Tag Archives: Travel

A traveler’s guide to Dhaka, Bangladesh


Dhaka is so much more than just a city. It is a whirlpool that pulls anything and anyone that comes close to it – sending them around and around like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. It is organized chaos – millions of individual pursuits churning together into frenetic collective activity. I cannot guarantee you’ll fall for Dhaka’s many charms, but sooner or later you will start to move to its beat. And when that happens, Dhaka stops being a terrifying ride and starts to become a unique blend of art and intellect, passion and poverty, love and hate.

The charms of Dhaka are not immediately visible to the naked eye – they are dhaka (hidden in Bengali). Not that there are hordes of visitors trying to uncover those charms; this is a city that remains largely untouched by tourists. The city is what it is, a place in perpetual motion, the glorious chaos of which is perhaps best viewed from the back of one of the city’s half-a-million colorful rickshaws. As someone who has called this place his home for some 20 years, here is my list of the essential things-to-do/sights-to-see while in Dhaka.

1. Take a rickshaw through the busy streets


There are cycle-rickshaws all over Asia, but in Bangladesh they are more colorful, more prevalent and more integral to everyday life than anywhere else. Rickshaws are an art form in their own right. They are plentiful around Dhaka, and the best way to explore the city like a local. They are cheap, fun, environmentally friendly and are often the quickest way to get through the busy streets. And speaking of busy streets, might I add that Dhaka has some of the worst traffic in the world. You may find yourself amongst a standstill – rickshaw drives screaming, buses honking, traffic lights functioning as mere decorations. But this is just part of the city. So sit back and enjoy this organized chaos!

2. Explore Old Dhaka

Dhaka from above

For some, the assault on the senses is too much to handle, but for others, the unrivaled mayhem that is squeezed into the narrow streets of Old Dhaka is simply delightful. No matter where you’ve come from, or what big cities you’ve visited before, Old Dhaka will knock you for six (a cricket reference) with its manic streets and nonstop noise and commotion. Nestled in the cacophony are structures from a bygone era – Ahsan Manjil, home of the Nawabs, and the Lalbag Kella, a Mughal fort. Some of the most amazing food in the city is to be had in hole-in-the-wall stores such as Haji Biryani and Nana Biryani.

3. A boat ride on Buriganga


Running calmly through the center of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River (Old Lady Ganga) is the muddy artery of Dhaka and the very lifeblood of the city, and perhaps the nation. To explore it from the deck of a small boat is to see Bangladesh at its most raw and gritty. The panorama of river life is fascinating. Boats of all shape and size compete for space and motion, with children dotting the foreshores, fishing with homemade nets. On the banks of the river is Shadarghat, perhaps one of the busiest loading docks in existence. You can take a rocket (steamboat) to other cities in Bangladesh – Barisal, Comilla and Chandpur to name a few.  As you cross from Dhaka to Old Dhaka to the Buriganga, life speeds up, and then hits the brakes to arrive at a watery sunset.

4. Drink a cha, eat some fuchka



Dhaka runs on cha (or chai). These sweet, milky, hot cups of tea are a Bangladeshi style caffeine fix. Add some street food, and you have got yourself the perfect desi snack. The local street food fare includes fuchka, chatpati, and jhalmuri to name just a few. Head to Dhanmondi Lake or just about any intersection in the city to get your daily dose of some of the best street food you’ll ever taste.

5. Sangsad Bhaban


The parliament building of Bangladesh is a true architectural masterpiece – the magnum opus of the American architect, Louis Kahn. It blends motifs from ruined monuments and Bangladesh’s topography, with a remarkable use of natural light. The Sangsad Bhaban lies on a vast area in the middle of the city, seemingly floating on a lake, a refuge within the bustling city.

6. Festivals

Festivals have always played a significant role in the life of the people of Bangladesh. They are parts and parcels of Bengali culture and tradition, and no matter when you visit Dhaka, there’s indefinitely one to find. Here’s a list of some of the bigger ones:

Colourful Celebration of Poyla Boishakh-Dhaka

  • Pahela Baishakh – The advent of Bengali New Year is celebrated throughout the country. The best place to celebrate is Ramna Park, where perhaps a million people will take part in an exhibition of Bengali culture. Make sure to grab a plate of panta rice with Elish fish while you are there. Pahela Baishakh follows the Bengali calendar and takes place mid-April.
  • Shadhinota Dibosh – The independence day of Bangladesh is March 26. Independent for four decades, the war is still a huge part of society here and the independence day is a show of nationalistic pride. Citizens including government leaders and sociopolitical organizations and freedom fighters place floral wreaths at the National Martyrs Monument at Savar. At night the city is illuminated with lights.
  • Ekushey February – The 21st of February is observed throughout the country to pay homage to the martyrs’ of Language Movement of 1952. It is now regarded as the World Mother Language Day. This is quite a unique occasion – somewhere in between a festival and a mourning day. The Shahid Minar (martyrs monument) is the symbol of sacrifice for Bangla, the mother tongue.
  • Nabanno, Eid, Durga Puja, and others – There’s almost too many to list here, but Nabanno (festival of the new harvest), Eid and Durga Puja just have to mentioned. No matter what your religion, Eid and Puja are cause of celebration in Dhaka.

