Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, bursting with nearly 17 million people. When Ollie and I first arrived we were totally overwhelmed. Dhaka made Delhi seem like a walk in the park; it was far crazier, dirtier and more confusing than India’s capital and with no tourist infrastructure we had to figure the city, and indeed Bangladesh as a whole, out for ourselves.
We spent one night in Dhaka at the beginning of our month long trip and then another night at the end; needless to say the city was far less overwhelming on our second visit and we were much more apt at getting around!
Second time around we were also lucky enough to stay with a Bangladeshi friend, whom we’d met in Srimangal, which was so much more fun than staying in one of Dhaka’s overpriced grimy budget hotels and also gave us a chance to experience life as a local in the frenetic capital.
The city is comprised of many districts but the one of primary interest to travellers is Old Dhaka, the capital’s cultural heart and where the few interesting sights can be found.
Old Dhaka is certainly not for the faint hearted but is a fascinating place to wander, getting lost in its chaotic winding alleyways. Sights, sounds and smells are a constant attack on the senses; cycle rickshaws weave in and out of the jumble of humanity whilst cha (tea) sellers enjoy continuous business as Old Dhaka pulsates to its daily rhythm.
The best way to experience this part of town is on foot; most of the sights are within walking distance of one another or just a short rickshaw ride apart. Walking also allows you to duck in and out of crowded alleyways and narrow streets, weaving in and out of the traffic, and stop for a street snack or two on the way.
The ubiquitous cycle rickshaws are, however, a quintessential Dhaka experience and are the cheapest way to get around, not just in the capital but all over Bangladesh. They are certainly the best when it comes to dealing with traffic jams too!
Sights in Old Dhaka
Within Old Dhaka there are a handful of interesting sights to see.
Tranquil Lalbagh Fort offers a peaceful respite from the chaos outside its gates. The actual fort was never completed though three monuments within the complex were: the Mausoleum of Pari Bibi, the Diwan (Hall of Audience) and the three-domed Quilla Mosque.
The well tended grounds are pleasant to wander and the various buildings are highly photogenic; Lalbagh certainly made for a great start to our old town explorations.
Dhakeswari Temple is the centre of Hinduism in Bangladesh; the temple is dedicated to Dhakeswari, the protector of Dhaka and an incarnation of the goddess Durga. It’s a colourful and fascinating place to visit though, unsurprisingly, we attracted quite a bit of attention among the pilgrims!
A short walk or rickshaw ride through bustling Chowk Bazaar takes you to Star Mosque and the nearby Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection.
Star Mosque is a lot smaller than we had imagined it to be but is, nevertheless, incredibly beautiful with striking blue mosaic decoration. We were invited inside and allowed to sit and take it all in.
Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection
The white-and-lemon painted Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection dates from 1781 and is a tranquil spot to pause. From inside the gates, the craziness of Old Dhaka seems to melt away. We stopped and chatted to the caretaker for a few minutes, an interesting character who has done much to restore the church.
A ten-minute walk on from the church brought us to the bright pink Ahsan Manzil, a palace built in 1872 by the city’s wealthiest landowner, Nawab Abdul Ghani. The palace was damaged 16 years after its construction by a tornado and, following restoration work, subsequently became even grander. Lord Curzon stayed there whenever he was in town.
The palace underwent further massive restoration in the 1980’s after it fell into disrepair; it is now a museum, open to visitors.
Gritty Sadarghat is where you can see Dhaka at its most dirty and dodgy. This is the area in the centre of Old Dhaka beside the Buriganga River, the muddy artery of the city and the lifeblood of both Dhaka and the nation.
Sadarghat is a fascinating place to wander, soaking up the energetic atmosphere and watching the comings and goings of boats of all shapes and sizes. From here you can take a small wooden rowing boat across to the other shore or arrange an hour long trip with one of the local boatmen.
It is also from Sadarghat that the huge launch ships depart for long distance river journeys to other towns and cities in Bangladesh.
The Rocket Steamer
At the very start of our trip, having stayed one night in Dhaka, Ollie and I took the famous Rocket Steamer to Barisal. It departed at 6:30pm and we reached our destination at around 5am the next morning.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the scenery en route because it was dark and we were sleeping but it made for a far smoother ride than one of the country’s ramshackle buses. It was also very atmospheric to step off the Rocket in the early morning light and see the port of Barisal already a hive of activity.
There are three classes on board the Rocket- first, second and deck class. We went for second class, which meant we had a small fan cooled cabin with twin beds; we did, however, manage to wangle our way into first class for dinner! If you can afford to splurge on first class: do! The wood paneled cabins are much larger and nicer and come with private sinks and a TV.
Sadarghat is a chaotic, unrelenting place where all kinds of people hang out; don’t trust anybody! Whilst we waited to board the ship we found an out-of-the-way tea stall and parked ourselves there for an hour or so. We felt safe chatting with the men there and they kept a lookout for the arrival of the Rocket- when it finally docked everyone let us know!
Bangshal Road and Shankharia Bazaar
Two other areas in Old Dhaka worth checking out are Bangshal Road and Shankharia Bazaar. Bangshal Road is otherwise known as Bicycle Street and is where some of Dhaka’s cycle rickshaws are made; you can also buy a piece of rickshaw art for yourself.
Shankharia Bazaar is Hindu Street, a bright, colourful and very photogenic part of Old Dhaka, complete with two Hindu temples. It was nice to hear the familiar chants that we know so well from India, smell the incense burning and see orange garlands of marigolds and red wedding bangles in small storefronts.
Eating in Old Dhaka
Although the city’s top restaurants can be found in the upmarket areas of North Dhaka, such as Gulshan, the food in Old Dhaka is some of the tastiest and most authentic around. The nan bread and plate sized breakfast rotis in particular, with sides of dal, omelette and vegetable sabji, make for some very memorable meals.
Street food and tea stalls are everywhere, not just in Old Dhaka but all over Bangladesh. Sitting and chatting with locals as we sipped our lal cha (black tea) quickly became a regular occurrence for us. Unlike in India and Nepal we didn’t really get on with the milk tea; we had a few decent cups but mostly ordering milk tea proved too much of a risk – we don’t like tea with floating lumps of milk! Black tea without sugar it was!
There are a few worthwhile stops in Central Dhaka such as the National Museum, the Liberation War Museum, the National Assembly Building, the Old High Court and Dhaka University though, if you are short on time, we would recommend just sticking to Old Dhaka and really experiencing what this traditional area has to offer. There are no decent places to stay in Old Dhaka though!
The further north you go in Dhaka the more upmarket and nicer the area becomes. Gulshan is the most expensive area, where all of the embassies are located and where most expats live. There are also some fantastic guesthouses and hotels there, though they come with a hefty price tag.
Overall, accommodation is very poor value in Dhaka; you have to pay a lot to get anything half decent. There are also no backpacker areas as in other Asian cities, so our tip is to get on to Couchsurfing and stay with a local!
A must on any Bangladesh itinerary is a trip into the Sundarbans National Park, which can easily be arranged in Khulna. Check out our post to learn all about the Sundarbans and Bagerhat!