Dhaka, Bangladesh. 14th January, 2020
It was time for a change of scenery so I decided to head south, down to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second city and a major shipping port. The road was mostly good dual carriageway, but with heavy traffic in the towns. At one point they closed our side of the carriageway so I’m sure you can imagine the queues. All the bikes were pushing their way along the dusty shoulder until we crossed over the centre reservation. Then all the bikes were riding along the right hand side of the road, against the flow of traffic until we crossed back over again. Lunacy really, but good fun too.
On dual carriageways the trucks always drive along in the right hand lane, maintaining their steady and stately way. Everything else overtakes on the inside. If there are two slow vehicles alongside each other, well that was what the hard shoulder was for, and anything small enough to fit down the inside would do exactly that. The shoulder is about one third the width of a normal lane, designed for bikes to use. But small cars and tuk tuks would use it too.
At one point I diverted into a small town, needing to buy some fruit. I parked by a stall, got what I wanted and went back to the bike. By this time, no more than five minutes, the bike was surrounded by about twenty people, just standing there with folded arms, all staring at the bike, then at me as I packed away what I’d bought. Nobody said anything, or asked for a selfie. I couldn’t help but give a small bow to the assembled crowd and thank them for being such a lovely audience, before getting on the bike and riding away. It’s almost unnerving really, a bit like being surrounded by Stepford Wives, but that’s the way it rolls here. People will stop and stare at anything unusual. I’ve even done it myself.
In Chittagong I found a hotel, with secure parking, right in the middle of the city. It was dark when I went out for a walk and the streets of the market were jammed with people, walking along shoulder to shoulder. This section was all about clothes, bags and similar, so not all that interesting apart from the people watching aspect. I didn’t find anything to eat so had some food in the hotel. Afterwards reception contacted me and asked me to go up to the manager’s office. I couldn’t think why he might want to see me but when I met him it transpired that he had a journalist with him. Reception had clearly told him about me so I was now A Person Of Interest. The journalist was the manager’s friend and what became clear was that they had a symbiotic relationship whereby the hotel would contact him whenever anyone of interest came to stay. In return the hotel would get its name in the paper. Clearly good for business.
The managers name was Shihab, who spoke very good English. His family owns three hotels. He manages one, his brother and father manage the other two. He questioned me about myself, what I was doing and where I’d been. The kind of questions I’d become accustomed to. Then he passed all this on to the journalist, who writes for a national on-line news outlet, but which has a local page. That’s where I’d appear. It was all good fun and when Shihab told me he’d give me a nice, fat discount on my room rate, and pay for the meal I’d just eaten, I was definitely smiling. There were even a couple of free beers slotted into the deal somehow. A week or so later he sent me the article, and also translated it for me. Najim, the reporter, had written me up quite nicely and had taken a few photos off my Facebook page as well.
Next day I went out for a ride, down to a coastal town called Cox’s Bazar. It sits pretty much at the southern end of Bangladesh, facing the Sea Of Bengal. It’s famous for its 155km long sandy beach and is a very popular tourist destination. But one of my reasons for going there was to see the Rohinga refugee camp. My friends Steve and Amelia had been able to make a quick visit and it sounded like an interesting place.
The road down there was good, passing through pleasant countryside. The towns, of course, were jammed with traffic, caused by the usual suspects of rickshaws and buses. The road was often broken up and rough, so I suppose that forcing me to slow down wasn’t such a bad thing. Cox’s Bazar was named after an administrator from the British East India company who worked hard to improve the lives of people in the area. He set up a bazar, hence the name. I found the road that went out to the refugee camp but it was in such bad condition that I gave up in the end. The main problem was that I didn’t have much time. I’d foolishly decided on a day trip, when it would have made much more sense to have an overnight stay. I rode around the town centre, regretting the lack of time to explore properly. For a start, a decent cup of coffee would have been nice.
