Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bangladesh Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Bangladesh?

Being mobbed for photographs in Natore's rajbari. For the Bangladeshi tourists, we were often the main attraction!

Being mobbed for photographs in Natore’s rajbari. For the Bangladeshi tourists, we were often the main attraction!

Summarise Bangladesh in three words.

  • Staring – as there aren’t many foreign tourists, being white made us the center of attention. It’s not rudeness, they’re just very, very curious!
  • Chaotic – Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and the traffic – both motorised and human – is like we found in India, but turned up to 11. There’s just so much going on, all the time that it quickly and unrelentingly overwhelms the senses
  • Varied – more so than we were expecting, Bangladesh has an amazingly varied array of attractions: countryside, wildlife, buildings, mosques, and Hindu temples to name a few

You really know you’re in Bangladesh when…

You’ll be sitting in a restaurant and everyone will position themselves so they can watch you eat, including the waiting staff who’ll often just lean on a nearby table. It can feel like feeding time at the zoo!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Bangladesh?

Binoculars. There’s a surprising amount of wildlife in Bangladesh and there were quite a few occasions, especially in the Sundarbans National Park and Srimongol’s Lowacherra National Park when we wished we’d had a pair with us.

Tips for visiting Bangladesh

We’ve found Bangladesh to be an incredibly rewarding destination. Its sights are varied and its people are friendly, however it can also be challenging and tiring, and there are some parts of the culture which it’s good to know about in advance. Here’s our list of top tips to get the most out of a trip to Bangladesh.


For women, wear long trousers (or skirt) and a loose fitting top with sleeves (3/4 length is OK). You’ll get looked at anyway and not wearing tight or revealing clothes will make that a little less uncomfortable. You could even buy yourself some local clothes. Unless you’re visiting a mosque, wearing a headscarf is not necessary – not all Bangladeshi women wear them although most do. For men, long trousers and a shirt or T-shirt is fine. Only little boys wear shorts…

20140422-175315.jpgCulturally appropriate clothing


Eating is usually done without cutlery although most restaurants will give you a fork and/or spoon. If you want to try the local way (we highly recommend it!), make sure to only use your right hand as the left hand is considered unclean (its use is in the bathroom). It’s OK to use both hands to tear off a piece of bread but don’t put anything into your mouth with your left hand. An excellent consequence of eating with the hands is that a washbasin is almost always available, and if not someone will be able to help by pouring water from a jug over your hands.



We don’t usually drink mineral water as we object to paying for water and dislike the amount of plastic waste from all the bottles. In other countries we’ve boiled water or refilled our bottles from filtered water in the place we were staying. We boiled some water in Dhaka and although it didn’t make us ill it tasted really bad so we were pushed towards mineral water for our stay. Most hotels provided a large bottle in the room although it’s a good idea to check that it is sealed as some hotels refill bottles from the tap.

Offering and Receiving

When giving or receiving anything (money, bill, shopping, gift…) use your right hand (similar reason to above). We found this one needed quite a bit of concentration, especially when trying to take whatever we’d bought from the vendor and pay at the same time!

Be friendly

You won’t have much choice about talking to people – Bangladeshis are incredibly open and friendly. Be patient with people, everyone wants to say hello, and we found that shopkeepers were rarely trying to sell us something, often they just wanted a short chat and a photo of us with them. It’s really easy to take photos of locals too, if the market vendors aren’t calling out for you to take their photo then just waving your camera and smiling is generally enough to get their agreement.

20140424-165053.jpgInvited into a shoe shop for a chat in Khulna

Say yes sometimes

We had some great experiences by agreeing to accompany locals places when usually we might have been a bit more reserved. Hasan, a student we met in Dhaka, spent a day and a half showing us around and wasn’t afraid to just walk into places we’d normally just try to peer into if we knew they were there at all (craftsmen’s workshops, schools, onboard a docked ferry to name a few!). We met Khoken and Nilu at a tea stand and got chatting, afterwards they invited us to their home where we met their children, ate homemade sweets and got photographed many, many times as well as having a good chat.

