Bengali Road Trips

A ten hour journey in a clapped out old bus with no air-conditioning doesn’t sound like too much fun. The driving is madly erratic, often fatal and something you never get used to. But as hot and dusty as it can get, whenever possible, I open my window wide. I crave the amazing sight of beautiful Bangladesh laid out before me. This is a totally non-commodified experience in evey sense, and all the more special because of it.

I always keep my camera at the ready, in an attempt to record what I can. Not an easy task during such a bumpy journey, but irresistible never the less. The road surface in places is, to say the least, not so good. In fact on one particular stretch, not far from the approach to Chittagong city, we actually leave the road all together to drive down the tracks of an abandoned railway line. Here are some of the sights which typically represent what can be seen.

There are thousands and thousands of lorries on the road, hauling just about every kind of goods you can imagine, but on most journeys I see at least one which has unfortunately left the road under what can only be described as ‘dramatic circumstances’.

Driving over bridges opens up a birds eye view of the many rivers running through Bangladesh. I love the variety of boats to be seen along the way, representing a very different and interesting lifestyle.

Saw Mills are not an uncommon sight when traveling on the Chittagong to Dhaka highway. Deforestation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a real worry, but there is clearly a heavy demand for wood, with many skilled carpenters in most of the villages we pass through, busy making furniture of some sort or another.

With such a huge population, (Bangadesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world) there’s no shortage of interesting people just about everywhere you look, and with such congested roads some even find time to pose for my camera!

Despite the number of times I make this road trip, up to and back from Dhaka city, it never ceases to amaze me how Bangladesh always has something new, vibrant, bazaar and exciting to offer. I dare not fall asleep for fear of what I might miss. Even witnessing road rage Bengali style was fascinating!

The paddy fields look different each and every time I travel, but on my most recent road trip, in early March, they were at their very best, cool, lush and the most stunning shade of green.

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High in the beautiful Bandarban hills

I’ve just returned home to my little flat in Bandarban town after spending two days working in the field. The simple act of traveling, hour after hour through this amazing and stunningly beautiful area is in itself uplifting. Spectacular views open out around each and every corner turned, while climbing up to the higher altitude on a constantly twisting and seemingly never ending mountain road.

With the recent slight increase in temperature, and as we prepare to leave winter behind, butterflies abound. Some are as large as birds but even the smaller ones are of a vivid eye catching colour.

I’ve also noticed subtle changes in the flora across the several trips I’ve made to date, spanning four months of travel through this glorious part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

And as twilight approaches you can witness yet another change taking place, with a more dramatic effect taken on by the surrounding hills, as this light creates a startling quality all of its own.

Having been given the opportunity to live and work amongst the great beauty that exists here in these Bandarban Hills, it will remain for me a time that I will continue to treasure long after I have left this very special place.

Cox’s Bazar

Cox’s Bazar, some 150 km south of the city of Chittagong, is believed to be the longest natural sandy sea beach in the world, stretching unbroken for over 125 km. Although it is one of the most visited destinations in Bangladesh, the tourists themselves are home grown, with very few International visitors.


A busy fishing port and town, Cox’s Bazar is expanding rapidly, as almost everywhere else in the country. Sadly I saw many large hotels being built right on the edge of the beautiful golden sand. Its natural beauty remains relatively unspoiled however, with many picturesque wooden fishing boats to be seen from the waters edge.


Sunset each evening bathed the water, transforming all that interacted with it into a scene of magic and a thing of simple beauty.

The Golden Temple – Bandarban

Bandarban is home to a fascinating mix of different people. Unlike the majority in Bangladesh many living here are Buddhist, who have built an amazing temple high up in these beautiful hills. The largest in Bangladesh, the Golden Temple is a truly remarkable place.

When I visited in December the weather was perfect, with stunning views reaching for many miles out across the valley below.

Being located in such a remote part of the country this gorgeous temple was all but empty with just a few monks in attendance, leaving the peaceful atmosphere intact.

No matter how many times I walked aound the circular walls I seemed to find fresh, new, ornate and fascinating things before my eyes.