7. Explore the history


Bangladesh is probably one of the few nations whose citizens have experienced two independence struggles – from from British colonial rule and then liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Although the war was over four decades ago, its presence is everywhere. It’s hard to open a paper, speak to a writer, or discuss politics without hearing the words “71,” “martyr” or “freedom fighter.” The Liberation War Museum is a fascinating if at times gruesome look at that struggle, with lots of press clippings and other memorabilia from that time. If you’re new to Bangladesh, this is an important starting point for understanding the national obsession.

8. The mosque and the temple


Dhaka is dotted with numerous mosques and temples. These are more than just religious institutions, since religion and culture are so intertwined in peoples lives in Bangladesh. Head to the 1,200 year old Dhakeshwari Temple, the center of the Hindu religion in Dhaka and then to the Tara Masjid, the beautiful 18th century mosque adorned with mosaic stars. You don’t have to belong to any particular faith to appreciate the beauty of these structures, and in doing so, you’ll get a glimpse of an integral part of culture and society here.

9. Art, music and literature

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

Bangladesh is rich in art, music and literature, and there are few better places to get a taste of the arts than Dhaka. Head to the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts or the Drik Gallery to sample some of the contemporary art, which frequently makes a social commentary. The music scene in Dhaka is HUGE! From the classical works of Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam, to pop and heavy metal – there’s a concert to go to for everyone. Follow ConcertNews to find the next one.

Bengalis love to read, and there’s no better place to experience this passion for books than Nilkhet. Sandwiched between Dhaka University and New Market, this labyrinth of bookstores will satisfy and enlighten even the best-read visitor. Dhaka also hosts one of the biggest book fairs in the world, the Ekushey Book Fair.

And if you’re in the mood for shopping, you are in luck. Dhaka is one of the shopping hubs of South Asia. Head to New Market, Doyel Chattor, Bashundhara or Chandni Chawk and you will find pretty much anything.

10. Add yours here!

I started to write this thinking I’ll list 10 things. But to pick 10 things to do in this megalopolis that is home to me, is almost impossible. I’ll keep adding recommendations as comments, and I ask my readers to do so too. I don’t expect, or want Dhaka to turn into a tourist destination. But I want it to be appreciated for what it is – a city in perpetual motion, an experience that will side-swipe you with its overwhelming intensity, leaving impressions that will never fade.


Traveling as a Volunteer


“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Traveling is one of my greatest passions, and if you are reading this, probably yours too. Traveling is when you stop thinking of how things may be, and see them as they are. There are those moments in life that are beautiful just because of their sheer intensity; traveling yields such moments, opening one’s eyes to the world, and to the mirror of self-reflection.

These moments might be obvious – the sight of a great waterfall, the pyramids, a foreign culture. And then there are moments when you question, Should I really take that bus? or Should I really eat that? Sometimes it is more profound, Why do these people choose to live here? or Can I live their lives?

These moments are usually proceeded by immense anticipation; an anticipation that heightens your senses. You are present then. You can’t capture that moment in a souvenir, but it will serve as a lesson to enrich your life. These moments make you a better engineer, a better artist, or a chef. It makes you more human.

OK, now to business (I always get dreamy-eyed when I write about traveling). Here are some of my thoughts on what makes a good traveling volunteer.

Who makes a good oversees volunteer?

A good volunteer is someone who is flexible, relaxed, innovative, culturally sensitive and committed to sharing knowledge and skills. A sense of humor and the ability to take failures positively are also two crucial traits.

When you are at your host community, listen closely and observe others to develop an understanding of communication patterns, greetings, hierarchy, and protocol. You will need to listen two to three times harder than at home just to begin to understand what is happening in a foreign environment. Ask open-ended questions and paraphrase the words of others. These techniques will help to ensure that you understand what is being conveyed and that your message is grasped by your listeners.

Interacting with Children is one of the best ways to Integrate with a Community

Interacting with Children is one of the best ways to Integrate with a Community

You should also be aware of the importance of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is largely unconscious, spontaneous, and culturally determined. Understanding this form of communication is critical since nonverbal clues often indicate how oral communication should be interpreted: Is the message friendly, sarcastic, or threatening? However, you will quickly discover that body language and the meanings we associate with it are not necessarily culturally transferable. What is a sign of greeting in one culture may well be an obscenity in another cultural context!