20140422-175107.jpgNilu, Julie, Oishi, Andrew, Shish, Khoken

Prepare your answers to the following questions

Most locals don’t speak much English and so conversations usually proceed some way down the following list until they run dry…

  • How are you? – the standard response we got when we asked the same question was “I’m fine, thank you”
  • What is your country? – if they weren’t sure how to ask that they would call out country names as guesses, “Canada”, “Australia” and “Germany” all seemed plausible but “China” and “Japan” were just as common?!
  • What is your purpose/function in Bangladesh? – saying we were tourists always went down well
  • How are you feeling about Bangladesh? – the only possible answer here is ‘very good, Bangladesh is a very beautiful country’ which fortunately was also the truth most of the time
  • What is your service/profession? – how you earn your money is a source of interest and denotes your social standing, we came across some very impressive sounding job titles

Lower your accommodation standards

Most places are not set up with the expectations of foreign tourists in mind. Apart from the capital, Dhaka, where there are more options, the swankiest hotel in town will probably be fairly clean and have aircon and hot water, but in other hotels expect grimy bathrooms, hard beds and cold showers. Bringing your own sleeping bag liner is a good idea for any time when you’re not convinced by the cleanliness of the sheets although most times we found the floors and bedding looked OK but the walls had never been touched since the hotel was built. On the positive side rooms are incredibly cheap, a double room with ensuite bathroom in a middling hotel was £10 or less, and even the ‘swanky’ business hotel option was only £20-30.

20140424-170516.jpgOur room at the not so salubrious Hotel Hera in Mymensingh


We already wrote about how difficult we found the whole concept and workings of baksheesh (or tips, or gifts, or bribes…) and I’m not sure that we ever felt comfortable enough with it to be able to offer advice although one useful thing that we read said not to feel pressured into giving if no service had actually been rendered.

Internet access

Finding wi-fi access points was a constant struggle. The only accommodation with wi-fi tended to be the higher end and business hotels, and while these weren’t really expensive it did seem a bit crazy to be paying an extra £10 per night just for internet access. Many of the smaller towns didn’t have that option anyway. Our next favoured option was to find a cafe or restaurant with wi-fi, these were thin on the ground and tended to be more expensive than (and not as tasty as) our usual eateries so we generally nursed a cup of coffee or Sprite for as long as we needed the internet! Failing that, internet cafes do exist but there weren’t many of them and they were small. Suffice to say most of our internet usage in Bangladesh was just keeping up-to-date with emails etc and falling behind with blogging and photo uploads. I suspect that a 3G SIM would be a good option if you had a smartphone with you. Mobile coverage was excellent and data packages looked to be quite cheap.

20140424-155536.jpgChecking emails in an internet cafe in Dinajpur

Ride in a rickshaw

Cycle rickshaws are the main form of transport for anyone needing to travel across town in Bangladesh. They’re great fun to ride in, you’re up nice and high so you can see what’s going on but travelling slow enough to take photos. They’re super cheap too with most journeys being less than £0.50. We have a few tips to avoid getting ripped off (in local terms…) but we also tried to remember that these guys have to work really hard for the few pence that we were paying them:

  • agree the price in advance so there are no unpleasant arguments at the end – drivers often ignored our ‘how much?’ and tried to make us just get in but we were persistent
  • try to have correct change – a few times drivers wanted to keep the difference as a ‘tip’ (there’s that baksheesh again…)
  • we once successfully used the guide price in the guidebook – the driver was asking for Tk100, we showed him that the Lonely Planet said Tk10 and he just agreed!

20140416-225343.jpgSeeing sights like four people in one rickshaw made us feel slightly better about getting into one with all our bags!

Bring a carrier bag

We heard that plastic bags were forbidden by law, certainly they’re uncommon. Anyone who has seen the mounds of plastic rubbish which can accumulate in developing countries will attest to this being a very good thing. Street food was usually served either on a small plate to eat at the stand and then pay, or in a twist of newspaper to takeaway.

20140424-160249.jpgJalebi served in a small dish on the streets of Dhaka – I guess we need to eat them straightaway then!

