Two weeks in Bangladesh – all you need to know
Spending two weeks in Bangladesh hadn’t been in my short-term plan; however, circumstances were so that I decided to explore this Asian country with my friend with whom I work in Yambio, South Sudan. Even the Bangladeshi themselves were surprised when they understood we were traveling to their country and asked “why” and at some point, I responded, “why not?”. But is Bangladesh for everyone? I don’t know. Read through my post and make your own informed decision. Though, keep in mind that this is my personal experience and yours could be totally different.
What to know before traveling to Bangladesh?
Visa: Getting a visa pre-Covid had been easier as it was available on arrival for the majority of countries, Kosovo included. Nevertheless, as most things have changed so has changed visa obtaining for Bangladesh. Currently, there are no tourist visas issued, and/or if they are one has to obtain them at one of the Bangladesh Embassies around the world. As I live in South Sudan and there is no Bangladesh Embassy I thought contacting Kosovo Embassy in Dhaka would be a good idea. And, surprisingly it turned out to be so. Honorable Ambassador Mr. Güner Ureya and his staff were very helpful in guiding me to process the visa. I was put in touch with Priota, or as she is known The Flag Girl, who helped coordinate the process with their Embassy in Addis Ababa. Long story short, I got my visa. I need to thank a lot of people for this, so THANK YOU (you know who you are).
Once I got the visa on my passport I could start planning how long I want to visit the country and what I want to see. I checked those limited blog posts I could find online and asked my friends and acquaintances from Bangladesh (and also my leave days LOL) and decided that two weeks would be relatively enough to visit the highlights of Bangladesh. The ticket prices had increased during this period due to the Bengali New Year and also the Ukraine war; however, I got a good deal with Air Arabia and took off from Entebbe through Sharjah to Dhaka.
Safety: I found Bangladesh to be safe, not traffic-wise though: every time I was on the road, in particular in Dhaka, it felt like that could be the last ride of my life. The constant staring obviously gives a feeling of discomfort; however, I was expecting this even before traveling there and I know that 99% of it is just out of curiosity so I tried, to the best of my ability, to not pay attention to that.
Currency: Bangladesh’s currency is Taka. At the time of my visit, the exchange rate for $ was between 83 – 86 Tk. Most places accept cards as a form of payment; however, cash is still used widely and in certain cases, it is the only way of payment (see below the case with Bandarban resort). Additionally, BCash is used as an alternative (I didn’t use it so not sure of how to go about it).
Language: Bengali is the official language in Bangladesh. In certain parts of the country, locals might use a certain tribal language or dialect. Bangladesh is also the country where the origin of the International Mother Tongue Day started as it was Bangladeshi who fought against Pakistan so that they can use their language. It is very helpful if one can learn a few basic phrases before traveling. It makes Bangladeshi very happy to see the effort and a few words might open the doors otherwise closed to foreigners. Generally, Bangladeshi use Assalam alaikum as a greeting. Kemon achen means how are you and Valo aachi means I’m fine. Dhonnobad means thank you.
Tips: Yes, and expected. Anything is acceptable but try to make it around 10 – 15%.
Food: if you are a non-chili eater like me you will face issues; however, I survived for two weeks so everyone can. Jokes aside, you can totally manage spending your time in Bangladesh and be fully fed. If nothing else, there are lots of dessert varieties such as payeesh and faluda to help out with your hunger. However, a few dishes not to miss are biryani and, if traveling during Ramadan, one can also find the traditional food, halim.
Transport: A variety of choices available: rickshaws, CNG (or tuk-tuk as we used to call it), Uber, taxis, buses, and planes. Within Dhaka, it is totally useless to travel by car due to congestion but yet it is the best option due to the hot and humid weather. Between the cities, one can also use buses or flights or hire a driver.
Culture: we visited during the Bengali New Year (Novoborsho) so got to experience one of the major festivities in the country. Despite Ramadan and potential security threats, Bangladeshis went to the streets and celebrated the beginning of a new year (so did we). Bangladeshi are hospitable and helpful. Nevertheless, at times it might get too much. I had to respond so many times to the question “country, ma’am”, and also religion, and several times whether I am married.
Fun fact: in the visa application there is no “single” option – one is either married or unmarried. And yes, lots of staring. Mostly out of curiosity but also at times it felt as if the locals weren’t happy with us being there (though we both tried to fit in as much as possible – my friend more than me).
