Bangladesh gets more than its share of bad news stories, usually floods and famines, but the country is now opening up for tourism and is well worth a visit.
On my first morning in Dhaka, the busy capital of Bangladesh, I'm surprised to see that most women are going about their business without covering their heads. I remember that beer was available in the hotel but that's an enclave for foreigners. My guide reminds me that we are in the People's Republic of Bangladesh, not an Islamic republic, and although the majority are Muslims, they're free to dress how they choose. Out go my stereotypes and I begin to realise that the country is not quite what I expected.
I'm soon on my way to the North East to the UNESCO site of Paharpur, the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas. It covers a huge area with fine gardens and the centrepiece is a colossal stupa, a gigantic square cross with two terraces, although topmost tier has long gone. I see no Western tourists but the locals are out in force with their cameras and it seems to be me that they're interested in. I'm overwhelmed by polite requests from giggling young girls to stand still so they can have their photo taken with me. This is something that I learn to live with in the coming days, as Westerners are rare here. It's actually a photographer's dream as most people are happy for you to take their picture and, unlike elsewhere, there are no requests for money and no bad temper. There's also no hassle as kids haven't yet learned the fine art of badgering tourists.
Nearby is the crumbling complex of Puthia, with its 19th century palace and some of the best Hindu temples in Bangladesh. The most stunning of these is the Govinda Temple, which was erected between 1823 and 1895 by the Maharani of the Puthia estate. I marvel at the terracotta reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu epics. Next it's to Kushtia to visit the shrine of mystic Poet Lalon Shah and a concert by his devotees, the Bauls. I've heard that marijuana is in use here, but smell no evidence. Instead there's a delightful performance of his songs by various singers backed by a group which includes harmonium and flute. It's slightly Bollywood but none the worse for that.
I'm reminded that I'm in a Muslim country when I arrive in the 15th century mosque city of Bagerhat. There are dozens of small temples hidden in the countryside but the star attraction is the Shait Bumbad 60 domed mosque and I'm invited inside by the Imam who bursts into song with some well-chosen verses from the Koran. It's an impressive building and I get special dispensation to climb up to the roof where I count 77 small domes - they've sold themselves short.
So that was heritage Bangladesh but I'm now boarding a boat to cruise the Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. It's also home to the rare Bengal tiger but I can't really expect a glimpse during my day on board. Instead, I see monkeys, spotted deer and numerous birds and some dolphins and I'm treated to a display of otter fishing. Unique to the Sunderbans, it's a family business and the idea is that trained otters scare the fish into the net. Of course you have to reward the otters with choice fish, and, on this occasion, they eat more than we catch. It appears that we're at the wrong stage of the tide and the fishermen assure me that it's usually far better than this.
The south eastern city of Chittagong is Bangladesh's 2nd largest and the purpose of my visit is to get to the Hill Tracts around Banderban. The area is home to 11 different ethnic groups, originally from Burma, and since it's under military protection, you need special permits to visit. I stay at the rustic Milonchori Hill Resort, bamboo bungalows perched on the hillside, and wake to see the sun rising through the mist.
It's a glorious day for walking so I set off with a guide from the hotel, as this is the only way to reach some of the tribal villages. Hatibandha is home to the Tripura and their features are more Asian than Indian. The women wear extravagant bead necklaces and I'm treated to a display of traditional song and dance.
They seem happy to see me, although the Murong, who I visit next, are much shyer. The 3rd tribe, the Bawm, make their money by weaving, selling their goods at roadside stalls, so they are more used to foreigners. You can easily spend a few days here trekking from village to village and there's a huge glistening white Buddhist temple, something slightly unexpected in Bangladesh.
Back in Dhaka the highlight is a visit to the waterfront on the Buriganga river- the main highway through the country. It's a bustling place and apparently over 25,000 commuters cross every day on their way to and from the city centre. The chaotic Bund runs along the river and is packed with rickshaws, workmen hauling goods up from the ghats, and street vendors hawking their wares, Narrow alleys lead into the heart of the old city and it's a fascinating place to explore although you have to be careful not to get lost.
Bangladesh is in its infancy as far as tourism is concerned yet it's well worth visiting now, before the crowds get there. Apart from the traffic choked cities, it's easy to get around and people welcome you everywhere. Food is uniformly excellent, especially the vegetables which benefit from the climate and the country's rich soils. It's also delicately spiced, so it doesn't blow your mouth off and, as you'd expect in a country with so much water, fish is plentiful and delicious.
Highlights include the Sunderbans and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, both deserving a number of days to explore. I feel I've only scratched the surface so vow to come back and catch the Rocket, an antique paddle boat, and sail into the sunset.
UK citizens can obtain visas on arrival at the airport.
Visit Bangladesh has information about the country.
Bangladesh Inbound Tour Operators Associaton has further information.
Biman flies to Dhaka from London.
Bengal Tours can arrange packages.
The Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation has hotels all over the country.
The Ruposhi Bangla hotel is a good base in Dhaka.
The Dhaka Regency is handy for the airport.
Hotel Agrabad is a good base in Chittagong.
Silver Wave Tours organises cruises through the Sunderbans.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker
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