Every once in a while, we are moved to remember the city of our youth, and in that regard, my reverence for Chittagong, although put on trial by the inhumane urban planning mechanisms currently at play in the city, has remained constant over the years. Of course, I am biased, but then who isn’t, when it comes to the place they grew up, if they were (un)lucky enough to even grow up in a sprawling metropolis.
In my lifetime, the city has started to expand and lose some of the most unique features about it, which have long distinguished it architecturally from neighboring Cox’s Bazar, Dhaka, Comilla, or even elsewhere. But the most significant development in recent years is haphazard construction, and most of it, illegally construed. Yet, I reckon that if you’re interested in experiencing one of the lost strongholds of culture, alongside the largest hub of a diverse group of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, et al living in mostly peaceful circumstances, and are thrilled by food excursions and delights you KNOW will not be found elsewhere, then Chittagong is for you.
It’s not difficult to see why Chittagong is unique, but given that it is en route to Cox’s Bazaar, and several unassuming tourists and travelers favor it for the more popular destinations of the hill tracts, it’s easy to see why this gem of a town doesn’t receive the wide traction that it really should.
Hence, I decided to compile a list of what makes Chittagong unique, and experiences that, some that, even if they can be had elsewhere, really are something else altogether when experienced in Chittagong.
Let’s hear it for the most unique and certainly, THE MOST UNDERRATED city in all of Bangladesh. Let’s hear it for Chittagong!
2. You still remember the day that the baby taxis emitting nasty smoke arrived to flood and pollute our city. They were leftovers from the CNG installations received by our dear capital, and you still don’t understand who allowed for the more polluting counterparts to be whisked off to your neck of the woods. Certainly, it’s a conspiracy that takes up hours of your conversations and addas.
3. You know that Love Lane has the best paan (betel leaf) in the city.
4. You’re still trying to figure out the logic of having two Handi restaurants 20 feet apart from each other.
5. You know where to find the best kababs in town, and the spot hasn’t changed in the last fifty years: Darul Kabab under the stadium. Their cucumber salad, fluffy parathas and shish kebab is out of this world.
6. You reminisce about the days that you could easily go to the Railway Hill and look down at the fantastic panoramic view, without having to come up with any form of identification to anyone working at the railway complexes.
7. You’re aware that the most enchanting drives around the city are still at the Railway Colony area.
9. Singapore Market, which is just another name for “the most cheaply priced authentic smuggled goods in the country.”
10. You know a lady who makes the rounds around people’s houses by stringing pearl necklaces together. She has been doing this for the past 30 years. Chances are, your mom knew her mom, who was holding up the niche family business for the previous generations.
11. Chittagong is the only city in Bangladesh that can boast being over 2000 years old. We were an Arab port, a Portuguese pirate stronghold, an Arrakanese stakeout, before finally being co-opted by the British during the first Partitition of Bengal, in 1905.
12. The city of Chittagong has the highest number of Catholic churches in the country, and for that matter, the largest diasporic community of Portuguese pirate descendants. Just to showcase how cool that is, attend Christmas midnight mass once, and you will be pleasantly surprised by how simple and fantastic the ceremonies are.
13. The old Karnaphuli bridge is phenomenal to walk across. Perhaps not so much during the 1991 hurricane which rammed a 9 ton crane straight into the bridge’s middle, effectively separating it from the southern cities in the country, but it has since been repaired, and it’s well worth a visit.
14. Foy’s Lake, for hours and hours of unrivalled fun. Let go of yourself and take a dip in one of the water park slides. Better yet, take a walk around the peripheries of the lake. You’re in for an unrivaled time.
15. The well in the middle of Foy’s Lake. I’m not sure whether the terrible urban planning has ensured that “Banglalink” has its advertisement all along the plank, but go to the end of the plank, look down the well if you must. And whilst you’re doing this, think about how this particular site was used as a means of getting rid of bodies, by throwing them down the well, duringBangaldesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Pretty morbid, right? Well, no fears, just carry onto a paddling ride, and see if you can jump into the lake yourself for a quick swim without someone on the shore trying to punish you.
16. The bank of the Karnaphuli, as it empties out into Patenga beach near the seashore, is simply phenomenal at night.
17. No other city in the world can boast being the start of the longest unbroken sea beach in the world, with 117 km of untamed beach that begins where Patenga ends.
18. The fried lentils (pyazu) and spicy crab stew that you get in Patenga are something else altogether. Please note that no other city in the country has even a modicum of something else that is such a delectable mouth-watering teaser, elsewhere.