Fun fact two: my Brazilian friend constantly asked the Bangladeshis if they are with Brazil or Argentina – Neymar or Messi – and this always brought laughter to all of us. In Kosovo’s case, I always noticed that puzzled look – like what is this, where is this, is it a town – a country – what? The only person who knew about Kosovo, including its capital, last war against Serbia, and independence day and month and year was a police officer at the gate of Ramna Park during the New Year celebration. I should have totally taken a selfie with him! If you, dear police officer, read this, please share a selfie and I’ll photoshop myself there and post it here!
Dress code for women travelers to Bangladesh: Generally, I don’t have to think of it as mostly I have been traveling to countries where it is okay to dress as I want to. However, all the posts on Bangladesh specified how important and kind of mandatory it is to cover yourself (not a burqa or something just no arms or legs shown) so I had to go through my clothes and pack all that I thought was appropriate for this trip. Fortunately, I had a pajama and kurta gifted by an Indian friend of mine so I thought if all went South I could keep wearing them over and over again. After being there for a few days, I understood that no matter what I wear I will be still stared at because – guess what – I am different. And being different in any country will attract stares from the locals (not at the amount you get it in Bangladesh though – at times it was like an X-ray machine scanning from head to toes and back).
Experience traveling in Bangladesh as a woman/women only: almost half of Bangladesh’s population is women (49,44%) but what we saw on the streets was nothing close to that. It started at the airport arrival hall. While waiting to go through a health check I could count about 20 women, foreigners included, and about hundreds of men. During our travels, at times, we had male friends with us and the attitude of passersby was so different – still staring at us but at a lower rate. Once we were alone then all the staring, selfies (without even asking for permission), and questions came forward at a speed unexperienced before.
Traveling during Ramadan in Bangladesh: Totally a non-issue though you might be told differently. There are, of course, places that will not be serving food during the daytime; however, there are plenty of options so not a problem. I was told to be more careful not to eat or drink during Ramadan while in the Old Dhaka as the locals are more conservative; however, eateries were open – some just using some curtains. Another point to consider is that most institutions and attractions will operate for a shorter duration (generally from 10:00 to 16:00).
Alcohol in Bangladesh – being a Muslim majority country, alcohol isn’t that easy to find in Bangladesh. However, there are bars where one can drink. It is worth noticing that alcohol is heavily taxed. We went to this bar in Chittagong and about 65% of the bill was alcohol tax, VAT, and service charge. Nevertheless, you can bring up to 2l of alcohol in the country as a foreigner or go dry during the visit if you don’t want to pay that much money for a shot of the cheapest alcohol.
Working hours for tourist attractions: not very straightforward. We wanted to go to Panam City and visit it but online it says they are closed on official holidays and it was New Year so we pushed it for the next day. The next day after an event in Tongi where we talked to madrasa girls on our career’s path, we decided to go to Panam. Upon arrival, we were told that visits aren’t allowed as the site was closed. Nevertheless, the guards and some supervisor I spoke on phone with, told us that the site was open yesterday. As tourists, having traveled for kilometers to visit a site, and not finding exact information is very annoying. And it wasn’t only us. There were locals who were also there and surprised just like us that the site was closed.
Visiting Bangladesh during Bengali New Year – what activities are organized
One of the main reasons I visited Bangladesh during April was the Bengali New Year. I love experiencing main festivities in foreign countries and this is one of the biggest in Bangladesh. As it coincided with Ramadan, the activities and participation were lower though as I kept telling my friends and acquaintances in Bangladesh anything will be crowded for me as a traveler coming from a country with less than 2 million citizens. On Bengali New Year’s Eve, we visited the Art Department within Dhaka University where students were preparing their art pieces for Boishal or as locals refer to it Charukola. There was a live music concert and lots of people checking on the art pieces and also the items for sale.
On the first day of the Bengali New Year there was another celebration in Ramna Park with live music, lots of people walking in their traditional red and white dresses and with flowers on their heads and just enjoying the day and the good weather. We did the same more or less.
I hadn’t heard before about this airline but it showed the cheapest price to reach Dhaka so I went with it. Thanks to restrictions from UNMISS, I couldn’t access the site, and then for some reason in a private network, none of my cards or my friend or her friend’s cards were working so we had to check with the travel agency within our compound and have them book our tickets. Not a good experience. The agent didn’t book the tickets properly and as requested and we ended up paying more than initially quoted. All my food choices were Tandoori Chicken and water (LOL – no chicken for me for a long time now) and the seats were not as we had requested (oh well, what to do now – that’s why I book all things myself so I can blame myself only if things don’t go properly).
As I said, this was my first time using this airline, and to be honest I didn’t expect it to serve only basic food and not even complimentary coffee. But the good side is the leg space – at least for me as an average height person. Also, the available entertainment was possible on the gadgets and there were a number of movies or TV series or play games, etc. So not that bad but not something I’d be looking forward to again. The flight back from Dhaka was more than an hour late and no explanation, excuse, or apology was given.
