Love it or loathe it, Dhaka is an essential ingredient to the Bangladesh travel experience, a place that every Bangladesh traveller will eventually see in a journey to Bangladesh. The city itself is not big, but because of the intense traffic and population density, it can be extremely hard to navigate, and traffic jams will inevitably slow you down as you try to cross the city.
But thankfully, Dhaka is also a colourful city. While stuck in traffic there is absolutely no shortage of things to spy on the streets. Colourful pedal rickshaws decorate the city at every turn, while the streets are constantly humming with human activity of trade and construction. Puran Dhaka(Old Dhaka) is a steaming cultural melting pot, and contains a tremendous amount of the city’s history squished into its oldest quarters. A vibrant intellectual life pulses through the city’s galleries and museums, showing that there is much more to the city than its sullied façade, and that it has much more depth than can be seen on the first glance.
Like a dose of some high-powered substance, Dhaka takes you to the very extremes of all that Bangladesh has to offer. And when you finally leave it behind you both breathe a sigh of relief and a sigh of longing for that rollercoaster ride again.
For most travellers, three neighbourhoods of Dhaka are worth noting and visiting. The first is Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka), the hub of Dhaka’s 400-year history. The thronging, nostril-filling city dock of Sadarghat is an awesome and unforgettable sight to behold, for all of the activity it contains floating on the water.
Dhanmondi is the home of the city’s intellectual classes, with Dhaka’s best galleries, exhibitions and literary events held from the venues scattered around the neighbourhood. Most of Bangladesh’s younger set hangs out in Dhanmondi, and so there is something of an avant-garde culture that is regrettably absent in the upmarket neighbourhoods.
Speaking of upmarket, Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara are where the wealthiest cats on the block like to live. The ‘expat bubble’ as it is sometimes referred to, has everything that a long-term guest might like to have in a place like Dhaka, including the best shopping, restaurants and social scene. But Dhanmondi is much more interesting to those who want to experience the real Bangladesh and may not have time to get out of the city during their stay.
Located in the heart of Dhanmondi, Dhaka’s gallery and culture destination, the Ambrosia guesthouse offers guests a slice of heritage charm.Green House Bed and Breakfast
Homestay/serviced apartment with excellent facilities located in the upscale Dhaka neighbourhood of Gulshan 2.
Intimate, stylishly decorated 5-suite heritage guesthouse located on a quiet road in the backstreets of Dhaka’s Gulshan neighbourhood, where most of the foreign embassies and development agencies have set up shop.
Viator Bangladesh Guesthouse
Located in Dhaka’s middle-class neighbourhood of Banani, the Viator Bangladesh guesthouse offers clean, good value accommodation without compromising access to the city’s best restaurants, shops and businesses.
Old Dhaka Walking Tour: If you want to know the real Puran Dhaka, then a tour with the Urban Study Group is an absolute must. As architects-turned-tour-guides of the old city, their knowledge and passion for the history of Dhaka is matched by no other. You can find their details here.
If shopping isn’t your thing but art is, Dhanmondi also has three venues worth checking out for the artistic perspective: the DRIK Photo Gallery, Alliance Françoise and the Bengal Fine Arts Gallery all hold rotating exhibitions of various international and local artists. (DRIK Photo Gallery: House 58, Road 15/A (new), Dhanmondi. Tel: (02) 912-0125, 812-3412, 811-2954. Alliance Françoise: 26 Mirpur Road, Dhanmondi Residential Area, Tel: (02) 861-1557. Bengal Fine Arts Gallery: House 275/F, Road 27 (old), Dhanmondi, Tel: (02) 812-3115.)
Get out! Day trips to Savar or Sonargaon is relatively easy to organise. Savar is the easiest because of the relative lack of traffic on the Dhaka-Savar road. A must-see list includes The National Martyr’s Memorial, combined with a visit to the brass making shop of Sukanta Banik at Dhamrai, is a memorable and worthwhile way to spend a day. Leave early and return well before nightfall.
Finally, you can reward yourself with a value-for-money dinner at theDhaba in either Rifles Square or Banani (depending on the location of your accommodation), with the former location offering dozens of nearby stores selling DVDs extremely cheaply. Their phuchkas, topped with either tamarind (garam) or sweet yogurt (dahi) is an absolutely divine and not to be missed. Khazana, north of Gulshan Two, does fine Indian meals for a fair price. (Dhaba: 5th Floor Rifles Square, Road 2, Dhanmondi; Beside House 99, Road 11, Banani. Khazana: House 12, Road 55, Gulshan Avenue, Tel: (02) 882-6127.)
