence. Only sound following us was the sound of the river flowing and our own footsteps. At times, natives came as signs of life as some were fishing, some hunting, some silently walked past with basket full of equipments.

We finally reached Nafakhum Waterfall, dubbed as the Niagra of Bangla, after two and a half hour of walking. One of the known waterfalls of Bangladesh, this stands as one of the greatest attractions of Bandarban. All the efforts of walking to Nafakhum seemed worth it as soon as we reached here. The unprecedented sight of this waterfall and the beauty of the hilly ways is bound to impress anyone.

After half an hour of watching the beauty of the waterfall, we started for Jinnapara on foot. We paced forward enjoying the hidden beauty of Bandarban. Sometimes we walked on stony walkways, sometimes on sandy terrains, and behind us followed the sound of birds singing in merry tunes. Almost as if we were walking through paths of heaven. The beauty seen in one’s eyes can never be described in words, to be entirely honest.

After three and a half hour of walking, we reached Jinnapara, located deep inside Bandarban. We were tired and didn’t get breakfast yet. Some dry food and some water from the river was our main source of energy till now. We asked the housekeeper of the house we took tenure in for setting up lunch for us. After setting up inside the house, we set out for the water flowing under the residence for a bath.

Getting on the clear waters in winter refreshed us. Even after an hour or two of taking a bath, we didn’t feel like getting out of the water. Hunter eventually caught up to us and we got out of the water and changed, getting ready for lunch. We finished our lunch with Joom rice, small chillis mixed with mashed potatoes and eggs. We then got off to see Jinnapara and Thuisapara.

After exploring Jinnapara, we decided to go to Thuisapara. We walked to Thuisapara. Spending some time there, we decided to head back to Jinnapara after dusk. The darkness of the night wasn’t really a problem thanks to the full moon shining on us. When we reached our destination, we discovered that we had a dinner consisting of Hill cock, mashed potatoes, daal and more Joom rice waiting for us, thanks to our landlord. “Dada, get yourselves freshened up, the food might get cold.”

We figured he wanted to go to sleep early, as people in these areas go to sleep around 8 or 9 PM and wake up early in the morning. We freshened up and finished dinner, then we sat on the couches outside the house, watching the full moon. After an hour or two, we went to sleep.

We woke up just before the sun started rising. After freshening up, we packed our bags and got on our way to Bandarban through Romacri. Witnessing the beauty again, we reached Nafakhum and stayed for two hours. Then, after arriving to Romacri, we got on a boat. We planned to reach Bandarban right before dusk, so we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands. After reaching Thanchi, we finished our lunch and got on a jeep. We reached Bandarban right after dusk started settling in. After exploring for an hour or two, we started for Dhaka.

But our hearts remained in the dangerously beautiful hills of Bandarban. My heart kept asking one question time and time, when can I return to these enigmatic hills again?

In the shadow of the Royal Bengal – the Sundarbans

Despite it being a weekend, Dhaka was jam packed as ever while I was on my way to the Sayedabaad Bus Terminal. Fortunately, I set out with some time in hand. Somewhere around 8 PM, the bus arrived. Destination? The biggest mangrove forest by the ocean, Sundarbans. At 8:30PM, my bus from Sundarban Paribahan started for the second biggest sea port in Bangladesh, Mongla. The distance from Dhaka to Mongla is about 320 kilometres, but in order to get past the waves of Padma, one has to wait for a transport at the Feri Ghaat for hours. The buses aren’t world class, or even in the upper percentile of Bangladeshi transport in terms of quality, but they get the job done.

The bus stopped at the Mawa Feri Ghaat around 15 minutes to 11PM. Mawa Feri Ghaat is popular for its food, thanks to its proximity to the river and the access to the freshest fish. A lot of people show up from Dhaka to experience a diverse catalog of fish best enjoyed with rice. One of the most popular items here are the fried Hilsha, made from fish taken straight from the ocean. I got off the bus and entered a restaurant. With two pieces of hilsha fry and a piece of medium sized shrimp, I finished my dinner. With a platter of rice, fish, daal and vegetables, my bill was around 260 taka.

After dinner, I got into the Feri Ghaat and sat there to watch the waves of Padma playfully rise and break under the mesmerizing full moon. Some time around 3 AM at night my bus got on the ferry, and soon enough we were on our way. Watching the Padma play with the silver moonlight in the ferry as it raged ahead on the mighty river, I eventually reached Kathalbaari Ghaat. The bus quickly got off and got on it’s way.

