Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for a visit to Bangladesh’ capital Dhaka. For me to go there after travelling through Myanmar was an impulsive action, so I came barely prepared anyway. All I knew was that it was poor and immensely densely populated. However, it turned out to be an experience I will never forget for as long as I live.
The plane that took me from Yangon to Dhaka had a delay of three hours and carried only twenty passengers. Coincidence or not, six of them, including me, were Dutch. A girl off to do voluntary work and an ambassadors family living in Dhaka. The family offered to bring us to a hotel, since it was the middle of the night and they felt it would be unsafe for us to go on our own. When I told them my plan was to travel solo through Bangladesh they advised me to absolutely not travel by bus, because of the state the roads and busses are in. The next thing they asked me was if I did this out of my own free will, and what the hell was wrong with me.
The extreme situation that Bangladesh is in immediately hit me when we got off the plane. I got my 51 USD Visa On Arrival by writing my name and address in an enormous book and receiving a small stamp. When we got to the baggage claim, my jaw dropped. Thousands and thousands of boxes, suitcases and bags lay stacked next to the luggage belt. When we retrieved our bags and went outside, hundreds of people clung to the gates, waiting for their loved ones. I felt like walking into a prison as if you were the “fresh meat” that just came in. We finally reached the hotel. The same questions were asked: “Are you traveling alone? Why? Are you okay?” Just like the Dutch family, they gave me their phone number in case something happened. Which of course wasn’t very encouraging.
The next morning I moved to another hotel closer to the train station of Dhaka. The ride in the CNG, a kind of tuk-tuk with a cage built around it, was eye-opening. So many people, so many colours and so much poverty. I checked into the hotel while answering the same questions again and received even more phone numbers. Still nothing in me wanted to stop this adventure.
I headed to the train station to buy a ticket for the next day. My plan was to go to the northwest of Bangladesh. I heard about some amazing temples hidden in the jungle, overgrown by plants. At the counter stood a friendly and helpful man who spoke pretty good English. I got my ticket for the next day and my hopes went up. It was time for shopping! I wanted to buy a Kameez. Women in Bangladesh wear either a Kameez or a Sari, and to me they are the most beautiful dresses for women that exist. They are so gracious, colourful and extremely comfortable.
The next day I got up excited to travel and get out of the Dhaka-chaos. With my backpack on I headed to the train station. It was early in the morning. I tried to find someone who spoke English. When that failed I tried to communicate with signs, but people looked at me as if I was alien. Which I probably am for them, with my blond hair and white skin. They pointed me to a platform, but so many trains were coming and going, I had no clue which one was mine.
In the meanwhile I was overwhelmed and completely captivated by everything that was happening. The trains had thousands of people in them, on them and hanging out of the doors. In between of the railway tracks hundreds of people were sleeping, and next to me stood a small family. Husband and wife spoke intensely to each other. Their daughter was maybe five years old. She stood next to her mother. Without showing any change in her way of standing or her facial expression she peed in her pants. Her mom looked at her, and went on talking to the father of the girl. For some reason this image shocked me so heavily, months later the image is still burned on my minds eye. I realised I had missed my train by 15 minutes…
I got a CNG back to a hotel. I figured I wasn’t going to get out of Dhaka on my own on a train. Thinking what I should do I figured that Bangladesh was an absolute chaos. But such beauty. I couldn’t get my eyes ripped away from the images of richly decorated rickshaws and busses, which are in fact works of art. The huge differences in wealth and poverty grasped my interest. Especially how the most awfully poor people still smile all the time, as if they never knew a care in the world. The kids were looking through trash for usable stuff while playing with each other, and at the same moment a school bus (a large CNG) full of kids dressed in school uniforms was driving by.
Although I had traveled quite extensively by now, I had never experienced poverty in such great numbers. Neither had I experienced such colours, and a country that was so rarely visited by Westerners. I wanted to discover this gem. But I was afraid. I knew this whole trip I would be completely alone except for the few Bangladeshis I could find that spoke English. Which wouldn’t be a lot outside of Dhaka. There weren’t a lot inside of Dhaka. I’d made my choice. I had to leave.
In the hotel the receptionist helped me book an awfully cheap flight to Kathmandu. I still had to spend a couple of days in Dhaka. The first thing I thought was to get a nice hotel room with a tv and catch up on some movies. It didn’t take long before I realised I would hate myself later if I’d only be watching tv. So I dragged myself out of my hotel room and got another CNG to the historic city centre.