When I headed back to Chittagong I diverted along the coastal road and enjoyed the ride beside the beach. I stopped for some lunch, sitting outside and admiring the view over the swamplands and across to the sea.. A bit further along I stopped to look at the beach and then topped up my oil. While I was doing this a guy wandered over and stood watching me, saying nothing, just staring. But he wandered off again when I went down to some rocks to have a pee. Perhaps I wasn’t quite THAT interesting after all. It was a very cheering interlude though. The ride back was less busy, even in the towns, and I was able to enjoy riding at a good pace, and some bend swinging too – a rare treat in this part of the world. Until I got to Chittagong, that was, when traffic descended into hell once more.
Shihab wanted to see me again so I went to his office. He’d ordered soup for everyone and some French fries. After that we had more French fries. It was a meal with a difference I suppose, and did the job. Najim, the journalist, was there again and as well as taking some photos, he presented me with a bunch of flowers. Well, I thought, that’s a bit different. It’s not often I get given a bouquet, I’m just not pretty enough, to be honest. But it was his way of thanking me for letting them interview me and I appreciated the gesture very much.
Zu, my friend in Dhaka, had suggested I visit an area called Guliakhali Sea Beach, which was on my way back to the city. After riding down a series of narrow roads, through small villages and around their rectangular water storage ponds, I found it. The road was wide enough for me and the tuk tuks I came across. Or that’s what I thought until I met some coaches coming toward me. A tight squeeze indeed.
I parked the bike by the boundary wall of the beach and was immediately surrounded by a group of students on a day out. They were members of a nationwide social organisation, who met up for visits to various places around the country. Their ages ranged from sixteen to twenty five and most of them spoke good English. We were chatting away, asking each other questions and generally having a good laugh. They even got my British humour. I made lots of new Facebook friends, of course, that’s just par for the course these days. Once all the necessary photos had been taken we parted company, with me feeling lifted up by the meeting.
The beach was nothing like you’d expect a beach to be. No sand, no pebbles, no rocks. For that matter, no sea either. But it was very green. There was an almost dry riverbed to one side, with small boats lying on the mud and a thin trickle of water running down the middle. Crossing a ramshackle wooden bridge over a creek, I found myself walking across an area of short, springy grass which was interspersed with muddy water channels. Some were narrow, and could be jumped over; others were too wide and required some backtracking to find a way round. I soon came to a row of food stalls and beyond them I could see mangrove trees, lining the edge of the muddy beginnings of what might loosely be described as the water’s edge. I say loosely because the actual sea was a very long way away. At least five hundred metres, and difficult to see. It was clear that when the monsoons came this beach would be very much under water, the stalls packed away for the duration, with only the mangrove trees to guard the approaches, with the river now full of water.
I walked around for a while and then went to one of the stalls for tea and something to nibble. The owner was playing some kind of native style pipe, played like a flute, and once he’d made tea he serenaded me, and another guy there, while we drank it. I was thinking about the nature of the beach and concluded that although the whole area becomes flooded, it probably wasn’t too deep and not very aggressively tidal either. I could see from the nature of the channels between the grass areas that the flow of water was gentle and that the layout didn’t change from one season to the next. The whole of the southern Bangladesh coast is a delta area and is flat and wide. So is this beach unique? Possibly, simply because it’s accessible. It’s on the eastern edge of the Sundarbans, an area of mangrove forest that lies on Bangladesh’s southern coast. That area is only accessible by boat.
On the way back to Dhaka I stopped at a restaurant, where I provided the entertainment for a large crowd of coach passengers, watching me top up my oil and adjust the chain. This time I did get a few requests from the crowd; where from, how many CCs etc. As I neared Dhaka the traffic got busy and once in the city the expected chaos descended. It took me two hours to cross the city to where Zu Lived. His garage was shared by the residents in his block of flats so although the bike was secure, Zu advised that it would be best to take all my panniers to the flat he shared with his parents – four floors up! But his mother gave me some very nice food and some delicious, sweet cakes. Zu had a habit of videoing me when we were discussing things and when he asked me how the food was I’m on record telling him that his mother’s cooking deserved a mark of 9.99999 out of ten. He was pleased.
