Make no bones about it: travelling around Bangladesh can be difficult.
I’m not talking about the logistics per se (although that certainly doesn’t help), but more about figuring out where the hell you’re going to go after flying into Dhaka. One guesthouse owner described Bangladesh as being like a spider; Dhaka is the body in the centre and anywhere outside of that is one of the legs.
Unfortunately due to the infrastructure, travelling around Bangladesh and avoiding going back to Dhaka every time you want to go north to south or east to west can be a little difficult. To give a little guidance, here’s the itinerary that I followed during my trip to Bangladesh in January 2020.
Disclaimer: this itinerary only really covers the northeast and southeast of the country. I had plans to return to Dhaka after this and take a boat to the Sundarbans, but COVID-19 put that idea to bed.
Accommodation: Golpata Bed and Breakfast
How long for: 4 nights (although you could do less)
Like it or loathe it, you’re probably going to have to suck it up.
I’m actually a fan of big, crazy cities so I didn’t hate Dhaka like a lot of travellers seem to. It probably helps that on my first day, after visiting Lalbagh Fort I met Al-Amin, who essentially became my local guide for my time in the city. Oh, and watching football on two consecutive nights probably didn’t hurt either.
I ended up staying here for four nights, which in hindsight was perhaps one too many. The headache from the pollution that I seemed to pick up on the fourth day would testify to that. You could probably fit the Fort, Bangabandhu’s house and the National Museum into one day if you were really pushed for time, but I’m a big fan of aimless wandering and found myself enjoying just being amongst the chaos of Old Dhaka. You’ve also got to take traffic into account too, which really is as bad as everyone says.
A quick mention for my accommodation, Golpata Bed and Breakfast, which is run by a lovely Dutch lady called Joanna and a local chap called Joy with the help of a few others. It’s a little out of the city centre – around 12 kilometres (which takes a long time in Dhaka traffic!) – but it’s a lovely guesthouse with private and dorm rooms and what these people don’t know about Dhaka and travelling Bangladesh isn’t worth knowing. If that’s not enough for you, Joanna also runs an orphanage which I believe is in part funded by the guesthouse fees, so you know your money is going to a good cause. Oh, and the breakfast is banging, too.
Accommodation: Green Leaf Guesthouse
How long for: 3 nights
After an extremely late and rather stressful train journey, I arrived at my next stop of Sreemangal. A million miles away from the chaos of Dhaka, this is the place to go if you want to explore nature and drink a shitload of tea. Seriously – it’s everywhere.
There’s plenty to see and do here, all just a short distance from the town centre. There’s the aforementioned tea plantations (and a rather bizarre seven/eight layer tea!) and a national park, but once again it was thanks to the people I met and my accommodation provider that my time in Sreemangal went from decent to excellent.
The owner of Green Leaf Guesthouse – Tapas – also runs his own eco-tourism business by the same name and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sreemangal, the surrounding areas and basically everything eco-touristy in the country! While there’s plenty to see and do in the guidebooks, arguably the most enjoyable thing I did here was renting a bike and going for a random ride around the town, followed by spending an afternoon with local fishermen at the wetlands just outside of town. You can’t put a price on that kind of authenticity!
Accommodation: Nazal Budget Dormitory
How long for: 3 nights
I had been told if you’ve been to Sreemangal then there’s no need to go to Sylhet, after my first evening in the city I was starting to wonder why I’d ignored the advice. The city centre was essentially Dhaka-lite, and I was questioning what on earth I was going to do with a full day the next day.
Enter – you guessed it – the staff at my accommodation! After an hour of sitting around, watching football and picking their brains, I had plans for the next two full days (an extra day which I thought was an impossibility after the first evening!), hand-drawn maps to take me everywhere I needed to go, as well as a promise to drive me to the train station the next day to buy my onwards train ticket. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Bangladeshi hospitality really is next-level.
If you just stay in the city then yes – you might as well give Sylhet a miss. However, jump on a bus outside of the city and you’ll find yourself at the Indian border at Shada Pathor; taking a peaceful (yes, peaceful!) boat ride in Lalakhal or at the popular local tourist destination of Jafflong. A true example of a place being what you make of it.
Accommodation: Hotel Hilton City
How long for: 2 nights
I did absolutely bugger all in Chittagong besides take a huge walk from the city centre to Patenga beach. After a 10 hour train ride from Sylhet, I needed to break up the journey somehow before going to Cox’s Bazar.
The hotel was mega cheap, but there’s not much else I can say about the place. In hindsight, one night would’ve been more than enough. That’s more of a slight on me than the city itself though.
Accommodation: Long Beach Hotel
How long for: 5 nights
Unknown to me, this was to be my last stop in Bangladesh and I think I did it in style. Well, if you’re going to slave away over a Master’s assignment anywhere then it might as well be in a five-star hotel, right?
Cox’s Bazar – home to the world’s longest beach – is understandably a popular domestic tourist destination. Every day you’ll find crowds congregating in the same spots (despite the beach being over 100km long!) enjoying the sea, watching the sunset and taking advantage of all the typical beachy delights like candy floss and seafood! There’s a few markets to be bargained at, and if you go off the beach and the main ‘strip’, there’s some belting little family restaurants too.
Top tip: if you want a break from the constant barrage of selfie requests or just a bit of solitude, walk along the beach in any direction for about 15 minutes and you’ll more than likely be alone! One of life’s great mysteries is why people go to the world’s longest beach and all gather in the same place. The mind boggles.
As I said earlier, I did have plans to head west and explore the other side of the country but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Bangladesh during a pandemic, so called it a trip after Cox’s Bazar. Travelling Bangladesh can be many things; it’s stressful and frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding and the food is absolutely to die for. Head there with an open mind, be trusting yet sensible, chat to the people who stop you in the street and you might just be surprised.