It happened to be a national holiday. I was told nobody knows how many people live in Dhaka, just that it is somewhere between 13 and 24 million (some research on the internet tells me numbers between 14 and 17 million). All of them got out of their houses to enjoy the day. As a result the whole city centre was one big rickshaw traffic jam, with a lost green CNG stuck in the middle here and there. I paid my rickshaw driver and let him go. Biggest mistake of my life, because he spoke English. Try and have a Bangladeshi rickshaw driver understand where you are going if you don’t speak the language. If you find one that speaks English, pay him for the rest of the amount of time you’ll be in the city to have your own driver and guide. Of course I only realised this later.
Anyhow it didn’t make that much difference now, lucky me. After walking around only a minute a guy came up to me and started asking me questions. I found out that he was an English literature student. I told him I wanted to visit the Pink Palace, and without any hesitation he took me there, got me a ticket for Bangladeshi citizens (which is way cheaper than the one for foreigners). We, together with the hundreds of holiday people, went into the palace, which was in fact actually completely pink. It was amazing.
Next to the fact it was a beautiful palace, it was a wonderful place to meet a lot of local students. They all want to practice their English on you, want to take pictures together and so on. It was really funny. Later on we walked through Hindu street. Bangladesh is a mostly Muslim country, but some Hindu’s, Christians and other religions remain. The Hindus of Dhaka actually keep themselves to Hindu street a lot. All the main temples are there, the sculptors and flowersellers, and I believe even most of the Hindu people live in this street. Because of the national holiday the street was almost empty, where normally it would be full of people.
We went on to Lalbagh fortress. An emperor once started building it for his daughter. Unfortunately, his daughter died of some kind of illness during the construction. The emperor transformed the fortress into a grave for his daughter. She’s still resting there. Around the fortress is a huge field with fountains. It seemed like the whole of Dhaka had come here to enjoy one of the few pieces of green in this crazy city.
The women were enjoying each other’s company, picnicking, playing games, their beautiful clothing in a strong contrast to the grass. Colours were everywhere. Guys were playing football and jumping gates to were some secret tunnels should go all the way under the city towards the Pink Palace and other old government buildings. I wanted to join them and explore, but the guys soon found out that there was no possible way inside. We walked around a bit more and enjoyed a wonderful sunset, which was the last thing I expected in the middle of Dhaka. Already I started to feel sorry to leave Bangladesh…
We took another rickshaw to the market. I wanted to try and find a book somewhere, although I wasn’t expecting any English ones. My friend and guide brought me to the book market. It was a huge area, with a big maze of alleyways past hundreds and hundreds of second hand bookstores. They had literally anything. I even saw some books about Dutch law there (in Dutch, yes). For me it was paradise. We spend hours there.
By this time it was the middle of the night, but life in Dhaka seems to always keep on going. I was happy to have my friend with me, who was honestly fantastic. He wanted to tell me everything, show me everything, and expected nothing. And it took care of people not looking at me as if I was from another planet and probably for my safety as well. I wouldn’t have been that comfortable being there alone at night.
We strolled through the clothing market, first the Bangladeshi one, later the Western one. A lot of the factories of brands like Nike and Adidas are situated in Bangladesh. To make some extra money from their seriously underpaid jobs the workers take everything of the factories that has a little mistake on it and is thrown away. They try to sell it here on the western clothing market.
I met a man with a bunch of ropes. He tried to sell them to me for 0.003 Euros a piece (0.3 Bangladeshi Taka). I bought five and overpaid him. It was so much more obvious here than anywhere else I have ever been that people were struggling to survive. I have never been so happy to buy five pieces of rope. I knew the guy had food again for a couple of days.
But even so, the people are incredibly beautiful. Of course, they look at me as if I am alien. They don’t see many westerners and probably if they do the westerners will definitely not talk to them. But if you meet a Bangladeshi who you can communicate with, you will notice they are so hospitable. If you observe friends together, they are smiling and laughing, even though they are struggling and hungry. Yes, there is a lot of garbage in this country. It is poor. It is shocking for westerners, even the ones who have traveled. There will be girls peeing out of nowhere. People are hungry and willing to eat everything. But there also is so much love. So much laughter. And so many colours.
The next morning I finally got on the plane to Kathmandu. I didn’t know what to feel. I was relieved, but also sad and deeply impressed. It had been a rollercoaster of emotions, sights, people and impressions. I had never experienced anything close to Dhaka. A complete chaos, but also so beautiful. In my guesthouse in Kathmandu I met an Englishman. He had been traveling for over 20 years, and also to Bangladesh. He told me it was the only time in his life he had felt so lonely. But also that it had been one of the most rewarding and unbelievable experiences he’d ever had. I want to explore the rest that this country has to offer. I will definitely go back. Only a bit better prepared, and maybe not alone.