20. The boat club in Halishohor gives you the most phenomenal perspective you can possibly have, anytime you feel that you want to be on the sea itself during sunset.
21. To that end, nowhere else in the world will you find a speedboat with a swan’s visage drawn in the front of a speedboat that you hire to enjoy Patenga.
22. Tea stall culture: The “addas” (conversations) that you can have with your friends, with dubious tea served out of unpalatable looking cups, steaming with condensed milk? Live a little, let go of your high standards a little, and you’ll be in bliss.
23. Circuit house, for a bit of history on how one of the leaders of the nation was assassinated in his sleep right in the center of town.
24. The phuchka stalls in front of the Old Stadium are incredible.
25. The Chittagong Club. Other than having the most riveting savory pastries and kebab rolls in their bakery, the Club boasts a lawn and a swimming pool which is a leftover of the British Raj. On its premises, you will even find a bullet hole left over from the Bangladeshi War of Independence with Pakistan. Worth a visit, and can we just say we’re very happy that all signs pertaining to how “Indians and dogs are not allowed inside,” that stood over all gentlemanly clubs of British repute, have been removed (refer to the Calcutta Club in neighboring West Bengal, if you really want to be shocked by how some artifacts and racial slurs really should have been removed and burned by all).
26. Chittagong is the largest port city in Bangladesh. Most of Bangladesh’s imports come in through Chittagong, which means that we are integral to connecting the rest of the country with important lifesaving and economy enriching imports. This also does mean that most of the garments factories have a base of some sort in Chittagong.
27. Ever wondered what it would be like to go down to the edges of the city’s ghats, during Durga Puja? I reckon you’re missing out on one of the most fascinating festivals in South Asia, if you don’t make your way there at least one October in your lifetime. Durga Puja is one of the most important religious holidays in South Asia.
28. The “secret” Thai restaurants in the city’s affluent quarters? I’ll leave it at that, as some things are better kept hidden.
29. A big shout out to the technical university for medical students, and the more liberal Asian University for Women, which have both brought in a plethora of expatriates from Asian and Western countries, encouraging local businesses to truly begin to offer more diverse food options (as a die-hard foodie, you can only imagine the importance of this).
30. King’s Confectionary. Perhaps for everything but the confectionary, but hey, we’ve got to “adjust” our standards, sometimes. That’s what it means to be deshi, after all.
31. Reyazuddin bazaar, for all the canned food wonders of the west that you may miss (mushrooms, for me, were at number 1).
33. Frankly, I have nothing pleasant to say about the sleazy crowds, disgusting architecture, terrible food, and steel mess that is the Peninsula Hotel in Chittagong, but I’ll give it just this much: it’s got a great panoramic view of the city, and its weekend brunches are not half as bad as the decor.
34. Central Plaza, for all your shopping needs and tailoring requirements. Always haggle, ask for an eighth of the asking price, and settle for a quarter.
35. Deshi Dosh has some pretty decent clothing options, if the thought of designing your own wardrobe is intimidating (certainly for me, it is).
36. The penultimate shopping experience in Chittagong is obviously Zohur Hawker’s market, located near the old railway station.
37. The old courthouse. Possibly one of my most favorite spots in the city, this architectural wonder was set to be demolished in the late 1990s. Thankfully, an architect led protest with prominent architects such as Zarina Hossain helped thwart the government’s plan to break down this beautiful remnant artifact of the Raj.
38. The old railway station is a piece of architectural wonder, given the plainness that is the new station. Take a look.
39. The shipbreaking industry is the shadiest thing in the city, and certainly something that requires many explanations that none of us have. If you do have any footage or reports of the sketchy and dubious actions that take place therein, do inform the rest of us, as we really would all like to know. The more knowledge we have about the violations of human rights that take place inside, the better equipped we will be to combat such inhumane behavior.
40. Golfing in Chittagong Club, which boasts some pretty phenomenal landscaping, thanks to a pretty stellar woman entrepreneur who landscaped it in 1985.
41. Sunrise-sunset point in Bhatiary.
43. The almond trees with their ripened colors every winter. You can find the bright red leaves easily during the winter months.
44. The Burmese influences on our local diet. Try saying “khowsuey” to a Dhaka kid, and you’ll be shocked that they have never heard of the mouth watering noodles served with coconut chicken curry and eggs, topped with beef bhuna, fried crisps, dried shrimp, and a medley of condiments ranging from coriander to ginger and lemon. Bliss is khowsuey. But unfortunately, our neighbors to the north have not achieved similar levels of acquired cultural finesse. Perhaps one day.
