Dhaka isn’t somewhere that you can get the measure of over one long weekend, but as a British tourist travelling to Bangladesh for the first time, I wanted to give my suggestions for a successful short stay in this remarkable and often heartbreaking city. I was very pleased to see the piece published in the Bangladesh Web Guide
, an online newspaper.
It’s certainly unusual to visit somewhere with so few British people around. As the current beneficiaries of the fewest number of VISA-restricted countries in the world, we do tend to travel. However, Dhaka is a hard city to get to know, and its unfamiliarity can initially be daunting.
We stayed at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel
, which is probably the most conveniently situated of the luxury hotels for Dhaka’s central sights. The rooms are large with comfortable beds, which are turned down for you every night by the extremely attentive staff. The large pool and Jacuzzi were very clean and welcome after hot days in Dhaka traffic and crowds, and there is an also a well-stocked gym and changing rooms with saunas, steam baths and plunge pools.
A lovely coffee lounge and patisserie just beyond the hotel lobby turned out to be a great place to gather ourselves at the beginning or end of a day’s sightseeing. The hidden highlight of the Pan Pacific is its dark, speakeasy-style bar, hidden away in an obscure corner of the first floor.
Food at the restaurants within the Pan Pacific
is generally tasty but incredibly expensive by local standards. Gulshan, the expatriate district, is recognised to have the best choice of dining out in town: finding places to eat in Old Dhaka can be slightly complex unless you have a local telling you where to look.
We enjoyed fantastic Japanese food at Samdado restaurant on Rd 35, Gulshan II, at least once we had managed to direct the taxi to it. There is a spacious, minimalist dining room serving fresh and authentic Asian cuisine, as well as alcohol, we were pleased to discover. Other places that were highly recommended to me by Bangla-based Brits include Spaghetti Jazz and Dhaba.
Anyone who has visited Bangladesh talks about the traffic, but my advice would be to relax into it if at all possible. Don’t schedule any inflexible appointments, allow an insanely long amount of leeway for your journey back to the airport, and treat the dizzying array of rickshaws, buses, cars and baby taxis as a tourist attraction in itself. Bangladesh is famous not only for its record-breaking quantity of rickshaws but for its rickshaw art, which is beautiful to look at and can provide a welcome diversion whilst sitting in yet another polluted traffic jam.
Nearly all tourists must end up in the massive New Market on the Mirpur Road, many of them driven by the same impulse as us, to purchase a salwar kameez. It makes for fun people-watching but you have to grit your teeth when it comes to the pushy vendors and haggling. We fell prey to a frustrating scam in which my friend purchased material for a salwar kameez, having been assured that there was a tailor onsite to make her clothing. Sadly that promise was downgraded to a “find your own tailor through your hotel” once the money had exchanged hands. We had an amusing exchange at one stall where the initial price we were quoted for one pair of polyester men’s socks was the equivalent of £9 sterling. After some good-humoured banter about their Savile Row prices, the socks came down to a more reasonable level.
Although even more crowded, shopping was far more inspiring at Aarong, a handicrafts shop selling beautiful boxes, garments and a sizeable range of jewellery, wallets and handbags. It’s also situated on the Mirpur Road, has very reasonable, fixed prices, and if you can cope with holding your heaving basket in the chaotic queue to pay then you’ll emerge feeling very pleased with yourself. There is also a chain of handicraft shops called Kumudini that has one concession within the Pan Pacific hotel.
We visited numerous sights and attractions, but by far the best was the Liberation War Museum on Segun Bagicha Road. It feels particularly important that British tourists make the effort to visit, as a significant part of the narrative is the dismal role played by the British in the 1971 War of Independence. The scale of the slaughter that took place is conveyed powerfully, but not sensationally through archive photos, including a heartbreaking picture of a little brother and sister holding hands, dying of hunger which I am utterly unable to eradicate from my mind. The final room is simply a pile of skulls and bones from anonymous victims of the genocide, and you emerge out blinking into the tropical sunshine wiser about a historical tragedy often overlooked in Britain.
On a happier note about British involvement in Dhaka, if you can, persuade someone to let you into the BAGHA Club. Situated in Gulshan, the British members’ club has a number of amenities and a genial and welcoming crowd. It’s where we picked up plenty of useful local knowledge. Don’t go expecting The Groucho but it’s good fun and the bar feels a bit like a Caribbean rum shack.
I was left with one last indelible image on the drive back to the airport of a man herding his cows down a motorway. It seemed to symbolise everything about the strange clash of old and new, poverty and progress in this compelling city.