‘Excuse me, is this the train to Srimangal?’ I ask a bespectacled man in a well-ironed panjabi, the traditional, long Bangladeshi shirt. ‘Your country, madam?’ he questions. ‘Will the train head to a different destination if I am from China and not Japan?’ I snap.
‘Your country?’ is often the first question Bangladeshis ask foreign visitors, usually followed by the purpose of your visit, your profession, your marital status and the number of children you have. I’m usually happy to answer. But not now. ‘No. Your train should arrive in about 30 minutes,’ a round-faced young man steps in.
I nod gratefully. For more than two hours, my two teenage girls and I have been waiting at a small station in Dhaka, the capital, for a train to the tea estates of the north-eastern county of Srimangal. On the platform, beggars stream by. Dogs and goats wander among the forest of legs. People sit on the railway tracks, or even on top of trains themselves. When our train finally arrives an hour later, the younger man – Zahir – leads us, elbowing his way to our first-class carriage, which isn’t labelled in numbers or English. Without Zahir, we’d have missed it.
On learning of my plan to visit Bangladesh, my friends all asked why. Yes, it’s a poor country. Yes, it’s deemed a ‘basket case’ and frequently plagued by cyclones. But Bangladesh also boasts beautiful scenery and a culture as rich as its fine cuisine. Besides, I always find it more exciting to visit a less explored territory.
My journey through the country first takes me south-west to the Sundarbans. Stretching out over 10,000 sq km, this is the world’s largest mangrove forest and a Unesco World Heritage site. A boat trip into this swampy world is a must. When we visit, it’s raining. A lot. But it doesn’t bother us as we loll around on the top-deck lounge, admiring the teeming life below and watching boats of all sorts pass by. Our crew points out noteworthy things: that’s a sundari, a majestic tree that produces hard wood and gives the Sundarbans its name; that little creature swimming across the boat is a goanna lizard, not an otter as we thought.
The Sundarbans is also home to royal Bengal tigers. Reportedly, on average, a person is eaten by a tiger here every three days. We stop at the Karamjal Forest Station, where visitors can take a closer look at the forest while strolling along raised walkways, accompanied by men with guns. We don’t run into a tiger, but the story of man-eating beasts adds plenty of colour and a sense of adventure.
Later, we moor for the night near a village and are rewarded with a few dry hours. Under the new moon, the water surface gleams like fish scales. By the glow of an oil lamp, we enjoy a feast of chicken curry, dahl and roasted eggplants. The night is silent except for the sound of azaan, the call to prayer, brought by the wind.
The next morning, we visit remote villages. Here, we see dire poverty. Many fishermen’s houses are constructed with palm leaves, containing hardly any furniture, not even beds. But the people invite us in, offering sweet tea mixed with condensed milk. In one village, we discover the art of otter fishing. Several boats have just returned from their night’s work, using trained otters to chase fish into waiting nets. The smooth-coated otters, kept in bamboo cages at the bows, squeak noisily, demanding their share as their masters sort out their catches. As the number of fish in the Sundarbans dwindles, the practice of otter fishing is dying out. We are lucky to witness it.
After our watery expedition, we move on to an urban one. We boat back to Dhaka, which we tour with a volunteer guide named Mohsin, who works for Delvistaa, a foundation fighting to preserve the city’s old architecture. Dhaka rose to prominence in the 17th century under Mughal rule, when it was proclaimed the capital of Bangla. Mosques, palaces and bazaars sprang up and a medieval feel still hangs over the old town today.
We meet in front of Sitara Mosque, renowned for its stunning mosaic decorations. Mohsin asks what we’d like to see and I tell him I’m interested in understanding how people live and work. With a quick tilt of the head in the way Bangladeshis do, the young architect says: ‘Okay.’ He charges ahead while we struggle to navigate our way through floods of rickshaws, pushcarts and people. I can’t move fast, as I find everything fascinating: the old arched gate with faded elegance; the exotic fruit and vegetables in the baskets for sale; and the open shop fronts that line the muddy street, selling crafts, metal parts or garments. A smell of fried vegetables permeates the air.
Soon, Mohsin branches off into a narrow side street, which we Chinese would describe as ‘sheep’s intestines’. A messy web of electric wires clings to the crumbling buildings like tangled hair. Following him, we enter a building, passing women peeling potatoes in the hallway as we climb the wooden staircase. Mohsin explains this is a 19th-century building that his organisation is trying to preserve and he is taking us to see the factories inside. In the umbrella workshop, employees clad only in lungis cut and sew canopies. Our guide points out the damaged fireplace, the Roman columns in one corner and the faded carvings on the ceiling. Next door, workers from another factory are busy assembling toy parts made in China. How long can the building survive such intensive use? The foundation has won some small victories by implementing rules that forbid modern-style renovation. I pray the group will come up with funds to restore the building, as evidence of Bangladesh’s glorious past.
Much as I appreciate Mohsin’s insight, next time I’d like to return without a guide and allow myself to get lost in old Dhaka. True, it’s not easy to travel in Bangladesh because there’s little infrastructure for tourists. And the traffic in the city is unbelievably congested. But the people make up for the shortcomings. I find it so touching that people are so welcoming, as if our visit is a personal honour to them.
Later, we take the train from Dhaka to Srimangal, where we spend our last few days in Bangladesh among probably the most spectacular scenery of the entire country: lush tea plantations, fruit orchards and national parks. We stay in a guesthouse run by the Tea Board (from Dhs150 per night; www.btd.com.bd), with villas and a swimming pool set on a charming estate built during the British colonial era. For miles and miles, tea bushes billow over sloping hills like gentle waves. In the blurred boundaries between one estate and another, we find beautiful lakes and parks. But the bit my children like best of all is the densely vegetated Lawachara National Park, where they swing between trees, like the monkeys that follow them.
Need to know
Getting there Flydubai flies direct from Dubai to Dhaka from about Dhs1,900 return (www.flydubai.com, 04 301 0800).
Where to stay Dhaka Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel This seven-acre property is a calm spot amid a crazy city. At only 5km from the airport and in the diplomatic and commercial hub of Dhaka, you can’t get a nicer location. A few laps of the pool is also a nice way to start the day. From Dhs700 per room per night. www.radissonblu.com/hotel-dhaka (+88 2 875 4555)
Srimangal Tea Resort & Museum This is pretty much the only hotel in the area, and while the facilities won’t blow you away, the surrounding scenery and the 25-acre property just might. From Dhs240 for a three-bedroom bungalow. www.teaboard.gov.bd (+88 6 267 1207)
What to see A few companies offer full-board boat trips from Dhaka to and around the Sundarbans – try Unique Tours & Travels. www.uttbangladesh.com (+88 2 988 5116)