Appreciate the art

Bangladesh is home to the kind of professional painters who no longer exist in most of the developed world. Everywhere we went we saw handpainted signs advertising goods and services, everything from the name painted above a shop’s entrance to a whole wall the size of a billboard. The rickshaws are an art form in their own right, they are colourfully decorated with paintings of film stars, birds, animals, even the Taj Mahal.

20140424-155750.jpgHandpainted fruit juice advert on a wall in Sonargaon

Bus travel

I could probably write a whole post about this. Taking buses in Bangladesh is something of an extreme sport. It can be extremely scary, bus drivers drive crazy fast, definitely haven’t been on the fuel efficiency course (both acceleration and braking is done hard), they sound the horn often, and seem unconcerned for their own safety or that of their passengers.
As a side note, make sure to insist your luggage goes on the roof, the conductor only wants it to go inside the bus so that he can try to charge you the price of a seat for it.

20140424-155523.jpgIt’s not just luggage that travels on the bus roof in Bangladesh

The Markets of Bangladesh – a photo essay

We love wandering through markets, and the ones in Bangladesh stand out for two reasons; firstly, they’re very raw – by that I mean everything and it’s working are on show – live animals tied up or in cages witness their fate as butchers work at the same stall; and secondly, perhaps because we’re so obviously foreign, the stallholders invited us to take pictures of them, or of their fellow sellers.

Just by being curious, smiling, and saying a few words in Bengali, we got some amazingly candid photos. Here are some of our favourites from the markets of Bangladesh..

Betel leaf seller, Dhaka

The first seller in Bangladesh to request his portrait from us – Betel leaf seller, Dhaka

Betel nut sellers, Dhaka

Then the two guys at the next stall wanted their photo taken too – Betel nut sellers, Dhaka

Butcher, Dhaka

Butcher having a cigarette after a hard days work, Dhaka

Butchers, Dhaka

More friendly butchers, Dhaka

Whole spices seller, Dhaka

This whole spices seller saw us taking photographs and quickly nipped back into his stall to get his photo taken as well, Dhaka

Flower stall, Rajshahi

Florist making a sale, Rajshahi

Jaggery (uncentrifuged sugar) seller, Rajshahi

Entrepreneurial jaggery (uncentrifuged sugar) seller who stopped us walking past so we could sample his wares then happily posed for a photo, Rajshahi

Chicken seller, Rajshahi

One of Julie’s favourite portraits, a poultry seller, Rajshahi

Greengrocer, Rajshahi

This lovely greengrocer who was pointed at by all the stallholders around him to have his photo taken. He didn’t say a word or break his smile. Rajshahi

Fishmonger, Rajshahi

Our favourite of a line of fishmongers in Rajshahi. Cross-eyed and still has all of his fingers!

Coconut seller, Dinajpur

When this coconut seller asked for his photo, I gestured for him to hold a coconut as his stand was quite sparse, and look what he pulled out – what a lovely pair! Dinajpur

Greengrocer, Dinajpur

We love the early evening light and the beaming smile of this greengrocer in Dinajpur.

Chicken seller, Dinajpur

Young chicken seller, Dinajpur

Fishmonger having a tea break, Dinajpur

A very happy fishmonger having a tea break, Dinajpur

Fishmonger, Dinajpur

Fishmonger, Dinajpur

Fishmonger, Dinajpur

Fishmonger, Dinajpur

Grocers, Dinajpur

Father and son grocers, Dinajpur

Greengrocer, Dinajpur

Very good value greengrocers, Dinajpur

Onion and garlic seller, Dinajpur

Onion and garlic seller, Dinajpur

Herb seller, Dinajpur

A herb seller emanating inner peace, Dinajpur

Tobacconist, Dinajpur

Tobacconist, Dinajpur

Fruit seller, Dinajpur

Fruit seller hanging bunches of grapes, Dinajpur

Mymensingh and Birisiri, Bangladesh

Our final excursion into the Bangladeshi countryside was in the very north of the country. We travelled by train due north from Dhaka to the town of Mymensingh and then another 3 hours by bus to the village of Birisiri, close to the border with India.