I’d booked into a hostel, not too far from the airport. It was run by a Dutch woman named Joanne. She used to work in finance until the crash of 2008. She’d come to Dhaka to help run an orphanage and the profit from the hostel was used to fund it. A couple of the graduates from there helped her run the hostel. It was a nice place, occupying two apartments in a block. Zu was chatting to her, talking about business. I told her about my need to get an Indian visa when I came back. She suggested getting it in Bangkok. That idea appealed very much.
At breakfast I met a Californian woman named Sarah, who’d travelled to all sorts of places, including London. She funded her travels by working as she went. She was on the same flight as me to Bangkok so we shared a taxi to the airport. She’d paid for the taxi so I bought the coffee. The flight to Bangkok wasn’t very long and we parted at the airport. It was nice to have a travel companion, for a change.
It was good to be back at Plodd Stop, with Dave and Lesley, in Pattaya. I played some pool, drank some beer and caught up with other friends. I even went out for Sunday lunch, a rare treat. But I had some visa work to do so a trip up to Bangkok was necessary. I’d already completed all the online forms, for both India and Bangladesh, so I was confident of success. Indian visa centre first. I spoke to the woman at the front desk, whose job it was to check the paperwork. She asked what kind of Thai visa I had and when I told her it was just a tourist visa, she put on her “computer says no” face and informed me that to be able to apply for a visa there I needed to have a long term Thai visa, meaning a business or residents’ visa. She suggested I apply for an e-visa but I knew there were restrictions on that. I told her I was travelling by motorcycle and would need to enter via a land border. She referred me to her manager, who confirmed what I’d thought, that an e-visa could only be used when arriving by air or sea. That was a nuisance but not a disaster because I could get one in Dhaka.
I got to the Bangla visa office just after they’d closed for their long, Friday lunch break, but fortunately there was still someone around. I asked him about getting a visa and he also asked about my Thai visa. I was detecting a common theme here, especially when he told me I needed a long term Thai visa to be able to apply there. Now that was a problem because I knew that I’d have to pay for a visa at the airport in Dhaka, whereas applying at a visa office, with my Irish passport, there’s no fee. I can only guess that the rule about needing a long term Thai visa is imposed by the Thai authorities, but I have no real way of knowing. Two countries applying the same rule? More than a coincidence, I suspect. A wasted journey then, and I wasn’t very happy.
A couple of days later I flew back to Dhaka, to Joanne’s hostel. The Indian Visa Application Centre (IVAC) was only a twenty minute walk from there too. And sorting that out was my main focus for the next couple of days. I completed the online form again, having to start from the beginning, and getting extremely angry in the meantime. Why? Because it had one of those Capcha boxes, which kept refusing to recognise the code. But every time it did that, I had to re-fill some of the information boxes above. And then the code would be rejected again. It took me about thirty attempts to get past it. I needed a new form because their system is such that when you complete the form and press the ‘Finsih’ button, you can’t go back and alter it. So the one I’d completed for Thailand was no good. Once it was done I walked around the corner to a small shop with printing facilities, and got the form printed off.
Have you ever had one of those situations where the world seems to be against you? Here’s mine, told in short form. I walked to the IVAC, gave in the forms – rejected for wrong information. Back to the hostel, fight the capcha, complete a new form. Then round to see my new best friend at the print shop and back to the IVAC. Rejected agin, still not quite right. Coffee and cake to ease my frustration. Back to the hostel, fight the capcha, complete a new form, go see my best buddy at the print shop. Next morning back to the IVAC, play the sympathy card by telling the woman I’d been there twice before. Success! Application accepted. Coffee and cake to celebrate. It was a five day wait for the visa to be ready, but no worries.
