I had some vacations days saved up a few years ago, so a friend and I hopped on a flight to Bangladesh — it was a blast! From the buzz of activity, vibrant lush landscapes, colorfully-painted tuk-tuks , spicy food, and great hospitality — it really stands out in my mind as an incredible destination. For anyone who loves pearls, you can get them here at cut-rate prices! While you’ll need to check your government’s travel page to get the latest on security conditions, I really recommend visiting Bangladesh for an exciting getaway.
I found a driver (Shamul) through an internet search (Elite Car Rental)– and he was fantastic. As soon as we walked outside the airport door there was a frenzy of activity, so it was great to have someone waiting for us on arrival.
Road Trip to Chittagong!
We started our journey with a drive to Chittagong, in the country’s southeast region. While in theory it could be about a 4.5 hour drive, it ended up being a fair bit longer because of traffic (especially leaving Dhaka). For this reason, I recommend budgeting plenty of time for long drives. We drove through lush greenery passing several rice paddies, water-logged fields, and brick-making furnaces along the way. I also really enjoyed trying the dhal (a mashed lentil curry dish), rice, and tea on offer at various roadside cafes. We had the opportunity to visit a few small villages along the way — our driver stopped to pray while we explored the towns and got a glimpse of village life.
As mentioned above, traffic in Bangladesh can be crazy (and I mean total chaos) — especially in big cities, with every manner of vehicle competing for space — buses, trucks, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, bikes, scooters, Nazamans (a tractor-like vehicle with a super loud motor), etc. Many of the vehicles are colorful and decorative, which softens the edge a bit when you’re stuck in traffic : ) If you take a bus, they’re almost always crowded and you’ll notice a guy hanging out the edge of the door (the ‘conductor’) — in addition to clearing people out of the way, he can help let you know where the bus is going. It’s common to run up and jump on (but be careful doing so!)
As we approached Chittagong, I noticed several trucks carrying various ship parts — pipes, valves, life-boats, steering-controls, you name it. The roadside shops were overflowing with various ship parts, as well.
We veered off the main road and went through some small mud-roads in a mangrove forest before arriving at the (in)famous Ship-Breaking Yards— a long, muddy beach filled with the decaying remains of massive tanker ships from around the world. Companies offload their ships here and local laborers cut them down by hand. As I understand it, most (if not all) of the parts are up for grabs, and are sold via the innumerable shops throughout the surrounding area. It was a surreal, eye-opening place. As this spot has received intense criticism from environmental and labor rights groups, the yard owners have tried to restrict visitors. You can read more about it here.
Pro Tip: if you try going here — bring disposable shoes. The beach consists of a heavily-polluted, thick mud. After slogging through it for a few minutes, my shoes were completely shot.
We then drove through Chittagong, stopping by a cafe for a spicy omelet (I think they called it “momlet”), before proceeding on to the Shrine of Bayazid Bostami on a nearby hilltop. The site contains the tomb of Bostami– a famous Persian Sufi– and has a mosque and pond filled with very rare Black Soft Shell turtles. According to local legend, Bostami punished evil spirits in the area by transforming them into these turtles and consigning them to spend eternity in this pond. People queue up to see the turtles and feed them mini bananas, which are available for purchase by street vendors outside.
We stayed at (and I can recommend) the The Peninsula Chittagong in the center of town. It was a large, clean hotel at a good value. It has a nice roof deck with a pool, which offers nice views over the city.
For dinner we ate at the Zaman Restaurant (and hotel), which specializes in biryani. We also got some delicious fried whole fish and spicy dhal dishes. After dinner we were served tea with Paan-Tamul (betel nut leaves and raw areca nut) — which had a bit of refreshing zip! While I can’t vouch for the rooms at the Zaman Hotel, the food was awesome! The menu inexplicably features a stock photo of OJ Simpson with a turkey.
Downtown Dhaka is very crowded and lively– and exploring the city center is an adventure! Our primary site of interest was the Ahsan Manzil Museum, a beautiful pink stone palace that dates to the late 1800’s and was originally the residence of the Nawab of Dhaka. As a museum, it now contains some interesting displays on the history of Dhaka, and the building itself is an architectural masterpiece. I also enjoyed the walkway along the nearby riverfront — where people relaxed and strolled at a less frenetic pace than elsewhere.
Highlights of the surrounding area of the city also include the 1600’s era Lalbagh Fort, the British Raj-era Curzon Hall, and the Star-motif mosque, and the super-active Chawk Bazar. There are plenty of other remarkable sights in downtown Dhaka– too many to list them all — but it’s worth a brief stroll around town to take in the sights, smells, and intense activity of the city! We also stopped by the unique-looking Parliament building for a quick photo.
In Dhaka we stayed with a friend who was living there. I was surprised to find that Dhaka has several great sushi restaurants! After having some fantastic sashimi, we went to the Pearl Market, as you can get pearls in Bangladesh at fantastic prices! After comparing prices and quality (size, color, shape, freshwater/cultivated) at a few shops, I picked up some pearls for folks back home. Even if you don’t go to the market I linked above, I do recommend buying some pearls while in Dhaka — just make sure to do a bit of research in advance so you know what you’re buying.
Something for Next Time: When I get back to Bangladesh, I would love to visit the Cox’s Bazar beach south of Chittagong. I’d also like to take a few days to explore the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which are supposed to be lush, vibrant, and incredible for hiking.