What can I really say about Bangladesh? From a tourism perspective, I would not recommend coming here unless you A.) know someone in the country who is knowledgeable and willing to travel with you as a guide, and/or B.) you have a genuine interest in learning about Bangladesh and the Indian sub-continent in general.
There is absolutely nothing distinguishing about Bangladesh that would make it a draw for tourists. Those features of the country that are marketed to tourists (rivers, beaches, jungles) can be found in other countries on a far more remarkable level. The tourism ministry’s motto for Bangladesh is, ‘Come visit before the tourists do’ (or something along these lines). Having just made the visit, I can say with some authority that there will not be hordes of tourists following in my wake. That would be a great motto for Afghanistan, where natural and man-made wonders boggle the mind, but not so much for Bangladesh.
Well, if you’re one of the 10 or so people that have made your way to this blog post, you might as well learn a bit about Bangladesh. Bangladesh is, in fact, very remarkable, but in ways that are more troubling than anything else. The country is massive, with a population around 160 million. It is also one of the most condensed; with 16 million inhabitants, the capital, Dhaka, is an insufferable congested disaster.
The economy is in shambles, in part due to the hartals, or politically driven strikes, that frequently cripple the country’s transportation networks. The weakness in the economy means that there is endemic child labor, and the minimum wage is, at present, the lowest in the world. Another cause for economic weakness is rampant government corruption. Bangladesh is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Corruption is the natural enemy to the type of large-scale critical infrastructure projects that are necessary to support a vibrant economy. Many areas of the country have been made accessible by bridge-building projects that have been finished just within the last five years.
Some other noteworthy items:
- Climate change: Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change; as sea levels rise, Bangladesh will likely experience a crisis of ‘climate refugees’ whose land has been reclaimed by the ocean or rivers.
- Culture: The territory that makes up modern-day Bangladesh was never conquered by the Arabs, so Hindu and Buddhist traditions and dress remain despite the decisive Muslim majority. Women commonly wear saris, thereby exposing their midriffs (haram!), and scarfs are more often worn around women’s shoulders rather than over their hair. Additionally, women’s families are expected pay money to the groom’s family in the marriage of their daughters (to compensate them for removing the burden of supporting her), thereby contradicting the marriage rites of Islam.
- Politics: Because of the extreme corruption and ineffectiveness of the government, an environment has been created where extremists Islamist groups are able to garner support.
- Society: The trauma of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence is still highly visible on the national psyche. The ongoing International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), which is prosecuting collaborators with Pakistan over four decades ago, is used as weapon to rouse popular anger and attack the opponents of the ruling Awami League.
Why I visited Bangladesh:
I made the visit to Bangladesh not to have a leisurely, touristy vacation, but because I had never been anywhere in the Indian sub-continent, and I happened to have a friend. Laurie Visser, living in a remote village in the far north. Laurie, a Dutch national working for RDRS (a local, and very prominent, Bangladeshi NGO), had been based in Bangladesh for five months by the time I arrived. She had made the effort to learn the national language, Bangla, and from what I observed she had made quite a bit of progress in her relatively short time in the country. As a Pale Face European who spoke decent Bangla and worked for a respected aid organization, Laurie was able to connect us with people in a way that I could never have done if I was by myself. She was able to take me around her village, Kurigram, introduce me to friends and neighbors, take me to the chars (inhabited sandbanks in the country’s massive rivers) and overall played the role of linguistically-empowered foreigner that I like to think I am when travelling in Arabic-speaking countries.
I’m not going to go into the minute details of the trip, because it was all rather remarkable in how unremarkable it was. Laurie and I were extremely lucky in a number of regards in our travels throughout the country. First, there were no monsoons, and although rainfall was a daily event it never prevented us from doing anything. Second, there were no hartals, so no mobs preventing our buses from going where we needed to go. We saw some things, we went to some places, and spent a lot of time on buses. Over two full days (50 hours) of my nine-day trip were spent on buses, in fact.
I have no deep thoughts or Thomas Friedman-esque connections to make with my other travels. I will only say that the food was excellent (I managed not to get sick at all, WINNING!), the people friendly, the bus rides terrifying, and the rice wine potent. I have been further inspired to visit Pakistan to get its take on the 1971 war of independence, as the Pakis (is that politically correct?) are absolutely vilified in Bangladeshi history. Finally, I will say with no spite or animosity and all the love in the world for the inordinately friendly and hospitable Bangladeshi people, I hope I never find myself in Bangladesh again.
Dhaka – Kurigram: 10 am – 9:30 pm (11.5 hours)
Kurigram – Dhaka: 6 pm – 6 am (12 hours)
Dhaka – Cox’s Bazar: 11 am – 11:30 pm (12.5 hours)
Cox’s Bazar – Bandarban: 9 am – 1:30 pm (4.5 hours)
Bandarban – Chittagong: 8 am – 10:30 am (2.5 hours)
Chittagong – Dhaka: 11 am – 6 pm (7 hours)
Total hours on buses: 50 hours
This does not include many hours on bicycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws (battery powered carts), and CNGs (gas-powered carts). It also does not include about three hours total in Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban arranging our government permit to the politically sensitive Hill Tracts, a fairly frustrating and inefficient process.