If recent international focus on Bangladesh is any indication of emerging trends, Dhaka is on the rise as a must-watch global city. While we aim to recover from the last two months of the hated “H” word, Bangladesh continues to be heralded as part of the G26, with a booming economy that did not so much as falter whilst the rest of the world weathered the brunt of the financial crisis.
Hence, it is truly easy to see why this city, which was an undistinguished district headquarter at the time of Partition from India in 1947, is rising in significance. Today, Dhaka boasts a population of over 20 million. Unfortunately, while many of the city’s residents live in abject poverty, the other part doesn’t always seem to visibly care, using humans as pawns in daily street clashes. Corruption is the war of the streets, and hence the reality of living in Dhaka can be an intense shock to any humanitarian, producer, or consumer.
Indeed, I returned to Bangladesh after a 15 year self-imposed exile, and rapidly found that each visit to this crowded little tinseltown was proving to be an assault to both my olfactory and visual senses. Mosquitoes and stares swarmed me, until I realized a complete reframing of each of my ideals was necessary in order to be able to live a successful, and rewarding life in Dhaka.
There is a magical warmth that flows through the undercurrents of Dhaka’s immediate chaos, and the repulsion we feel towards the grime, dust, and dirt everywhere. Despite the misogynistic and harassment-worthy tendencies of the roadside Romeos who are bound to bring tears to the eyes of even the most weathered of us travelers, there are several ways you can make the most of your Bangladesh experience in Dhaka in 2014.
1. Make friends with the locals. You won’t regret it, because Bangladeshis are some of the nicest people you’ll meet. They’re friendly, kind, and if you’re lucky, they’ll like you enough to invite you to their events, weddings, and country farmhouses, and all three of these settings are a treat to all your senses.
2. If you’re lucky enough to be around during any of the local festivals, go out and celebrate- dress in a sari or a lungi, get some henna on your hands, bindis for your forehead, glass bangles to clinkle, eat some of the local fish, visit temples, and if possible, go to the ghats (piers), where you can watch the effigies of Durga being sent along on their way, along the Ganges to be reunited with her family during Durga puja. Other good holidays to watch out for are Eid, the National Mother Language Day on February 21, Bengali New Year on April 14, and Bangladeshi Independence Day on March 26.
3. Definitely try out all the different modes of transportation. Look, we all know that Dhaka’s not for the faint-hearted, but when is the next time that you’ll get to say that you drove in an auto-rickshaw, a rickshaw, a cycle cart, a cow cart, or any other such mesmerizing mode of transportation? Embrace your present circumstances, and learn how to live life on the edge. You’ll definitely miss rickshaws when you leave, I can promise you this much.
4. If you’re a foodie like me, you MUST pay homage to all the food options that Dhaka has to offer. For the sake of brevity, I say your first stop should be Banani Road 11, which is fast becoming one of the city’s largest hubs for restaurants, cheap eats, and gelato heavens such as Club Gelato. Whether it’s burgers, kim chi, pad thai or pasta, chances are, Road 11’s got it. Check out this fantastic list of 100 must eat places, if you’re stumped for ideas of where to go and what to do. And coffee lovers, please do go to North End Coffee Roasters, or George’s Cafe.
5. Go shopping. Yes, I mean this. Dhaka is a fantastic place to shop till you drop- whether it’s saris or western outfits or household items or art, Dhaka’s got it all, and if you’re smart enough, you’ll zip right past all the faux-designer stores in the Gulshan and Banani areas and head on south to New Market, the DC Market (in front of Dhaka College), or Bongobajar in Old Dhaka. You’ll find all garments rejects here, but I’ve found MNG, Dorothy Perkins, and even brands housed by Anthropologie, at bargain prices with perhaps the tiniest of defects. Also, a bargaining rule should be start at a tenth, and settle for a quarter of the asking price.
6. Take a break in the city’s recreational clubs. Crowds getting to you? Go play squash at the Gulshan Club, or drink a mango martini at the American Club. A vast hub of foreigners, mostly INGO employees and embassy staff members make up the mix at these hangouts, and the clubs host some great parties and regularly cater to holistic hangover needs by offering yoga, squash and other recreational activities. There’s a golf course by Banani too, if you enjoy playing sports in endless lawns.