Arriving in Mymensingh mid-afternoon we set out for a wander in the town to check out the handful of sights listed in the Lonely Planet. The old rajbari (landowner’s home) built in 1905 is now a teacher training college. As there was no one guarding the gate we just wandered in along with some locals who also looked to be out for a stroll.

20140419-213547.jpgMymensingh Rajbari, complete with classical fountain out front

20140419-213846.jpgAround the back there is a pretty pond and the remains of what was the ladies’ bathing house

The next morning before catching the bus to Birisiri we decided to have a look around the market and twisting streets of the old town. At 9am the market was buzzing, it was heaving with people and as we squeezed down the narrow gaps between the stalls trying not to get in the way even we were feeling too overwhelmed to take photos. There was a pen full of goats at one end of a line of butchers shops, fishmongers gutting and descaling fish, and men carrying huge piles of vegetables around on their heads.

In lieu of taking lots of market photos, we stopped at a barbers shop for Andrew to get a haircut. It was under a narrow shelter on a street side and didn’t seem to be supplied with electricty so it was a scissor cut rather than the usual clippers and finished off around the edges with a cut-throat razor.



The bus to Birisiri left from the chaotic Bridge bus stand in Mymensingh. As buses in Bangladesh don’t have any English signage, and in any case this bus stand was more like a field haphazardly filled with buses rather than a well ordered bus station, we took our usual course of action in such a circumstance: wander around saying the name of our destination to anyone who looks at us and following their vague arm waving until we reach a bus where the conductor is shouting frantically and gesturing like “Come on, come on, the bus is late and you’re holding it up”. As if any bus in Bangladesh has ever run to any kind of schedule, actually he’s just trying to fit as many bodies as possible into its creaking shell.

20140419-214455.jpgI was alarmed when getting off the bus to notice these holes below our seats where our daysacks had been stowed…

By the middle of the afternoon we arrived in the village of Birisiri to find ourselves hemmed in by a group of very keen young rickshaw drivers (there’s obviously a lack of business here and a pair of foreigners is a good prospect). We declined their offers in favour of a stretch of our legs after three hours squeezed into a bus seat, but undeterred they followed us in convoy to the guidebook’s top pick of guesthouse where we found no rooms available. So we walked back towards the main road to our next choice followed by a chorus of ‘Please sit down’ while trying not to get our legs or bags tangled in rickshaw wheels. Fortunately Swarna Guesthouse had a (very cheap and surprisingly clean) room available.

20140419-214505.jpgHemmed in by rickshaws

The people of Birisiri are largely from the minority Garo people who are thought to originate from the Tibetan plateau, we definitely noticed that some of the locals had distinctive cheekbones. Another thing we noticed was that the women seemed to be more forward here than elsewhere in Bangladesh, though we’d found women before who were friendly and looking for a chat they were in the minority whereas in Birisiri the women stared, smiled and shouted out hello as often as the men, I’m not sure if this is a difference between the countryside and the city, or because the Garo people have a matrilineal culture (property is handed down the female line although decisions are still usually made by the men), or because they’re largely Christian rather than Muslim or Hindu as the rest of the country. Perhaps a mix of all three.

20140419-215426.jpgGaro lady and shy baby

20140419-215434.jpgOne of the churches in Birisiri

That evening we (well, mainly Andrew) negotiated with one of the entrepreneurial young rickshaw drivers for a boat trip to the China Clay Hills the next morning. His English was limited, but with the aid of pictures, charades and writing down numbers we had some kind of excursion booked for 8am and an agreed price.

It turned out to not be quite what we’d envisaged, travelling by rickshaw most of the way and then upriver to a mission and back by boat before continuing by rickshaw, but our driver Jewel was a good companion and it was fun to see some of the rural life even if we felt like our bones were being shaken to bits by the bumpy roads.

20140419-222248.jpgPulling the rickshaw up onto a bridge on the way to the river

20140419-222257.jpgJewel showing that he is a man of many talents, expertly rowing the boat

20140419-222305.jpgUs looking a little windswept on the Someswari River

20140419-222311.jpgRanikhong Mission: school from the river, church and monument commemorating the first missionary invited to visit the area

Although really the day was more about seeing the countryside, our nominal destination was the China Clay Hills, a small area of low mounds where the clay is mined for pottery and the lakes in the depressions are a startling turquoise.