Tongi event with The Flag Girl and Bangladesh Wheelchair Cricket Association – This was an event organized as part of a project Priota had organized in several other madrasas where she distributed sports equipment. This time, as we were traveling at the same time as the Tongi event, she asked Leticia and me to also join and share our experiences on our career paths. It was a happy experience seeing those little girls play cricket – which I also played for the first time – and football; but also a sad feeling seeing those little girls who couldn’t even walk or talk fully covered.
Meeting Kosovo Ambassador in Dhaka – This trip wouldn’t have been possible probably if Kosovo Ambassador, His Excellency Mr. Güner Ureya wouldn’t help put me in touch with the right people. Upon arrival in Dhaka, I visited the Embassy of Kosovo and was received by the Ambassador and his staff. Throughout my trip preparation and the trip itself, the Ambassador and his staff were very helpful in sharing information with me which helped a lot with the logistics of the trip.
What to visit in Bangladesh?
Initially, all I knew about Bangladesh was that it is crowded, polluted, and Muslim. Working with UNMISS gave me an opportunity to get to know Bangladeshis who expanded my horizon and made me understand there is more to the country. Still, before starting to plan the trip (namely following posts on #visitBangladesh on Instagram and Googling blog posts of other travel bloggers, I only knew about Dhaka, Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazar. So, the idea was to go to these three places and split those two weeks into the three cities. The more I kept searching the more I wanted to see (and still do). However, I set for the following plan: Dhaka – Chittagong – Bandarban – Cox’s Bazar – Dhaka.
Where to stay?
Everyone recommended staying in Gulshan which I keep saying is not Dhaka LOL. I mean, it is a neighborhood of Dhaka but it is like those high-class gated neighborhoods which you can find anywhere and everywhere. Anyway, we stayed initially in Gulshan at The Midori by Lakeshore Hotel. The hotel offered to pick us up and drop us off and a lovely breakfast with continental but also Bengali / Indian food. The staff were amazingly helpful and attended to any request we had even at short notice.
In return, I wanted to be closer to Old Dhaka so picked Fars Hotel and Resort which also offered great hospitality and excellent assistance. Even when they couldn’t match our request – such as we wanted to swim in our bikinis in their rooftop pool – they would offer an alternative solution – booking the pool for us for a couple of hours.
What to visit?
- Old Dhaka – yes, it is messy, crowded, and loud, but it is totally not to miss when in Dhaka. You blink ones and you might miss a lot – like an elephant passing by on the same narrow street as you. Yes, you get tons of stares, a few “hello” or “hey hey” or catcalls but if you don’t visit there what are you actually doing in Dhaka as a traveler? Within Old Dhaka, one can visit the Lalbagh Fort, Ansan Manjil, Emran’s Heritage House, and Star Mosque. My favorite was Ansan Manjil – though I got attacked by a dog – what in his mind was probably a lovely play haha.
- New Market – another place I was kindly advised by some of my Bangladeshi friends not to go to as it would be too messy but, well, I did what I always do. I went and saw it with my own eyes. It was crowded but not beyond understanding. Walked around a bit, took a few shots, got super sweaty, and then left.
- Shaheed Minar (Martyr Monument) – commemorates those killed in the fight against then East Pakistan in 1952 during the Bengali Language Movement. Similar smaller monuments can be seen throughout the country.
- Bangladesh National Parliament – it takes a bit of effort to book a tour on your own. I had emailed the officials with the required form and documentation a week before traveling to the country and then again a day before reaching but no answer. When in the country and back to Dhaka from the tour around Bangladesh, I called a number that directed me to another number and then another number and asked me to send the documents again to another email and another email but finally made it to get the permit and visit the Parliament during the last day in the country. Inside, no cameras or phones are allowed and we were taken around by the Visitors Department. For some unknown reason at all times four people were with us – including a security officer. Maybe due to language constraints or other reasons, it was difficult to get straightforward answers to our questions. Nevertheless, the Parliament building is great from the architectural point of view – though I am not an expert.
Where to eat?
Star Kabab and Restaurant – this place has the best original faluda in town. In my six nights in Dhaka, I went to this place three times LOL. Their biryani was also great as per my co-traveler, Leticia (as I can’t eat the chili food).
Jatra Biroti – an artsy café and shop with a rooftop. Jatra offered so many artistic choices and during the Bengali New Year, it hosted a couple of local artists and entrepreneurs who were showcasing their products. I tried this paan there which I totally didn’t like haha. Yet, I tried it as I had decided to try anything which wasn’t chili.