45. Shutki. We Chittagongians take our rice, dahl and fish staple diet very seriously. More than that, we really don’t understand if you don’t know how to cook or eat at least 5 different types of dried fish. You really should get started on that one.
46. The most well known Chatgaiyya delicacy, of course, is our beef bhuna. Originally, this was made specifically to feed poor people during the death anniversaries of family members, when a whole cow would be cooked over low heat simmering in spices in a huge, witch-sized cauldron overnight. Nowadays, this “mehzban” beef, as it is called, is served in other functions too. No one else in the country makes it. And yes, you can ask them. It’s specific only us.
47. Our language. Truly, I still don’t understand why Chatgaiyya is yet to be recognized as an official language, but we shall let the grammatologists and linguists fight that one out. It’s quite likely the world will discover the finesse behind our language soon enough.
48. Chittagong people are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I have ever met. Even whilst living and traveling across various countries around the globe, I came to find that regardless of where I am, Chittagongians are welcoming, they invite you to their houses for tea, and moreover, they make an attempt to get to know you. There is no fake affectedness derived from living in the capital, there is just genuine interest in human beings, instead of showing off accumulated cultural capital. Hence, it’s well worth a visit particularly if you’re a bit worn out from the perpetually competitive, sleazy, and fast-paced environment in Dhaka.
49. A walk down Surson Road is serene, pristine, and yet to be affected by the awful construction that has overtaken areas such as GEC. It’s worth a visit.
50. The tea in Chittagong is great. Okay, I know we have all been mesmerized by some of the tea plantations in the north of the country (aka Sylhet), but did you know that all the tea houses have outlets in Chittagong? Finlay’s, Lipton, Ispahani- these tea houses are based out of Chittagong, even if they may be growing their crop up north. Hence, if you locate a buying house, chances are, you will also locate a direct supplier.
51. The War Cemetery in Chittagong is an incredible testament to the unknown voices and figures who fought on the Asian front during World War I. Just please don’t try to sit down on the lawn and try and have a date or a picnic there, unless you’re cool with the rest of us looking bad because you couldn’t be fussed to find a decent cafe instead. I agree that more green spots need to be made available for all, but really, why on earth would you even try to take your date to a graveyard for a good time?
52. Chittagong is one of the best places to enjoy local theater. Shilpokola Academy features a riveting arts and theater scene, which showcases some phenomenal concerts on important cultural days such as February 21 (Mother Language day), April 14 (Bengali New Year), March 26 (Independence Day), and December 16 (Victory Day). You can even wear ethnic clothes such as saris and panjabis, and it would be vastly acceptable. Of course, we have specific songs for each occasion.
53. You can dress up in saris during festivals such as Eid or Buddha Purnima, and have a grand time walking around the streets and eating locally.
54. If you’ve been living away from Bangladesh for a bit, chances are that Kulshi Mart and Kamal Stores will stock your daily essentials.
55. The fresh tropical fruits make eating healthy easy. From baby papaya salads to mango infused pomegranate smoothies, there’s a lot you can do, if you decide to get creative about why you’re in Bangladesh in the first place.
56. Chittagong boasts some pretty phenomenal women working towards human rights and gender equality. I’m not sure how they did it, but these ladies have established competitive schools reaching global standards, and they rule the town, when it comes to sharing the wealth of knowledge their schools have provided to every generation of Bangladeshi who was born in Chittagong, regardless of what their walk in life comes from. I know, I’ve met them, learned from them, and spent a summer conducting an ethnographic study on their impact. And believe me, it’s a LOT.
57. There is extreme satisfaction in avoiding the port area altogether, or zipping past one of the illegally parked container trucks. Just bypass all of them altogether. You’re in for a baller time.
58. Bangladeshis in general, have a lot to learn about traffic regulations, of that we can all be sure. Regardless, Chittagong’s streets provide a wealth of strange modes of transport, whether it is is the battered buses or the rickshaws, bullock carts, and even the occasional electric rickshaws. The sooner you realize that it’s actually fun to ride in (some, as I still can’t brace myself for the bus) these modes of transport, the sooner you’ll begin to pay homage to your adventurous side. Who knows what else can happen, once you’ve taken such a big leap.
59. There is nothing more satisfying than being able to cross GEC in one piece.
60. The annual mela (fair) in December in the grounds of the stadium, where you can eat the strangest candy floss, and yet remain mesmerized by the tigers in the local circus acts.