20140419-222318.jpgLush green countryside from the back of the rickshaw

20140419-222328.jpgLake and China Clay Hills

By the end of the day we felt that we knew Jewel well enough for Andrew to ask him if he could have a go at driving the rickshaw for the last section, something he’d been itching to do since our first ride in one four weeks earlier in Dhaka. It was pretty hard work even on the flat, but he was glad to have had the chance to give it a try. We caused a fair bit of amusement amongst the other rickshaw drivers rolling back into Birisiri with Andrew at the helm and Jewel sitting in the back with me!

20140419-222334.jpgIn charge of a rickshaw!


On our last afternoon back in Mymensingh we took a local bus to the nearby town of Muktagacha with another impressive rajbari and a sweet shop which is famous throughout the land. The caretaker of the rajbari was keen to give us a tour, he only spoke a limited amount of English so we couldn’t get into details but it was enough to get the gist of the place. It looks as if the Department of Archaeology is renovating the place so it’s likely to be even more impressive if less atmospheric in future.

20140419-223945.jpgRenovation work underway on the facade of Muktagacha Rajbari

20140419-223952.jpgInside the rajbari (clockwise from top left): Shiva temple columns, zamindar’s house, buildings in disrepair, us in the central courtyard

Afterwards we made our way to Gopal Pali Prosida Monda Sweet Shop to sample the monda. These sweets are made from grainy sweetened yoghurt and were nice enough although they weren’t my favourite of the sweets that we tried in Bangladesh (but then I’m no connosieur!). The former zamindar (landowner) must have been impressed though, because when he tried the sweets 200 years ago he promptly employed the sweetmaker as part of his personal staff and it was only with Partition in 1947 that the zamindar’s family left for India and the sweetmaker’s descendants opened up the shop which has been doing a brisk trade ever since.

20140418-183446.jpgThere’s a lion over the door of Gopal Pali Prosida Monda Sweet Shop, monda sweets

Srimongol, Bangladesh

The British East India Company imported tea plants and Indian labourers to eastern Bangladesh, establishing tea plantations in the rolling hills of Srimongol and today the wider Sylhet division is the largest tea producing area in Bangladesh. Altogether, Bangladesh harvests over 50 million kg of tea per year, and is the 10th largest tea producer in the world.

Tea plantations in Srimongol

The naturally rolling hills of Srimongol. Forest is still being cut away to make room for more tea and pineapple plantations

We stayed at the tourist-friendly Green Leaf Guest House, as much for the scarce commodity of WiFi as that it’s also the base for Tapas Dash – Srimongol’s entrepreneurial tour guide. We’d booked a 3 day tour with him and even though it included the main touristy attractions of Srimongol, Tapas took us off the beaten track for some really memorable experiences..

Day 1 – Cycling around the Tea Plantations

The first day was a self-guided bicycle ride through the tea, pineapple and rubber tree plantations that surround the town. After being shown the bikes we were waved off without a map or suggested route. A little bemused, we referred to our trusty Lonely Planet which, handily, is very small for Bangladesh but nonetheless has a good map of Srimongol and headed off in search of tea.

Hindu woman picking tea in Srimongol

Hindu woman picking tea in Srimongol. The tea pickers are direct descendants of the original Indian immigrants imported by the British

The pickers often work in groups, and it’s not uncommon to see a family working a section of the plantation together, though typically the women do the picking as their hands are nimbler for taking the two leaves and the bud.

Tea is the main crop of the area, but we also found fields of small pineapples, and on the flatter ground are rows of rubber trees.

Rubber trees and pineapples

Srimongol is also famous for its small sweet pineapples, and for producing rubber

As we made our way back towards the guest house, we picked up an escort of local kids keen to keep pace with us..

Local kids joining us for a bike ride

Local kids joining us for a bike ride

To round off our day, we stopped at the famous Nilkantha Tea Cabin, where another of Srimongol’s entrepreneurs has created a 7-layer tea – each layer is different in taste and colour!