While traveling to Bandarban

I visited the Chittagong Hill Tracts last week, Bandarban to be precise. It’s a ten hour bus journey from Dhaka city across an amazing part of the world. To distract myself from the terrifying driving and near collisions on the busy highway I stuck my camera out of the window and managed to capture some images of what was out there.  

Road to Bandarban (2) 
Many people use the highway to walk between villages to find work, and the countryside they travel through is truly beautiful. The highway itself is teeming with traffic, everyone hooting horns in a bid to overtake the next vehicle. As is typical in Bangladesh roads are occupied by just about every type of vehicle you can imagine.  

Road to Bandarban (4)
We passed through many busy villages along the way, dropping off a few passengers, but always picking up many more in exchange. The noise and activity was intense, but for one market trader the midday sun proved just too much.

Road to Bandarban (5)

As the afternoon wore on the burning sun abated a little and people seemed to congregate around whatever water they could find. I spotted one dedicated driver who even found time to wash the dust of a busy day off his rickshaw.

Road to Bandarban (6)

Out on the Buriganga River

The Buriganga, or “Old Gangies”  is the main river flowing through Dhaka city. In the distant past a course of the Gangies used to reach the Bay of Bengal through the Dhaleshwari river, but over time this gradually shifted, ultimately losing its link with the main chanel of the Gangies, until eventually it was renamed the Buriganga. Busy Sadarhad Port is economically very important to Dhaka, where launches and larger boats convey both passenegers and trade, connecting the capital city to other parts of Bangaldesh.   

The busy Buriganga River

The busy Buriganga River

The Buriganga is threatend by pollution, and due to siltation large steamers can no longer gain passage through the river chanel in the dry season. Water flow in the river is low, except during the monsoon season. Then it is ‘flushed’ of most of its pollution, and at this time, when not at its worse, river dolphins can still occasionally been seen.

Small boats ply on the Buriganga at Sadarghat

Small boats ply on the Buriganga at Sadarghat

We hired one of the  ‘Dingi Nouka’ simply meaning ‘small boat’, that ferry passenegers to and from the larger vessles up and down the river. Navigated by one long paddle, the boatman skillfully and safely negotiated our way through a jumble of bobbing, vying little vessels, until we rounded the final ferry, out into the deeper water of the Buriganga itself. Now the oar could really came into its own, amazingly not only powered by both of the boatman’s arms, but with the addition of one fairly dexterous foot and leg as well.

Rowing down the Buriganga river

Rowing down the Buriganga

I don’t think it usual for a European to travel this way, as so many small boats came over to check out the strange cargo. Most were openly amused and very friendly, smiling, calling over and waving at us. It was a great opportunity to view Dhaka from a different perspective, and I came away with the impression that the Buriganga river is only marginally less crowded and hectic than the busy city streets themselves! 

A curious boatman

A curious boatman

Oh! Calcutta!

Calcutta…what an amazing city!  I boarded the plane at Zia International and the moment I stepped off onto the Indian tarmac, only thirty minutes later, Calcutta really grabbed hold of me. The heat knocked me sideways for a start, and humidity was crippling, but still nothing could jade my enthusiasm.

The love affair started just before I left Bangladesh I suppose, while changing my taka into rupee and dollar. Pretty smitten you might think, if I even found Indian currency fascinating, but I thought it beautiful, with Gandhi himself smiling right out at me from every single denomination.

At Calcutta airport I climbed into one of the stylish yellow Ambassador  taxi cabs that seem to be knee deep everywhere you look and we made our way into the heart of the city to find my hotel. Every mile we drove Calcutta opened up, right before my eyes, so many busy people, dense traffic, cattle everywhere, all strung out along the road side, becoming more vibrant if that were possible, as I adjusted my senses, taking it all in.

Stylish yellow Calcutta cabs

Stylish yellow Calcutta cabs

The streets themselves moved at lightening speed. A well planned and coordinated road system, along with numerous smartly uniformed well organised Traffic Police saw to that. Layers thick, from hand pulled carts to a modern tram system, millions of Indians move about this city efficiently despite the impression of random chaos. Traffic jams were few and far between and even with such a huge volume of traffic we kept moving, rarely stopping due to weight of numbers or impatient driving.  We moved slower in the narrower streets, where everyone seemed to be busy either buying or selling, anything from mango to envelopes.