I’d planned to stay in the hostel another night but there was no room, so I decided to move back to the hotel I’d used before, in the south of the city. This suited me because the tourist places I wanted to visit were down that way. But my bike was still at Zu’s and when I asked him if he could collect me and take back to collect it he said no. Why? Because there was a city election on Saturday and they would be imposing a curfew on vehicle movement. Zu reckoned the police were already using that as an excuse to stop bikes, take them away and force the riders to pay a bribe to get them back. As it was only Thursday I thought this was one of those dodgy rumours that get spread around. I looked it up online and the curfew was due to start Midnight Friday and run until 6pm Saturday. But Zu didn’t want to take the chance so I didn’t push it.
Next morning I packed by bag and got a taxi over to Zu’s. There was plenty of traffic around, including bikes, but I did see more police than usual. Well, I needed my bike so I’d just have to take a chance on riding it. Once I’d managed to roust Zu out of bed – a difficult task, I have to say – I got more delicious, mother cooked food. Zu decided my bike needed cleaning – he wasn’t wrong either – so we went round to a place near his home and I let him ride my bike there. I was sat on the back, with legs dangling because there’s no rear footrests. Zu was thrilled to bits by the amount of power available, compared to his 150cc Honda copy. I was trying to persuade him to slow down! 150cc is the largest engine size allowed in Bangladesh, visitors’ bikes apart, so it was quite a big deal for him. It’s very strange to be sitting on the back of your own bike. From the front, it’s a loud machine because the engine makes a lot of noise. From the back it’s all calm, just the nice purring of the exhaust.
It took them a couple of hours to wash the bike. Zu introduced me to his work colleague, Rabik. We chatted while Zu went across to the mosque for Friday prayers. Normally mosques broadcast the call to prayer only, but this time they broadcast the whole service and it was LOUD! Rabik and I hid ourselves away in a back room so that we could talk. He does professional audio and video recording and has his name in the credits of a film being shown at the Sundance Festival. He was quite intrigued when I explained the origin of the Sundance name. He’d never seen the film. He’s a film buff and particularly likes Alfred Hitchcock. A strange choice for a young Bangla man, I thought, but it shows that good films have no boundaries.
Zu came back from the mosque and the bike was finished. Everybody there wanted to sit on it for photos and the boss, like a big kid, wanted to sit on it, start it up and rev the engine. Once we’d got away from there we went to meet Zu’s boss, Nazmul, who wanted to meet me. We went to a nice restaurant, had a nice lunch then went across to his office. There, he told me all about the business they run, providing internet services to businesses of all sizes. And then, as proof of that saying about free lunches, he asked me if I could promote his business via my website. Well, I had to disappoint him. He thought I would have plenty of contacts in the UK, being a ‘person of renown’. I suppressed a smile while explaining that my travelling style denied me any ability to make commitments, meet deadlines or anything similar. He said they were going to start a blog and I said I’d be happy to contribute to that if they wanted me to. I invited them to make use of anything from my blog that might suit their needs and said I’d put their details on by blog’s contact page. And there we left it.
Saturday was a very strange experience. The curfew meant that the streets were empty of traffic, apart from a few rickshaws. Instead of pushing their way through the crowds, people were strolling leisurely around. I stood watching kids playing football and cricket in the road. It was like a scene from a post apocalypse movie, but in a nice way. It was a sunny day and I could actually see the sky, thanks to the lack of pollution. I’d wanted to visit some of the tourist sites but they were all closed because of the election.
But next day I got out to some of them. One of the students I’d met at Guliakhali Sea Beach, Nafasa, had contacted me. She’d offered to meet me and show me around. We met outside the hospital where she’s studying and we got a rickshaw down to the Sheikh Mujibur Museum. He is regarded by all Banglas as the Father of the Nation, having been the political leader at the time of the independence struggle. His involvement began in the 1960s and his house was the centre of political activity. After independence was declared by him, speaking to a massive crowd at Dhaka racecourse in March 1971, he then went back to his house and waited for the Pakistani authorities to arrest him as a way of delaying their assault on the Bangla people. He spent the next nine months in prison in Pakistan, returning in December to become president. But there was a military coup in 1975 and he, his family and staff were all slaughtered at the house.