7. If you’re a woman, take a spa day off. If you’re a man, do your metrosexual self a favor, and take a spa day off. There is a wide selection of highly affordable massage places that cater to both men and women all around Dhaka, and you can find a decent massage for as little as $8. Your muscles are probably sore from all the jitters you feel on all the bumpy potholes that are the vast majority excuse for Dhaka’s streets. Take control, and treat your body to some lovin’ (err, and I don’t mean the Thai happy ending type, for you pervs, but rumor has it that even such fetish worthy places are easily findable).
8. Try out one of the roadside dhabas. I mean it. If it’s winter time, try out one of the bhaba pithas, which are ground rice bits steamed with coconut and date sugar stuffed on the insides. Delicious, because the rice has been harvested recently. Also, that steaming cup of cha from the dubious looking mug made of water? It actually tastes brilliant, with just the right hint of condensed milk will hit the spot. Of course, please wait until your stomach is sufficiently adjusted to South Asian fares before you attempt such a daring feat.
9. Walk around the city’s parks. Ramna Park, which is my personal favourite, was bequeathed to the city by the old Nawabs during the reign of the Mughals in the early 17th Century. The colorful, and often notorious history of the park, which has been rumored to be the home of prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves, has seen an important transformation in recent times. Today, the 68.5 acres of parkland and lake boast a variety of fantastic flora and fauna, including the seasonal purple jacaranda, red hibiscus, and yellow labarnum in early spring.
10. Spend some time exploring the Dhaka University campus. Curzon Hall, which is a pseudo-Mughal building that houses the Department of Sciences at Dhaka University, is flanked by the most incredible array of intersecting paths criss-crossed with some fantastically old banyan and palm trees. Once you’re done with the Hall though, make sure to head over for a feast to your senses, by catching up with what the art students in the country are up to at Charukola, the Uni’s arts school, which houses a permanent museum and is right off Shahbag Mor. An insider’s tip: look out for the baul music festival that lasts all day under the lychee trees in the lawns late spring.
11. Engage with the fantastic theater and music scene. As a start, subscribe to the events at Shilpokola Academy near the old Sheraton Hotel. Bengal has long been the subcontinental hub for fantastic theater, and Bangladesh in particular has produced an array of outstanding theater personalities and laureates, including Rabindranath Tagore, who famously refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, or Kazi Nazrul Islam, who is a renowned poet. We Bengalis fought a battle with Pakistan to retain Bengali as our language in the 50s, and there’s ample reason for it. Additionally, singers like Anusheh Anadil (who simultaneously happens to be the owner of the popular expat store Jatra) are doing some truly fantastic things to revive the tradition of Baul music.
12. Walk around Hatirjheel, or around Gulshan, Baridhara, or Banani Lake. Yes, I know these areas are a bit nasty in some parts, but I do mean this. Get out of your cars and actually walk. The series of bridges in Hatirjheel are pretty cool at night, and creates a fantastic break to the urban planner’s nightmare otherwise known as Dhaka, and either living near or frequenting a body of water is actually good for your health, according to the experts.
13. Immerse yourself in events at the well-established foreign culture promoting institutes in the country, perhaps even pick up a new language. If you are going insane because you can’t seem to watch anything from France or Germany, or wherever you may be from, look into places such as the Goethe Institut and the Alliance Francaise. Most embassies also have a cultural website. Just google them for their venues.
14. Visit some of the city’s fancier hotels. I’ve never been much of a hotel groupie until I’ve come back here, but the city’s hotels do have some fantastic parties, concerts, and food. If you enjoy pretty architecture and serenity, try out Ruposhi Bangla in Shahbag, or the Pan Pacific Sonargaon at Panthapath. If you’re into concrete jungle madness, and don’t mind being served wine in a plastic cup with garish blue and green lighting as background, the Westin in Gulshan is not a bad choice.
Personally, I’d hike out to Uttara instead and check out the Blu Water Garden at the Radisson (whilst shuddering about how much cultural acumen such bourgeois western hotels receive in Bangladesh, but I suppose it’s better than nothing). The Lakeshore Hotel is not a bad pick either, and has reasonable food too, but brace yourself to be shocked that this little boutique hotel actually has fake plants in one of the most lush rainforested regions in the world.
15. Be practical about your safety. Walking around is one of my most favorite hobbies. Of course, in Dhaka, I’ve had to learn how to cater to my exercising needs creatively whilst remaining safe. There’s a bunch of swindlers and freaks out there, and they seem to love either harassing women, or foreigners, or both.