The bus reached the Mongla Bus Terminal around 6:30 AM. I got off and got aboard the engine-powered troller boat. It was already ready to help me reach the launch boat. Before starting for Sundarbans, I managed to chat up with a few of the fellow tourists over some tea. From Friday morning to Sunday noon, I’ll be with some friends of mine. The whole experience would cost me around BDT 7500.

As soon as I got on the launch, a staff boy showed me my room. It was a neat and tidy bunk bed with accommodation for four people inside the room.. I put my bag in the room, freshened up and went to the roof of the launch. The roof has a dining space with seating arrangements. The launch can hold upto 45 people at once. As soon as the passengers got in, the launch started.

The breakfast was served around 8:00AM in the morning, the menu consisting of hotchpotch, roasted eggplants, poached eggs and pickles. As soon as I was done with the breakfast, I started with Labonnyomoy Ladakh – Part 1, written by the eccentric Bivas Das. Books and nature are my  only two companions for the next two days. One of the best things about a trip in Sunderbans is the unavailable mobile network. Some locations within the vicinity provide a little network, but one can only enjoy some conversations with it, no hopes of internet.

The boat raged on with the waves of the river. It was sunny, but the cool breeze of the river took away the heat. A few fishing boats caught the eye sometimes. And other times, the launch slowly huddled past massive ships, and small cottages made of palm leaves look tiny from so far away.

Going up in front of the launch, the deep green of the forest catches one’s eye; this is where the Sundarban start. Although the river was quite wide a few years ago, it has narrowed down in recent years. Massive freight ships enter through this river. The ships carrying consumer products to India enter through this route.

After a few moments, our launch crossed the tourist center of the East Forest division. The Launch Master revealed that the launch will get off at Harbaria at first. As the launch tore through the river, I enjoyed the beautiful forest growing beside the water.

Around 1:00 PM, the launch reached Harbaria. Tolaharbaria, an eco-tourism center, which was built by the forest department of Chaadpai Range of the Sundarban. Our launch set its anchors right in the middle of a massive lake. We disembarked as soon as it reached land, we got off and started walking in a row. We were protected by a gunman up front and one in the back. I sparked up a conversation with the gunman in the back and kept walking.

We kept walking through the forest in quite a massive bridge made out of wood. There’s a feeling of foreboding walking through the desolate forest, a feeling of something eyeing you through the trees. You could see monkeys, occasionally swinging and playing on the branches, sometimes you’d hear birds. Under my feet the tide followed us slowly. On salty waters, in soft soil stood many respirators of mangrove trees ready to sprout soon. The trail ends after around 20 minutes. A massive pond appears after a few minutes, filled with lotuses. A round cottage made of wood stands in the middle, serving the purpose of relaxation for the tourists. There are some places for the tourists to sit here, as well. The Royal Bengal Tiger occasionally comes to visit at times as well, to drink the water from the pond.

After around 40 minutes in this place, we boarded the launch. The launch got in it’s way, with the destination now being Dubla’r Char in the Bay of Bengal. The sun slowly nodded to the west as the launch nudged with it too. Slowly, day rolled into dusk and we finally reached Dubla’r chor.

Tunes of unknown songs, drum rolls, fireworks or echoes of fishermen slowly came pouring in as we got closer. Hundreds of boats float in the Char, as we slowly kept moving. The crowd is because of it being a religious site for Hindu believers.

All of us got onto the launch-boat and got off to see the festive mood of Dubla’r Char. Fighting with the wind and the tide of the ocean, we reached the festival. We also got lost within the millions of people in the festival. We wandered around and discovered a different culture in here. Hundreds of stalls filled up with things of different needs, some buying these according to their needs and tastes. For the festival, thousands of people gathered at the temple. We got to see Ghazi Kalu, Bon Bibi and Radha Krishna’s sculptures within the temple, with everyone frantically praying. we explored the vicinity for almost two hours and got on our way to the launch; finishing our dinner with a plan to wake up at dawn.

Around 4 o’ clock in the dawn, we got on our way to watch the holy bath in the Dubla’r Char. As soon as we got to the Char, we saw thousands of people sitting near the ocean, all finishing their Puja and getting into the ocean. These people came climbing on hundreds of trawlers. The place was filled with national and international tourists at the moment, some taking pictures or some getting into the ocean themselves.

Sometimes one notices some kind of religious songs in groups, singing and dancing together while some other comes up to the sun and warms their body up. Enjoying quite the festive mood, we got on our way to the Katka beach side aboard our launch. After finishing breakfast, we got on our way to enjoy the Sundarbans. The morning slowly turned into noon and we got to the Katka beach side. With the forest in one side and infinite waves on the other, this beach-side looks beautiful. This beach being by the side of the Sundarbans, one could easily see the damage of the forest done by tsunamis and tornadoes. After wandering around for a few hours, we got to our launch to finish our lunch as afternoon crept in. We finished our lunch and got on the trawler to watch the sunset in the ocean.