Here are some other examples of potential miscues in nonverbal communication: While direct eye contact connotes sincerity in some cultures, it may be considered rude or disrespectful in another context. Shaking hands may be a sign of professionalism and assertiveness in our culture but may be inappropriate or suggestive between members of the opposite sex in another culture. In general, westerners often need more physical space between them and their listeners than is required in other cultures. When in a foreign country, you may feel crowded in by people. This is not necessarily a sign of aggression but rather a reflection of different spatial patterns in communication.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move into a culture markedly different from their own. Everyone, no matter how seasoned a traveler you are, gets culture shock from time-to-time. Signs include (I sound like a TV commercial here): homesickness, withdrawal, stereotyping of and hostility towards host nationals, and physical ailments. When you experience a foreign culture, there is an initial euphoria, followed by some irritation (when you start noticing the cultural differences in detail), and then gradual adjustment and adaptation.

Bring Stickers. Kids love stickers

Bring Stickers. Kids love stickers

The best way to overcome culture shock is by understanding your own culture and its peculiarities. I have found that most communities see westerners as friendly, hardworking, extravagant, confident, slightly disrespectful of authority, and always in a hurry. There are many other stereotypes, and knowing them will help you to reject stereotypes of the culture you are working in. Be aware of cultural differences and be able to work effectively in an atmosphere of differing expectations and values.

Another way to combat culture shock is to learn as much as you can about your host country. Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if they sound silly. This is the only way you can learn about a foreign culture and begin to understand how to function effectively in the environment. Indeed, although you may have gathered copious amounts of information prior to the trip, you will find that there is much more to discover once you arrive in-country.

Above all else, remember that volunteering overseas is as much a learning experience for you as for the people you are working with. Having realistic expectations of yourself and others will help you to be flexible and tolerant. Maintain your sense of humor and your sense of adventure, for no matter how well you prepare for your trip, there will inevitably be problems and challenges. Make a positive impact on the community you are working with—just remember that true change is slow and incremental.

When you are there

For many in developing countries, the concept of volunteering, in itself, seems strange. In fact, some languages (Bengali being one) do not even have a word for “volunteer.” Volunteers are sometimes thought to have ulterior motives such as practicing experimental medicine or gathering information some government. Volunteers, in turn, may be frustrated by local counterparts who arrive late to work or leave early for other jobs. You may feel that your community contacts are less concerned and committed than you are. Remember that these individuals face many daily frustrations, and often work more than one job just to provide for their families.

You must avoid the overwhelming temptation to demonstrate a method of handling a problem that cannot be done after you leave—for example, using your own laptop that you plan to take home with you. Resisting this temptation may be a challenge at times, especially when local leaders ask for help. Sometimes, offering help in such situations may be appropriate in order to cultivate the support and goodwill of the community.

Just some cute kids with puppies in Panama

Just some cute kids with puppies in Panama

Be careful not to raise hopes or to make—or even imply—promises that cannot be kept either by you or by your organization. Show that you are part of a team that will continue to work side by side with your host counterparts and not just a short-term visitor. How you are perceived by your hosts is critical to how effective you will be during your brief stay. Start your trip with a sensitivity and curiosity to learn from everything you see. Listen, look, and enjoy the differences in cultures. Don’t be afraid to ask questions rather than offer expert opinions. Take the time to learn a little bit more about yourself and your own culture through the eyes of your counterparts. Remember that the more empathy and respect you show for the culture and problems of your hosts, the more respect you will command and the more effective a development worker you will become.

Returning Home

Most travelers don’t realize this, but returning home can be a stressful experience. Culture shock experienced upon reentry often exceeds what one feels upon entering the foreign country. In a new situation, people expect things to be different; back home, they expect things to be the same as before they left. When you travel, you are often deeply changed by the overseas experience, while family, friends and colleagues at home have continued their lives as usual, unaffected by events in other places.

Readjusting to life in the US after post-earthquake Haiti, was a bit of a challenge for me.

Readjusting to life in the US after post-earthquake Haiti, was a bit of a challenge for me.

You will return home to find that Western lifestyles are wasteful and lavish compared to what you have just seen and experienced in the developing country setting. You have been exposed to poverty and have made friends in a different world where much of life is defined by privation and a constant struggle to meet daily needs. You may want to talk about what you have seen and done. However, you may find that many of your friends and colleagues will not be interested in hearing the details of your trip. When they ask about your trip, they will probably want a short answer, not a lengthy discourse on the lack of economic resources, the poor health conditions, the lack of environmental control, the problems of illiteracy and malnutrition, and other everyday conditions you saw.

There have been times when I have returned feeling lonely and depressed about not being able to share my overseas experiences. My trick is to interact with like-minded people who have an active interest in developing countries. I realize that this is my chance to educate my friends by sharing my experiences.