Nikantha's famous 7 layer tea

Julie and I wondering how to tackle Romesh Ram Gour’s famous 7 layer tea

Here are our tasting notes as we tried to drink each layer separately (without the aid of a straw)..

  1. [Top] – Cinnamon or nutmeg, which may have been the powder floating on the top
  2. Milk tea with a hint of coffee. Possibly made with condensed milk
  3. Bad Bangladeshi chocolate, with a very faint taste of tea
  4. Definitely ginger
  5. Dark layer – tastes of cloves
  6. Very sweet milky tea. More sugar than tea
  7. [Bottom] – Lemon, also very sweet

Day 2 – Lowacherra National Park

As we were staying near the end of the main tourist season, the guest house wasn’t busy and we had Tapas all to ourselves for the Lowacherra national park tour. After a very nice introduction to the wider Srimongol area and history of the National Park itself, the three of us headed off on a little used trail that really felt like we were trekking through jungle.

Tapas was great at pointing out the various plants, trees and wildlife as we made our way through the park.

Lowacherra National Park Wildlife

Clockwise from top-left: Very shy but curious Phayre’s Leaf Monkey; Woodpecker; Horned spider (that you can pick up by the horns!); One of countless large butterflies we saw

After a spot of lunch we retired back to our room for a short rest before we headed out to the Madabpore Tea Estate which contains a large man-made lake. This tea plantation is owned by the Government, and as such the lake is open to visitors. Tapas had timed it so that we could catch the sunset..

Sunset over Madabpore lotus leaf lake

Sunset over Madabpore “Lotus Leaf Lake”

Day 3 – Boat trip to the wetlands, local village and pottery class

We were the only guests on the final day of our tour, which started early with a trip just outside the town’s limits to the nearby wetlands.

As we were there at the end of March, the water level was reaching its lowest point of the year before the rainy season gets going in May but there was still plenty of water covering the fields. As we waited for our small boat to arrive, we watched the men from the local villages walk past – some with fishing rods or traps and others with a knife and long pole for harvesting and carrying the reeds to sell as cattle feed in the market.

Reed harvester and fisherman

Carrying the reeds to market, and a fisherman with a trap

After a short wait our boat arrived and took us through the narrow channels connecting the water-logged fields. Tapas pointed out the odd sight here and there but it was a lovely relaxing man-powered cruise. As there was little noise, we saw a lot of insects and birds, and Tapas had another surprise in store for us.. as we were on our way back, we veered left into a pond full of spectacular flowering lotuses

Floating through the lotus pond

Floating through a lotus pond, with the lotuses at eye level was an experience we’ll never forget

On the way home we found our route blocked by bathing water buffalo and cattle egrets..

Water buffalo out for a swim

Water buffalo out for a swim

After a spot of lunch we headed north to a local village to see how local pottery is made. We watched as the very humble potter spent ages working a lump of local clay with his feet before chopping it up into small batches with hands, then setting up his stone wheel which is just that – a large stone wheel that sits on a metal ball bearing.

Once seated, he spun the wheel, deftly threw down a chunk of clay dead centre of the wheel and turned 5 lamps, 3 water jugs and a money box in the space of five minutes..

Master potter in action

Mr Master Potter. Clockwise from top-left: Preparing the clay by foot; Setting up the wheel; Water jug; Piggybank

Then it was our turn..

Andrew and Julie Potter

Our first attempt at pottery, out in the Bangladeshi countryside. Where’s Demi Moore when you need her?
Clockwise from top-left: Andrew Potter’s first pottery – a simple lamp; Julie Potter’s first pottery – a simple lamp; Andrew Potter makes a piggybank; Julie Potter at the wheel; Andrew Potter turns out a water jug

I’d always wanted to try my hand at pottery and it was really good fun! As we were saying our goodbyes, Mr Master Potter rushed off and came back with two finished clay moneyboxes which was a lovely surprise and a fantastic memento of our time in Srimongol.

Oh, and we stopped for one more try of the famous 7-layer tea on the way home..

7 Layer Tea

One last glass of 7 layer tea