Sunsets by the ocean are an indescribable experience. Afterwards he were on our way to Mongla, with a big fat moon sitting on top of the sky. It was a full moon too. Laying on the roof of the launch, we watched the moonlight playing with the waves of the river. We went to sleep around 11 PM in the night.

We woke up at dawn, discovering that we were at Karamjal. On the trawler, we got to the Karamjal Forest Range, which is a crocodile and deer reproduction facility too. A lot of deer, crocodiles and monkeys live in this place. It also has a massive map of Sundarbans, the skeleton of a tiger and an illustrative guide to the  “swatch of no ground “. After exploring Karamjal, we got to our launch in our trolley and the launch brought us to Mongla for breakfast. From there, the friendly staff escorted us to the Mongla bus stop, from where we got on our way to Dhaka.

Challenges of being a vegan in Bangladesh

One or another form of animal product is present in most of the popular foods in Bangladesh, be it biriyani, mishti, or doi fuchka, or the distinctly non-vegan or non-vegetarian menu at desi weddings. Just the thought of giving up any one of these for life seems unbearable to most Bengalis. Vegetarianism itself is a difficult feat to follow through here, considering the kinds of food items usually available at dawats and restaurants. For vegans living in Bangladesh, this journey is packed with ten times as many hindrances, but – as many a  successful vegan will tell – with sufficient perseverance, achievement is not only possible, but sweeter. Biplab Das is one such Bangladeshi vegan.

Image : Gemma Correll

While vegetarianism – where one can consume dairy products and eggs in their diet while avoiding meat – is more of a diet, veganism is its own lifestyle.

Veganism is the practice of abstaining from consuming all sorts of animal products, particularly in diet, and is associated with the philosophy of abnegation of any kind of harm to animals.

For Biplab, a follower of the Vedic philosophy, just the knowledge of the requirement of veganism in this philosophy was insufficient in strengthening his efforts to convert to veganism for four years. Biplab had considered going vegan several times since 2012, but what finally helped him stick to it was the renewed revelation of the core idea of the Vedic philosophy – to never cause violence to any animal. With the realization of the true essence of this ideology, helped achieved by a friend, turning to the vegan lifestyle was a simple choice for him, and he has been following it for two years now.

Image : kondratya

Like the adaptation of any other major life-altering philosophy, the beginning was awkward – not because of the diet itself, but the idea behind it. While family members resisted a little at the beginning, and the cultural practice of over-hospitality at dawats even hurt a few hosts when he refused to “try just a little bit of this non-vegan dish, it won’t count!”, those family members are now Biplab’s strongest supporters, and the same dawat hosts are now so understanding they even prepare special meals for him.

While vegetarianism – where one can consume dairy products and eggs in their diet while avoiding meat – is more of a diet, veganism is its own lifestyle.

The awkwardness of having to customize orders at every restaurant still lingers, and decent ready-made vegan meals are still unavailable at a lot of places, but having friends of the same lifestyle and learning to adapt has helped Biplab in seeing through this. With the help of a nutritionist, he started by creating a diet chart to ensure that his nutritional needs are still met. It’s an ongoing hassle to pick out the right items and go through every ingredient list to make sure it’s vegan – finding a suitable salad dressing took a whole year! With places like Unimart, Gourmet Bazaar, and even the food places near Hindu temples, it has become easier for Biplab to maintain his diet.

Photo : Nataliya Arzamasova / Shutterstock

Practicing veganism – or any kind of diet – purely for reasons of personal health can prove to be difficult – after all, who hasn’t retorted to just a small plateful of kachchi the day after vowing to go on a diet?

The real trick to sticking to this lifestyle is the acknowledgement, appreciation, and embracing of the core idea behind this lifestyle – that is, the abstinence from harming any animals.

Once the philanthropic element behind the philosophy is ingrained into one’s decision, nothing can sway them from the vegan lifestyle. Whether it is to convert to the vegan lifestyle or not, there are some beautiful lessons to be taken away from Biplab and other vegans living in the very meat-obsessed culture as is in Bangladesh – lessons of perseverance, strength, and core values. Theirs are the stories that teach us that the incredibility of spirit needed to achieve anything is always matched with an equally incredible feeling of accomplishment. As Biplab himself would tell, the only regret is not having started earlier. Be it veganism or anything else, to feel that way about any aspect of one’s life is truly the essence of fulfillment in life.