Busy streets of Calcutta

Busy streets of Calcutta

With so many rickshaw and cart pullers operating on the streets, water troughs, which seemed to be in constant use, provided an opportunity for cold showers right there on the pavement. While physically demanding work in very high temperatures require facilities to cool off, people also brought bicycles for cleaning, and several dogs splashed away happily in the puddles created by those washing at the roadside.      

Street shower

Street shower

Out in the suburbs, street markets were commonplace with strange and exotic fruit and vegetables for sale.  It’s currently jack fruit, pineapple and mango season, so they were bountiful and cheap, but the more familiar in the form of the humble potato and onion was also abundant. Occasionally I spotted a few varieties of fish, but never live chicken or goat as seen frequently in Bangladesh. 

Jack Fruit for sale in the street market

Jack Fruit for sale in the street market

In a busy Calcutta street I spotted a pavement game involving around half a dozen men.  In full flow they kept one lazy eye on their street stall, but most of their serious attention was focused on the game itself.  This time, unlike the strange and unfamiliar battle I witnessed on the Dhaka street, I immediately recognised what drew all this serious concentration…Ludo! 

Pavement game

Pavement game

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban – National Parliament House

Parliament House is a most unusual modern structure, designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn who was a pioneer of combining old and new to create bold shapes and views.  It consists mostly of concrete and marble, featuring geometrical shapes, with its famous circular windows and doors.  The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, known to the local people as “Sangshod Vaban” is situated at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. 

Parliament House at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar

Parliament House at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar

Old Sonargoan

Leave Dhaka city and travel about 29km on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway and you’ll find Sonargoan, one of the oldest one time capitals of Bengal.  It was the seat of the Diva Dynasty until the 13th century.  From then, until the advent of the Mughals, Sonargoan was the subsidiary capital of the Sultanate of Bengal.  The Folklore Museum, that I was here to visit, houses artifacts from every cultural trait of the country, and its grounds are truly beautiful.

An impressive entrance to the Museum

An impressive entrance to the Museum

Once inside, the architecture is grandiose and magnificent, although sadly the worse from the ravages of fire, which has obliterated the roof and most of the upper floor. I drifted around, from chamber to chamber to the  gentle sound of haunting tradtional music, piped through discrete speakers to every part of this large and impressive building.

Impressive, but sadly badly damaged by fire
Magnificent, but sadly fire damaged

Many wonderful artifacts held my attention, and the wood carving in particular I found of high standard with amazing attention to detail.  The huge old weathered doors into the museum and some dark wood wall plaques caught my eye as they were absolutely delightful.

Beautifully handcarved door

Beautifully handcarved door

Ganesha, the Hinu God of Success from the Elephant-Diety was considered the destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the God of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.  In fact, Ganesha is one of the five prime Hindu deities, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Durga being the other four.

Ganesha, Hindu God of Success

Ganesha, Hindu God of Success

The grounds were equally inviting, offering many shady walks and pleasant lakes to sit beside to eat a picnic lunch. Although not in anyway commercial, I found an area housing several small stalls selling Jamdani sari, an historic fabric particular to Bengal, of a very fine texture with elaborate and ornate workmanship.  

The beautiful grounds

The beautiful grounds

Christian Cemetery – Narinda, Dhaka

This 16th century christian cemetery, currently under the jurisdiction of St. Mary’s Cathedral, contains graves mostly of indigo farmers, their family members and British soldiers. I found the grave of Major General Hamilton Wetch of the Bengal Army, who died on the 11th June 1856, but although some English soldiers who died at Lalbagh Fort during the Sepoy Mutiny are buried here, I unfortunately failed to locate them.

Old graves stones at the Christian Cemetery

Old graves stones at the Christian Cemetery

I was impressed by the size of the cemetery.  With land being built upon everywhere you turn, it was surprising to find a tranquil and quiet spot in amongst it all.  Time slowed down as I meandered around the headstones to better appreciate the previous ex-pat community who had habitated ‘Dacca’ as it was then known.

An old East India Company tomb

An old East India Company tomb

Some old East India Company tombs had crumbled but there were still others, magnificent, standing proud, entwined with foliage and offering a refuge for wildlife.  