There IS light at the end of the tunnel, if you’re willing to make some compromises. Make sure you have a ride if you’re going anywhere after dark, for example, if possible, and try to travel in groups. Do tone down on showing too much skin unless you don’t mind getting stared at. Otherwise, rock on. We all need to work to change the conservative culture that is fast becoming pervasive, so every single bit of rebellion that pushes this city into 21st century egalitarian rhetoric is truly appreciated by us more liberal locals.
16. Buy an e-reader before you get here. Dhaka does have some halfway decent bookstores, but if you’re anything like me, you’re a complete bookworm, and really, I suffered greatly after finding that my favorite authors were nowhere close to being featured on the shelves of any of the city’s English language bookstores. If English is not even your native language, you’re about to get flabbergasted.
So come prepared, and even if you like the fresh scent of paper enough that it makes you giddily guilty to contemplate switching over to the boring alternative of holding more plastic than your smartphone, imagine the ultimate nightmare: a life without few decent books. Find a way to camouflage your disappointment with yourself for caving into this 21st century artifact with a leather cover , but GET THAT KINDLE, NOOK, OR IPAD. You will not regret it.
17. Celebrate the changing of the seasons by eating the seasonal local fruits and vegetables. December and January are tomato and spinach season, as well as sweetpeas and runner beans. Mango and guava season can start as early as April and run well into August, with a three week sprinkling of lychees in June.
I take my carbon footprints seriously in Bangladesh, and you really should too, because formaldehyde was the most important chemical in 2012. The fruits and veggies most likely to be infused by this chemical (which is otherwise used to preserve cadavers), are oranges and apples- the fruits which have traveled the furthest to get here. Avoid grapes at all costs, unless you’re willing to take the extra steps to de-formalinize. Eat organic, eat healthy, and try and source your fruits and veggies. Stay as close to local as possible, but be sensible and don’t eat off the streets. Agora and Dhali are pretty reliable options. As much as I love supporting local shopkeepers, it may be best for your long term health to steer clear while you’re in Bangladesh.
18. Explore Old Dhaka. Whether it’s the Star Mosque, or the biryani at the Al Razzaque Hotel, the mosques next to New Market, or some roadside snacks in the winding alleys near Agamasi Lane, you will appreciate the narrow streets, sugary jalebis and mouthwatering haleem in the more authentic parts of this city, as well as the rustic outlets of creativity that is in the pottery and architecture of old Dhaka. Ahsan Manzil should be a must too, if you’re stumped for ideas of what to do while you’re meandering about aimlessly in old Dhaka.
19. Attend one of the several fantastic art exhibitions. The art scene in Bangladesh is booming at the moment. A good starting point is always the Bengal Art Lounge on Gulshan Avenue, between Gulshan 2 and 1, but for the more adventurous kinds once you’ve got a hang of Dhaka’s streets, Dhanmondi is a must stop.
20. Sometimes, the best part of living in a chaotic city is leaving it. Here are a list of 15 incredible Bengali vacation ideas, which will leave you breathless for more of this enchanting country. If you’re stumped for times and debating between the Sunderbans and Banderbans, I say, definitely shoot for the latter. It’s easy enough to get foreign permits in an afternoon from Chittagong. I know because I make sure my visiting mates get to Rangamati at least once during their stay. Bangladesh is not worthwhile without a trip to the hill tracts, Boga Lake, and other such natural wonders south of Dhaka. Sylhet, of course, is also fantastic.
So what are you waiting for?
Get out from under that mosquito net you’re hiding beneath, while you’re sending panicky messages to your loved ones for care packages of rigatoni, halloumi, salsify, and wood-eared mushrooms. Pick up your mosquito repellant, put on your biggest smile, and get moving.
About the author: Raad Rahman is an award-winning human rights activist and writer, whose work has helped to provide sustainable development solutions in over 40 countries which are looking to address their violent legacies whilst simultaneously strengthening institutions and infrastructure within their borders. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her watching indie films, buried in a book, or getting lost in various mountains. In late 2013, Harvard’s Kennedy School selected her as a global Emerging Leader. Her debut novel, “Framed Butterflies” can be found exclusively on Amazon.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @rad_rahman, or keep in touch with new writings from Wonder Sonder by liking us on Facebook.