61. Speaking of melas, the Chittagong International Trade Fair provides an incredible and unparalleled space of enjoyment, particularly the Iranian jewelry and Pakistani sari sections.
62. Mango madness, as most of the areas around Chittagong seem to be growing fresh mangoes, and it’s very easy to get your hands on some during the months of June through August.
64. Chittagong is possibly the last stronghold of hilly cities in Bangladesh, but due to the haphazard construction standards in the country, the high corruption of elected officials, many of these hills are being illegally seized and cut down, in favor of ugly concrete apartment monstrosities. But little spots of wonder still exist, and amongst those are Batali Hill, which continue to provide a wonderful panorama of the city’s many water fronts, alongside the more industrial area of Agrabad.
65. Rumor has it that one of the largest smugglers in the country is based in Chittagong, and owns some rare spotted deer which can be viewed in a vacant lot in the Kulshi area. This may not just be a rumor, but of course, this writer really does not want to have her head chopped off by some smugglers in the crime-heavy country that is Bangladesh, so we’ll just leave it as verified rumors. She’s just happy to feed spotted deer when the opportunity allows for it.
66. Sumi’s bakery originates from Chittagong. Yes, we really are talking about the best cakes in town. Try out their wonderful blueberry and vanilla cake. I think I got hungry even writing that.
67. The cheese twists and pastry puffs in French Bakery? I still have dreams about them.
68. Chatgaiyya weddings. You haven’t seen extravagant until you’ve seen fireworks and an elephant serenading a bride and groom on the 17th day celebration of the wedding. Yes, we do know how to come up with an exorbitant number of ostentatious dos to mark each occasion of a wedding, and the sangeet concept has been happily incorporated into our personal wedding lexicon.
69. The interesting part of Chittagong is how embracive the city is of various cultural, ethnic, and religious struggles. Whether you’re a Buddhist Chakma, a Muslim of Gujurati descent who fled to Bengal during Partition, or you just happened to land a job in the city, chances are that other than the occasional stares from passerby (I’ve resorted to asking them what they’re staring at, and it works like a charm!), you’re set to be able to do quite a fair bit.
70. You will never again take having an alcoholic beverage for granted, until you encounter one being fished out between the rocks in Patenga, where the cool water of the sea apparently acts as a natural fridge for the drink, albeit making it look like it went through a paper shredder meeting steel. Regardless to say, you will probably not resort to such levels of depravity again, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.
71. Watching a game at either of the local stadiums? A must do.
72. We’re about to be graced by the Radisson too. I’m not sure that I appreciate the monstrous and ghastly looking building which has overtaken half of Chittagong’s skyline yet, but I’m hoping that the restaurant will be good.
73. The enchantments of Chittagong, I will always maintain, are in the uniqueness of the locals. It’s fascinating to see how they live, party, and enjoy themselves in some of the most ostentatiously presented parties, which, when taken with a pinch of salt, can be a lucrative means of understanding how having fun has no boundaries in the way it manifests itself.
74. There is something absolutely magical about being able to see the stars in Chittagong at night. I insist, do go ahead and try it at least once, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised for ages. Certainly, you won’t be able to ever do it in the capital.
75. Relaxing in Agrabad Hotel can be a lot of fun. Moreover, you should note that this hotel, one of the oldest remnants of British times, has been instrumental in providing safe passage for refugees during the Bangaldeshi War of Independence. Hence, not only are they a baller hotel, but they’re into some pretty fantastic CSR, that which serves humanity, even in the face of extreme conflict.
76. When you get tired of Chittagong, you’re close to Cox’s Bazaar and St. Martin’s to the south, Rangamati and Banderban to the northeast, and of course, for daily visits, there is always Khagrachuri or even Kaptai. Basically, everything you need for a weekend getaway is still within close proximity to you, and the fact that you’re so close to it means that you can make the most out of your weekends, any time the hustle and bustle of the ever-growing city gets to you.
If you liked this piece, you may also enjoy 20 Ways to Survive Living in Dhaka While Loving Bangladesh, which has been reprinted by a variety of blogs and newspapers in Bangladesh.
About the Author: Raad Rahman is a novelist and human rights expert with over 16 years of international experience, several of which have been spent promoting constructive transitional justice mechanisms in some of the most conflict-stricken regions around the world. Her debut novel, “Framed Butterflies” can be found exclusively on Amazon.com. You can follow her on Twitter @rad_rahman, or keep in touch with new writings from Wonder Sonder by liking us on Facebook.