Author Topic: Brighter side of Dhaka  (Read 857 times)

Offline weecheng

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Brighter side of Dhaka
« on: Apr 08, 09, 01:41 AM »
Published in the Straits Times...from our fellow SgTravelCafer:

Brighter side of Dhaka
An off-the-beaten-track destination, Bangladesh offers heartwarming hospitality and historical sites galore
By lim wei chean

   

The mangroves of the Sundarbans (left), villagers with rice dried in the sun (Photo 2), the writer (Photo 3) with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and her fiance Wee Soon Khai.
     View more photos
The truck coming from the opposite direction was turning left just as our rickshaw wallah swung right. Both were headed for the same one-lane street and neither was prepared to stop.
I thought we were going to die. There was no way our flimsy rickshaw could survive a head-on collision with the big vehicle.

GETTING THERE
Singapore Airlines flies daily to Dhaka's Zia International Airport. The airport is 20km from the city centre. A late-night taxi from the airport can cost up to 650 taka (S$14). A baby taxi can be as cheap as 200 taka.
5 THINGS TO DO
1 Do drink only bottled water and check that they are properly sealed and labelled 'arsenic free'. Arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral in the country's water sources.

2 Do ride on a rickshaw around Old Dhaka like a local. It is the most ubiquitous form of public transport.
... more
Screeeeech! The rickshaw wallah braked. The lorry trundled on. And we all survived.
Such heart-stopping moments took place daily in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Eventually, we got used to it.

Singaporeans know it only as the home country of many of our foreign labourers. As of December 2007, there were some 757,000 Bangladeshis holding work permits here.

It is a little-known fact but the South Asian country, more than 200 times the size of Singapore, is a good place for an off-the-beaten-track holiday.

For the intrepid traveller, the destination has so much to offer for very little moolah. For $2,500, inclusive of flights, my fiance and I had an 18-day trip last December. We visited three Unesco World Heritage Sites, observed the country's first elections in seven years and peeked into the shipyards where men used simple tools to break huge ocean liners into scrap metal.

Accommodation options range from a basic double room in a low-end guesthouse starting at 350 taka (S$7.70) to US$120 (S$180) a night five-star rooms at the likes of the Pan Pacific and Sheraton.

No visit to Bangladesh is complete without experiencing Dhaka. To describe the traffic there, resulting from a population of more than 12 million, as hectic is to put it mildly.

Every day, a multitude of cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws (known in local parlance as CNG), rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, men pushing cart-loads of goods and the occasional dog or cat vie for dominance on the roads. Nowhere is it as crazy as in the historic town centre of Old Dhaka where there is no escaping the cacophony of traffic noise.

As tourists, we stuck out like sore thumbs and were stopped every few steps by curious and friendly locals itching to ask: 'What country you from?'

They found us such an interesting display that we were surrounded wherever we went, be it walking in the streets or visiting the attractions.

Most of the main sights in the capital are loosely clustered in Old Dhaka. There is the 17th-century Lalbagh Fort, a complex consisting of the tomb of Pari Bibi, daughter of the Mughal Prince Mohammad Azam who built the complex, a three-domed mosque and an audience hall.

Another attraction is the Ahsan Manzil Museum, formerly a palace of the Nawab (ruler) of Dhaka. It is painted a delightful shade of pink and has gargoyles hanging off its roof.

It was at these places that we caught a glimpse of how the locals led their lives. The attractions that we visited were mainly filled with local families there for a picnic or young couples tucked in nooks and crannies holding hands and whispering sweet nothings to each other. It was eye-opening to see the young lovers acting this way in a conservative society where arranged marriages were still the norm.

Tourists were rare creatures. We encountered no more than 10 during our entire trip. As foreigners, we paid 100 taka for entry into museums and historical sites while locals pay only 20 taka.

Ours were the rare Asian faces marvelling at the Historical Mosque City of Bagerhat, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Located 250km south-west of Dhaka, the cluster of 12 mosques and mausoleums and other ruins was gazetted for protection as an example of 15th-century Islamic architecture.

The most outstanding is the Shait Gumbad Mosque, which has 77 domes. The other brick buildings are scattered all across the sleepy town where villagers tend their rice crops and livestock.

Although the mosques were mostly bare inside, it was interesting to see the historical monuments still being used actively as a place of worship by the Bangladeshis.

While many would know Bangladesh as a Muslim country, few know it is also home to an important Buddhist monastery built between 781 and 821 AD, predating Myanmar's Bagan and its more famous descendant in Cambodia, Angkor Wat.

To get to the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara in Paharpur, another Unesco World Heritage Site, was a challenge as we planned to go on Dec 29, polling day. We did not know there was a ban on all motorised transport that day. In the end, the locals got us a ride there on a Tata truck.

Our first sight of the ruins on that misty morning was imposing. The great mound just rose from the ground. The square-shaped monastery measures 281m on each side and is surrounded by a row of monastic cells, some of which contain pedestals believed to be used to place Buddhist statues.

We spent a few hours exploring the compound before putting on our most charming smiles to gain entry into the election stations in the village there.

Men and women were divided into separate rooms to cast their votes, following the Islamic practice of segregation of the sexes.

The boat - representing Awami League - won the day.

Not surprisingly, the boat is an important vehicle in this riverine country. And, more than a mode of transport, waterborne vessels form an important industry for the country.

Bangladesh, along with India and Pakistan, is where many ships go to die. In the port town of Chittagong, we managed to get a guided tour of a ship-breaking yard. This specialised industry does exactly what its name says - break down ships.

We saw sarong-clad men crawl up the behemoth supertankers weighing up to 400,000 tonnes to dismantle them into sections, dividing them into sheets with blow torches before carrying them away like little ants carrying food, marching to the tune of their Bangla work song.

Our guide told us that it takes some 800 to 1,000 men a month to completely break down a ship.

Besides the industrial and Third World urban face, Bangladesh has a tranquil side too.

The Sundarbans is one of the world's biggest mangrove forests, home to more than 200 Royal Bengal tigers and the third Unesco World Heritage Site we went to. A visit to this protected wilderness is possible only by guided tour boats.

Be prepared to pay for the privilege though. It cost us close to $300 each for a four-day cruise to this nature area.

The Bangladesh side of the forest is about 6,000 sq km, with another 4,000 sq km belonging to India. Besides the Royal Bengal tiger of which there are estimated to be 1,500 left in the wild, the area is also known for spotted deer, crocodiles, snakes and various species of birds, including kingfishers.

My aim was to see a tiger in the wild. In the end, only plenty of tiger paw marks were seen. Actual big cat sightings: zero.

Still, the quiet waters, mud banks exposing the mangrove roots at low tide and occasional sightings of deer, wild boar and birds kept us entertained.

The river cruise to the Sundarbans led us to our next highlight - a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Professor Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 prize for his micro-credit banking system which gave out small loans to mostly women who were traditionally seen as incapable of handling money.

Courtesy of a new-found friend on the boat, we were introduced.

He was nice, friendly and had no airs. A handshake, some chit-chat and an autograph, then it was time to go. Of course, being typical tourists, we had to take a photo with the man himself.

With a big d'oh-noh-baad (thank you in Bangla), we bade adieu to this lovely country with chaotic traffic but wonderfully hospitable people.

weichean@sph.com.sg