We walked around, looking into family rooms and so on. It was a bit like a tour round an English stately home. But there was one gory difference. On display was the blood stained clothing he’d been wearing when he was killed, with carefully preserved bullet holes here and there in the walls, and spots of blood too. There was even a lump of brain, with hair attached, stuck to a ceiling. Bangldesh certainly suffered some difficult birthing pangs. Nafisa said there’d been a lot of starvation in the early days and thought that a record had been made to raise funds. She was right, in a way. It wasn’t a record but a massive concert held at Madison Square Gardens, in New York, called The Concert for Bangladesh. Set up by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, who has Bangla roots, the line-up included Bob Dylan, and made a massive amount of money. It still generates money to this day. It also provided a template for other charity concerts, such as Live Aid.
We got a taxi down to the riverside to visit Ashan Manzil museum. This man used to be the local Nawab in the 19th century and had built a huge palace by the river. As was common in India in those times, he was paid an annual sum by the British and was tasked with administering the area. The British had the good sense to allow local rulers to administer according to traditional customs, and to allow local religions to continue, although they imposed a western legal system. Dhaka had become the capital of East Bengal by then, with Calcutta being the capital of West Bengal. The British made their money from taxes and profit from trade. The Nawab was allowed to also raise taxes. His family spent most of their time improving the life of the city residents. They built the first filtered water plant ever made on the sub-continent, providing drinkable water to the city. But their generosity impoverished them and the house fell into disrepair until it was restored as a museum in the 1980s.
We finished the day off with a nice meal near the hospital. I was learning from Nafasa a lot about how life is for women in Bangladesh, where they have absolute freedom of dress within their cultural norms, and equality of pay, education and status. The Bangla prime minister is a woman, which kind of proves the point. On that, I was puzzled by her being referred to as Sheikh, believing that such a title could only be held by a man. Nafasa was happy to correct me. Sheikh is a name in Bangladesh, not a title. There are clearly many things yet to be discovered and learned. There’s clearly much to be done in raising people out of poverty, dealing with corruption and so on. So it was wonderful to have spent time with Nafasa, who clearly represents Bangladesh’s hopes for the future.
Another day, more exploring. Alone this time, I took a long but interesting walk down to the old part of the city. En route I passed an area where many homeless people lived. They eke out a living by collecting recyclables. I saw several of them organising their big collecting bags. Many of the women were sitting on the ground breaking bricks up into small pieces. These would be used for filling potholes. They slept under plastic tarpaulins and ate from roadside stalls, often nothing more complicated than a large aluminium pot on a charcoal fire, or a large wok full of cooking oil. I shudder to think how they manage in the monsoon.
The narrow streets of Old Dhaka were thronged with people, as they probably had been since the 18th century. Most of the shops related to the garment industry, many selling very colourful saris. I had to dodge young guys carrying bolts of cloth on their heads and shoulders, and skip out of the way of handcarts loaded with bales of lunghis and shirts. The narrow streets were crammed with carts and rickshaws, but were fortunately too narrow for cars. I’d read that there was an area where rickshaws were manufactured and I was curious to see it. But I’d been misled. The best I could find was a street full of retailers selling bicycles of all sorts. Not a rickshaw to be seen.