Retail therapy is available at any one of a number of upscale shops in the Dhanmondi area. Among the notable are Sweet Dreams, the home of some sexy numbers that run counter current to what is an outwardly conservative Bengali culture. Aarong offers quality handicrafts that support rural artisans. At Prabartana, only female customers are allowed to sample their custom tailoring (men can accompany women but not come alone). Finally, you could backtrack slightly to New Market in search of some handmade Bengali jewellery – silver ankle bracelets make excellent gifts. (Sweet Dreams: House 29, Road 7, Dhanmondi, Tel: (02) 815-2027; House 24, Road 11, Block F, Banani, Tel: (02) 986-0965. Prabartana: 2/8 Sir Syed Road, Mohammedpur. Tel: (02) 911-8428. New Market: Intersection of Nilkhet Road and Mirpur Road. Jewellery shops are on the first right from the South Gate.)
The Dhaka Project: Started by Emirates airline hostess Maria Conceicao, the Dhaka Project accepts volunteers for their project in which slum children are given free education, healthcare & food. More information is available at the website.
Grameen Bank: Offers exposure internships at reasonable costs to students & researchers.
Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS): Northwest Bangladesh’s best & largest NGO. Supports an internship programme from the North Bengal Institute in Rangpur.
Transparency International Bangladesh: The organisation responsible for publicising the incidents of corruption in graft-ridden political system of Bangladesh. Naturally, internships here would be very challenging.
Bangladesh’s responsible tourism initiatives are best described as embryonic as it seems as the industry hasn’t totally cottoned on to the potential offered by those seeking responsible tourism experiences and who want to do something positive in the developing world. But by selecting some of the tours and operators highlighted in this site you will be doing your bit to ensure a better future for Bangladesh with your tourism dollars. Be aware, however, that tourism in its typical form is still very new in Bangladesh, and so don’t be surprised when things don’t run on schedule or in some cases don’t run at all. Also be aware that because most Bangladeshis are not used to seeing foreigners you will be a real standout for potentially dozens of people, all of whom want to have a look for themselves.
By Air: Because Bangladesh doesn’t receive a lot of air traffic, the country lacks competition among major carriers. As a result, the connections that do exist tend to be rather expensive due to a lack of critical mass and only one discount airline flies to Bangladesh. While this may change with the entrance of several new local airlines, it may be a few years yet before the connections and their prices improve. Major hubs servicing Dhaka include Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Kolkata, Delhi, and Kathmandu. Further afield, Middle East connections via Dubai, Doha and Bahrain are good.
By Land: Bus service via Kolkata is the most common overland route into Dhaka. If you’re coming from one of the other areas of the country there are regular express busses to Dhaka from every corner of the country. You can often get tickets for under US$10 dollars for an air-conditioned bus for all the major cities.
By Train: When the new Maitree Express service (Kolkata–Dhaka) began on 14 April 2008 (Bengali New Year), there was a great deal of fanfare – travellers could now travel from London to Dhaka entirely by train if they so chose. However, complaints of extreme delays at the border crossing means that the service isn’t selling well, but will likely remain in service.
By Bus: With its overcrowded, packed-to-the-rim hulks, Dhaka’s bus system is all but impenetrable, literally. But once in awhile you may find yourself unable to find a taxi; and so hopping onto to these scarred-looking vehicles might become the only option. At some locations around the city there are ‘sitting bus’ stands, usually marked by a group of men selling tickets under an umbrella. If you’re up for a bit of adventure, tell these waiting ticket sellers where you want to go and they’ll tell you which bus to catch.
By Taxi: Four kinds of taxis ply Dhaka’s streets. At the top of the heap are the yellow Nirvana taxis, all of which feature working air conditioning and upholstery that’s a little less battered than the others. Following this is an army of blue and black taxis, most of which sound and feel like they could fall apart at any moment. Finally, there is the green baby taxi, known as ‘CNG’ for the type of fuel it uses—compressed natural gas. These are the cheapest and probably the most roller-coaster like of the available hired transport. Fares are usually negotiated beforehand and unless you know the city well you are unlikely to get the local price. But once in awhile you will find a driver willing to travel on the meter, and offering him Tk10 above the metered fare will usually be enough of an incentive for him to take you.
By Rickshaw: No Dhaka experience is complete without clambering aboard one of the city’s estimated 600,000 rickshaws. As a foreigner it is expected that you pay more than what locals pay for your rickshaw rides, and this is acceptable to some degree but not to the point where the local economy changes because of overpayment. A good rule of thumb is Tk1 per minute of rickshaw travel, even if that time is not spent pedalling but only waiting in traffic.
Dhaka’s transport footprint is thankfully quite low now because CNG is the primarily fuel used in the city instead of petrol. In this respect, Dhaka is in fact a much cleaner city than it used to be, although when you’re stuck in traffic and accumulating fumes by the second, you might not agree!