Chef’s Table – a lovely environment with lots of food choices. More like a food court and with lots of cool Instagrammable places. Had some nice sushi which I had been longing for a long time while in Yambio.
Chittagong Hill Tracks
For foreigners, there is a need for a permit to visit Kaptai Lake, Rangamati which is one of the districts of Chittagong Hill Tracks. We didn’t have one as it was impossible to find out how to get one as nobody from the people we asked could direct us to the office in charge. Nevertheless, we decided to try our luck and see if we can pass. We did. I had seen so many pictures of those kayaks in Kaptai Lake and was dreaming to see them in person. So, I did. In Kaptai Lake we could take a boat tour for half an hour and enjoy the views; then continued with a short visit to the Dam and a short break for some masala pineapple in the Navy Camp which had great views. Finally, we stopped for lunch with a view.
Same as for Kaptai Lake, foreigners need a permit to visit Bandarban. Our permit was coordinated by the resort we stayed in. Sairu Hill Resort managed to get the permits and we received them the day prior to traveling there (usually it takes 10 days we were told) and then we got two copies which are needed for the two army checkpoints foreigners need to stop and sign in and out on a ledger. As this is, at times, an unsafe area where mostly tribal people live, the checkpoint staff kept asking if we are there only for a visit and were a bit surprised. I understood why upon arrival at the resort. We were the only people there. Maybe because of Ramadan, maybe for other reasons but the whole resort hosted my friend and me for that night.
As we were alone, I kindly asked Sairu Hill for an upgrade which they did give a great room with a lovely view. In all honesty, it was a great resort but not ready for foreign tourists. The breakfast was pretty much basic for the price you pay; almost none of the staff spoke English so it was a bit difficult to arrange for a tour within Bandarban. Luckily one of the waiters knew enough so we could understand each other and agree on a three and a half hours’ tour to Chimbuk and Nilgiri.
The tour to Chimbuk and Nilgiri was so great and I loved every moment of it. The lovely views, the wind, the freedom, and the fresh air of the Hills made it up for the chaotic Dhaka of a few days before.
Tip: the permit for us, two foreigners, cost 6000 Taka which we were told and asked to pay in cash – or via BCash – upon check out from the resort. This is an information that we kept asking the resort for but they didn’t answer so be ready and have cash with you!
Bangladeshis talk with pride of Cox’s Bazar by emphasizing the fact that this is the longest uninterrupted sandy beach in the world. And yes, it looks great; I love beaches. However, my experience in Cox’s Bazar was not the best in the country. Maybe because I was this western woman who wants to swim in her bikini and this was not the place for it. Before you start judging me, yes, I know it is a Muslim majority country, and women there mostly are covered or wearing hijab and all. But Maldives and Indonesia are Muslim countries as well; yet, you can enjoy their beaches in your own way. Nevertheless, still, I enjoyed a walk by the beach after a nice breakfast; meeting the Head of UN Women Office, Flora Macula, who is also from Kosovo, and meeting a new friend from India who is a lovely young woman and an accomplished fashion model, Jayashree. I also was part of a photoshoot and I’m waiting for the shots from the photographer.
A lovely thing to experience in Cox’s Bazar, if you anyway end up going there, is the sunset. I enjoyed the lovely sunsets and just people watching.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Sayeman Beach Resort as it is in a great location and also offers special deals for UN employees (need to send a request via official email). Another alternative could be staying at the Army Welfare Trust Rest House, Jol Tarongo.
Where to eat?
One of the things that Cox’s Bazar is famous for is its food or so I am told by the Bangladeshis I know. As I am not a foodie, I didn’t go for that experience. However, a few places I tried were the Sea Level Cafe, Salt Bistro & Cafe, Mermaid, and Pacific Beach Lounge Cafe.
Pretty amazing! Love how you have covered things in detail 🙂 Bangladesh is definitely on our must visit list and your post inspires to plan our travel sooner.
Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post and safe travels to Bangladesh!
The Parliament building looks like a moated castle. Pretty cool!
Even cooler is that your visit was so special that you were received by the Kosovo ambassador! I will have to try that, too, on one of my next trip. But I have to make sure it’s in a country not overrun by fellow German tourists…
Yes, I loved the Parliament.
And yes, this was one of the coolest trips as I was received by the Kosovo Ambassador. I believe it is for the specific reason that you mentioned – that not many Kosovo citizens travel to Bangladesh. If it was another country then it wouldn’t have been possible.
Wow…thnx for sharing ur firsthand experience of Bangladesh. It is very lucid and interesting read
Thanks for reading it.