I walked on through the market past the Nawab’s palace, and down to the river. Here I saw dozens of boats at the bottom of the steps, either ferrying people across the river or taking people on river trips. The boatmen kept waving at me to come to their boat, hoping for a fare from the ‘rich foreigner’. At one point a guy with very good English latched on to me, talking about the river, and what went on there. He was obviously a tour guide looking for some work so I gently eased myself away from him and walked down to the jetty. There were eight big river ferries moored up, cheek by jowl, of the kind that ploughed up and down the river to such places as Chittagong. No passengers around at that time though. Once upon a time they may have been paddle steamers. The whole area made it easy to imagine that I could have walked out of the palace a hundred and fifty years ago and seen pretty much the same sights. I walked on along the river to Lalbagh Fort, a huge walled in area, with formal gardens and three pink buildings. None of them were open, so all I could do was enjoy a walk around the gardens, then a walk back to the hotel.
It was time to collect my Indian visa so I left the hotel to head back to the hostel. On the way I called in at the Liberation Museum, a very nice, new building, with a very good display. As well as covering the independence movement, which I wrote about in the last blog post,it told the story of some of what happened under British rule. In particular, how they destroyed Bengal’s garment industry in the early 19th century. Bengal was quite industrialised at the time but the raw material was exported to feed England’s clothing industry, destroying Bengal’s industry in the process and causing mass starvation. But the past, as they say, is a different country, and I needed to get on with exploring the present one. I called in to see Zu on the way back, for more mother cooked food and to collect all my panniers etc.
I went to the IVAC the next afternoon and my passport looked very good with a shiny new visa inside it. The hostel was in an area of narrow streets, mostly residential, but with small shops and cafés too. I’d spotted a very smart looking eatery, with bright signage, and with the staff wearing hairnets and aprons. It looked very impressive, but beauty is only skin deep. I bought some chicken and an hour after eating it, all hell broke loose! My plans to leave next day were, erm, down the toilet, and it was another three days before I felt well enough to ride away from there. One day I went for a walk to a nearby park, which had a boating and swimming lake in it, along with football and cricket pitches. The surrounding apartments were very nice too. The map said it was an area called DOHS, which stands for Defence Officers Housing Scheme. The facilities were for their exclusive use although walking around the park was allowed. It was nice to see military personnel being looked after but I did wonder what facilities the ordinary ranks were blessed with.
When you bring a vehicle into Bangladesh it’s necessary to buy a Road Permit. These can only be obtained at the government owned Sonali bank. I’d intended to do it while I was in Dhaka but I had other things on my mind. So I planned an overnight stop in Jessore, on the way to the border, where there was a branch of the bank. The ride there was very nice. I took a ferry across the Ganges River, about a twenty minute ride, which was free because I didn’t know from where to buy a ticket and the guy on the boat wasn’t able to take my money. The road to Jessore was was very pleasant and not at all busy. Mostly rural and not too many chaotic towns to fight through. Once at the hotel, and when I’d tidied up, I went for a walk and located Sonali bank, ready for the morning, then found a nice Chinese restaurant. I spotted a shop that sold Magnum ice creams and was amazed when it only cost me 65 tika, about 60 pence. I should have bought three, at that price. It was clear that the food poisoning had taken it out of me because I went to bed at 9pm and slept eleven hours.
Getting the permit at Sonali bank was straight forward, albeit typically bureaucratic, and once that was done I was able to load up and set off for the border, Kolkata on my mind. I’d found Bangladesh to be a fascinating country. I’ve been in enough Muslim majority countries now to know that the religion is just part of life and isn’t ‘in your face’ all the time. But Bangladesh is the first one where many immigrants from there live in the UK. Which meant that, despite doing my best to fight it, the insidious UK media influence had an effect on how I expected things to be. The country is 90% Muslim, but that has no greater impact on daily life that it did in Malaysia or Indonesia. It’s just another Asian country, busy, a bit scruffy, but filled with people just trying to do their best to live a good life. The country had a very difficult start, post Indian independence, and has much work to do. But the young people I met are very hard working and seem determined to build on the legacy left to them by their parents and grandparents. I really liked Bangladesh, and the friends I made, and hope to go back sometime to see them again and to visit the parts I couldn’t get to this time.