At one point in the Dhaka's history, the city was known as "The Venice of the East." Today's nickname "The Rickshaw Capital of the World" conjures a completely different form of transportation. 600,000 cycle rickshaws -- the foot powered, not gas powered variety, weave in and out of traffic, over major highways, and through residential communities. Rickshaws are the primary form of transportation for the fourteen million people calling Bangladesh's administrative, cultural, and economic capital home.
What do I know about Dhaka? Nothing. A first time visit to Dhaka provides the rare travel clean slate. No expectations. Very few concrete plans on what to see and where to go. I saw ZERO tourists over my three day trip. The first time I saw other travelers was on the return flight to Singapore. I'd prefer others to have the same Dhaka "clean slate" experience as me, so rather than share my thoughts on the city, I will only provide my three day itinerary.
THE FIRST 24 HOURS: SITES, CULTURE, AND CUISINE
The Old City of Dhaka traces its roots back to the 1600s when the Mughal Empire established its Bengal capital along the Buriganga River. The modern and wealthier sections of the city are in the north, however, Old Dhaka in the south, remains the city's heart and soul. On a Saturday morning it takes only a forty minute auto-rickshaw ride to cover the ten mile ride from my hostel. I rode the tuk tuk to three Old Dhaka sites.
Dhakeshwari Temple: The "Goddess of Dhaka"Temple is the Holiest Hindu site in the city. The temple complex was originally constructed in the 12th Century although it has sustained damaged over the years, most recently during the Muslim mob attacks in the 1980s, and has been repaired numerous times.
Lalbagh Fort: A partially completed fort -- constructed started during the 16th Century after the Mughals took control of the region. When Emperor Shaista Khan's daughter, Bibi Pari died, he interpreted the death as an omen and stopped construction.
Tara Masjid aka The Star Mosque: A Mughal style mosque with a distinguishing chini tikri tiled blue star mosaic exterior from which the mosque receives its name. An Inam unlocked the gate and let me take a closer look. The white tile radiated across the courtyard.
A minute walk back along the road from Tara Masjid is Nanna Biriani which serves Morog Polao, a Bangladeshi national dish and their version of Chicken Biryani.
I utilized the auto-rickshaw for one more ride to Shakhari Bazar. The Bazar was lined with the typical shops (spices, bracelets, musical instruments, fabric, etc.), however, Ganesh and a few other Hindu statues were on platforms in the street. At one of the statues men played drums as another felt the music and made an offering gyration. I walked down Islampur Road, another major commercial street to the Banglabazar Book Market. Book vendor stalls contained stacks of study guides.
Islampur Road leads to Sadarghat Boat Terminal, Dhaka's main ferry terminal. Large ferries line up next to one another offering rides up and down the Buriganga. The thing for tourists to do is hitch a ride in one of the small dhows that transports citizens back and forth across the river from North Dhaka to South Dhaka. The boat is a bit wobbly. We made it to the other shore, I took a few photos, and then we returned to the terminal. The river is busy, mostly with people going from one side to the other, although I did catch a glimpse of the ship building and repair operations. All of these boats together, each the single oar, does seem vaguely similar to Venice's Grand Canal. Vaguely.
A five minute walk from the Sadarghat Boat Terminal is Ahsan Manzil, the former Dhaka Nawab Family's Royal Palace, turned slum, turned museum. Construction was completed in 1872, however, after the death of Khwaja Ahsanullah in 1901 family members quarreled and rent space to others. The government acquired the palace in 1952 and turned it into a museum. The museum occupies both floors of the palace with rooms dedicated to weaponry, portraits, history, etc. The most impressive rooms -- the billiard room, the dining hall, the drawing room, and the dance hall -- were those reflecting the period design when royalty last lived in the palace during the early 1900s.
It was then time for another tuk tuk ride to the Motijheel Road area. This is one of Dhaka's main business areas, at least from a domestic perspective. I came here for a second Bangleshi national dish, Vuna Kichuri, at Ghorowa Hotel & Restaurant. Vuna Kichuri is another chicken and rice dish -- it's much, much spicier than Morog Polao.
In the evening I walked down a brick pathway that runs along the western side of Gulshan Lake. From here I crossed a bridge (although I don't believe any water runs underneath) to the Badda neighborhood. This area is home to a few embassies, including the U.S. I walked through a nursery area then had a coffee at North End Coffee Roasters. This cafe, founded by a Boston couple, supposedly serves the best coffee in Dhaka and after my first sip I have to agree. The beans are roasted on site ensuring a fresh and high quality brew.
THE SECOND 72 HOURS: VILLAGE AND CITY LIFE
Today is split between two extremes -- getting out into the countryside to see village life and then spending an afternoon walking through the upper class area of Dhaka.
It's only proper that at some point during a visit to Dhaka one experience the city's definitive cultural aspect -- crippling traffic. Traffic so slow that drivers stop using their horns. Fifteen minutes to move fifteen feet. When I boarded the bus it was so crowded I was hanging onto the door with half my body outside. Passengers started to exit and I found a seat just as the bus started to crawl. I exited the bus and started walking passed the traffic that was blocked behind a rail guard waiting for a train which showed no signs of arriving. On the other side of the tracks I jumped in a cycle rickshaw and soon the cool breeze was in my face and we reached Gulistan, a major bus station with bus services to all corners of Bangladesh.