Entwined and claimed by the crows, but still magnificent

Entwined and claimed by the crows, but still magnificent

I was honored by being granted access to visit this very special place, having asked my colleague Bishwajit, who accompanied me, to negotiate our entry into such a private and historic part of Dhaka city.

The 16th century christian cemetery in Wari, Dhaka

The 16th century christian cemetery in Wari, Dhaka

Baldah Garden – Wari, Old Dhaka

Baldah Garden is the oldest Botanical Garden in Bengal, and was established privately by the owner of the Baldah Estate, the poet Narendra Narayan Roy Chaudhury in 1909, on what was then his own land. It is filled with approximately 15,000 plants, representing 650 different exotic and rare species, sourced from over 50 countries from around the world.

Steps to the waterlilly pond

Steps leading down to the waterlily pond

Although relatively small in size its layout consists of many joining avenues and walkways, which present the numerous differing species to their best advantage. 

One of the many shaded walkways

One of the many shaded walkways

The large waterlily pond, the centre focal point with spectacular steps leading to the edge of the water, is a wonderful place to stop for a while, relaxing on one of the exotic mosaic seats.    

The waterlily pond

The waterlily pond

Surprisingly the bustle and noise, just behind the old wall surrounding Badlah Garden, was muted, absorbed a little by the concentration of this rich collection, creating a mini oasis in the middle of the usual chaos of Dhaka city.

Somewhere to rest and relax

Somewhere to rest and relax

The stone and mosaic seating were very welcoming, offering a cool and shaded place to rest, allowing the hectic pace of city life to slow down for a brief moment or two.

National Monument of Martyrs – Savar

It takes roughly an hour by bus, traveling 35 km north west from Dhaka city to reach Savar.  There you’ll find one of the nations most iconic symbols, a monument representing the sacrifice made by those who laid down their lives to liberate Bangladesh in 1971.

Designed by Syed Moinul Hossain, it consists of seven triangular planes, each varying in size, with it’s highest point reaching 150 feet. I found it fascinating how the structure seemed to change its configuration as I viewed it from different angles.

National Monument

Jatiyo Smriti Soudho

Constructed from concrete, all surrounding paving is red brick and the complex itself spreads over 84 acres of ground.  A large body of water stands in the foreground, with the graves of many unidentified freedom fighters leading up to the monument as you approach on the main walkway itself.

Water feature

Water feature

Thousands of people had come to spend time here, sitting next to a variety of small lakes and ponds, some swimming in the cool water, others having a picnic under the many trees planted around the grounds.

The monument from a different angle

A differing view of the monument

Jatiyo Smriti Soudho, completed in 1980, is incredibly important to the population of Bangladesh, who are immensely proud of it. I was pleased to see that entry was free, inclusive for all, allowing access for the very poorest to visit. I was deeply moved and thoroughly enjoyed my time here, finding it a magnificent tribute and representation of the amazing struggle Bangladesh went through to gain independence.

Lalbagh Fort – Old Dhaka

I played the tourist this afternoon and visited Old Dhaka, in particular Lalbagh Fort, one of the surviving legacies of the Mughal period.  The weather had broken earlier in the day with a heavy downpour of rain, and so the afternoon was cool, making it very pleasant to stroll around the beautiful grounds. 

Bibi Pari’s Tomb

lalbagh-fort1

Founded by a prince-subedar, Azam Shah in the late 17th century AD, it was initially called “Kella Aurangbad” in honor of the Mughal Emperor Auragzeb Alamgir.  The weathered domes and turrets, towers and fortifications of this Mughal monument remain majestic today.

lalbagh-fort-10

Dhaka was a city of the Mughals for a hundred years and they erected a series of river forts against the recurring raids of the Mugh and Portuguese pirates in Dhaka. The main purpose of Lalbagh Fort was to provide a defensive enclosure and was a type of palace-fortress rather than a siege fort.

Residence, Audience Hall and the Hammam038

The central hall has a domed roof and a complicated system of earthenware pipes, embedded into the thickness of the walls to supply hot and cold water to the hammam.

lalbagh-fort-41