There's not really a Bus Station at Gulistan. There's about a hundred buses circling the blocks in the vicinity and without the assistance from some military police I wouldn't have found the bus to Murgapara, the village area I want to see, which leaves near the field hockey stadium. I bought a ticket and the bus left soon thereafter. This bus trip went much smoother. The 10K ride to Gulistan took two hours. The 30K ride to Murgapara took an hour.
Mugrapara is home several sites, two of which are prominent: Sonargaon was a former capital (1300's) and economic center. Panam City was established in the late 19th century as a trading center of cotton fabrics during British rule. I hired a cycle rickshaw at the bus station to take me to take me around the area starting with Sonargaon.
At Sonargaon two older buildings set across a water hole present an impressive opening. There's not much more to Sonargaon after the entrance. The site is now a large park with walking paths through trees and along ponds. A museum is dedicated to storing and presenting the cultural artifacts from the capital era. The first floor of the museum is dedicated to sculptures and there's certainly a few interesting items such as toys. The upper floors are dedicated to the cookware and tableware items seen elsewhere.
Less than a mile north of Sonargoan is Panam City. I loved this site because I felt like Indiana Jones walking the 100 yards of heritage buildings. In the first half the 1900s Panam City flourished as a trading post specializing in textiles -- most of the buildings were built much earlier. During partition the Hindus, who lived in the area, were persecuted by the Muslim majority and fled to India. The buildings, which have remained uninhabited and aged beautifully. Each red brick building has distinct ornamental finishes such as colonnades or archway engravings. Just as I arrived a girls school let out for lunch.
A mile west from Panam City is Goaldi Mosque. There's not much more to the mosque beyond the fact is old. The mosque is no more than twenty feet by twenty feet with a dome on top.
Back in Dhaka, I took an auto rickshaw ride to Gulshan to begin a south to north walk through one of Dhaka's glitziest neighborhoods. I had not eaten all day so for a change of pace I went to El Toro, a Mexican restaurant. The Bangladeshi Burrito was a little flatter than the Tex Mex variety but it was still a good effort and satisfied a craving.
I then walked up the tree lined Gushan Avenue to Kiva Han, a coffee shop. This cafe had a good local vine where friends could hangout, business people could discuss strategic plans, and couples could enjoy a meal. From here I zig zagged through the residential area before reaching the Gulshan 2 traffic circle. I passed a sweet shop and entered to taste some of the local dessert items. The items were a bit dry (the staff offered a glass of water without me asking) and not exactly sweet. They looked so sweet and tasty it just didn't convert when the items hit your mouth.
On the north side of Gulshan I found a restaurant called California Fried Chicken, a Bangladeshi take on an American icon. The chicken sandwich was better than the more distinguished competition but the fries could use a little help. From California Fried Chicken I made one lat stop at Just Juice. Bangladesh is a dry country and from the scene at this place I gathered people hung out at a juice bar instead of a beer bar. This place was rocking during an earlier pass so I decided to stop this time. A sign out front recommended the Green Mango shake as the perfect summer refresher. When I ordered the drink the cashier told me it was spicy. I was a bit confused not knowing how green mango could be spicy so the cashier said he'd make it a little less spicy. The first sip tasted like liquid masala - like my favorite masala flavor cheeto's turned into liquid form. And then the spice hit. The juice was still spicy, way way to spicy.
THE THIRD 72 HOURS: BANGLADESH RISING
The final morning I walked through the neighborhood. On the west side is a residential section that is nice for anywhere. Usually in developing countries the areas are only relatively nice...i.e. upscale areas in Delhi are nice for Delhi. This residential area, called DOHS Baridhari would be nice in any country. High rise apartment complexes stretched along wide boulevards and the infrastructure seemed complete - there was no "in process" gap between where the private residence ended and the public street began like I found in New Delhi.
The area immediately around my hotel offered a safe environment to walk and see how the "other half" lives. Barbers, butchers, cell phones providers, TV repair, and convenience stores offered everything to make the area a self contained community. I ordered a sample of roti and samosas from a food stall that always looked like they were cooking up something good. My eyes did not deceive my taste buds. The roti was hot, soft, and fresh and the other items were also good.
Midday I went to check out Jamuna Future Park, a massive shopping complex less than a fifteen minute walk away. The mall took a page from Field of Dreams "if you build it they will come" concept. The mall was flashy yet it seemed that many storefronts were available for rent and shoppers were few. It was a Monday afternoon but the place still felt a bit like a ghost town. The food court was quiet. It was a massive five story, five "court" complex and even on a busy day I think the place would still feel relatively empty.
Before heading to the airport I made two more coffee stops in Uttara, another nice residential area north of the airport. The first stop was Coffee Glory International, a nice place with kind of weak coffee. The second stop was George's cafe, a nicer place and stronger coffee.
The 72 hours I spent in Dhaka was a bit of a whirlwind. It left an indelible impression and the city offers intrepid travels a way to explore on their own...with about 600,000 rickshaws.