Backpacking in Bangladesh
Still a secret tip among backpackers in Bangladesh. Unlike other South Asian countries such as Nepal or India, there is no pronounced infrastructure for backpacking in Bangladesh – or for tourism in general. Bangladesh has two superlatives in its programme: the largest mangrove forest in the world and the longest natural beach in the world. Those who set off here will discover a wonderful country away from the mainstream.
Together with large parts of present-day India and Pakistan, Bangladesh belonged to Great Britain as a crown colony until 1947. An attempt was then made to divide the region into states according to religious criteria: India as a predominantly Hindu country was separated from Pakistan and Bengal or East Pakistan (today Bangladesh). The two Muslim constituent states Pakistan and East Pakistan were territorially separated by Indian territory. When Pakistan wanted to elevate Urdu to the national language, the Bengali language movement arose in East Pakistan, which was culturally and linguistically part of the Bengalese.
The first clear conflicts between the two Muslim constituent states arose here. In 1970, political differences led to genocide of the East Pakistanis, who were increasingly striving for autonomy. In the Bangladesh War of 1971 India intervened and thus made a decisive contribution to East Pakistan’s separation from West Pakistan as a separate state. In 1972, East Pakistan proclaimed its independence under the name Bangladesh. The capital of the country is Dhaka, the currency is the Taka.
Bangladesh’s economy is on a solid growth path, but cannot come close to its neighbors India and China. Economic growth must not hide the fact that Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Infrastructure, education and health systems are massively underdeveloped, which also slows economic development. The country is heavily dependent on development aid programmes. The cultivation of rice and jute, but also other cereals, sugar cane and tea, is of economic importance.
The main exports are textiles, which go almost exclusively to the USA and the European Union. Coal and natural gas do exist, but they are produced exclusively for Bangladesh’s own needs. Bangladesh is dependent on imports and has a negative trade balance. Bangladesh’s big asset is its young population, which on the one hand is growing strongly in the low-wage sector of the textile industry, and on the other there are also increasing numbers of young IT specialists.
Bangladesh is still strongly agricultural, but also has three megacities: Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna. In Bangladesh today, there is a big difference between the more affluent urban population and the rural people who live largely off agriculture. This is also reflected in different customs, for example in the way conservative Islamic values are lived.
Of course, the urban population is not rich per se; rather, there are huge slums around the megacities in which partly more people live than in the city itself. Life in the country is also difficult for many Bangladeshi people. Most of them have hardly any land of their own and thus are not able to run a subsistence economy. Many are therefore dependent on large landowners.
Culture in Bangladesh
The country is very rich culturally, but the historical origins of the state of Bangladesh make it clear that “Bangladesh’s” culture does not exist. It has evolved from an eventful history and different peoples who dominated the region at different times and shaped its cultural face.
In addition to the heritage left behind by the Mogul Empire, there are still countless testimonies from Buddhist empires today, in particular the Pala architecture. The Pala kingdom dominated the region between the 8th and 12th centuries.
Of particular interest are the peoples who live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which are difficult for foreigners to access. These twelve or more ethnic groups are not Bengalese, but ethnic minorities, most of whom are also non-Muslim. Most of them are Buddhists, some are Hindus. The largest groups among them, the Chakma and Marma, are already more adapted to the Bengali majority culture; the remaining smaller ethnic groups have retained much of their original cultures.
Unfortunately, it is not completely harmless to travel to the CHT, as there are always conflicts between indigenous people and government or the Bengali majority population. This conflict arises mainly from the Bengali desire to make the forests of the Hill Tracts economically viable and from the general reservations of the majority population towards the cultures of the Chittagong Hill Tribes.
But if you have the opportunity to go to the Chittagong Hill Tracts – it is definitely a completely different Bangladesh that you will experience there!
As I have said before: Bangladesh is not a typical backpacker country. Nevertheless, you will make progress here even with a very small budget, if you limit yourself strongly. That means: Overnight stay in hotels without air conditioning, without hot water; only cheap local food (no Chinese and Indian restaurants, they are already more expensive), on the way with local buses. Then you get along with about 15-20€ per day. Those who want to be more comfortable on the way, sleep in the better hotels of the country and visit restaurants with international cuisine should, however, calculate about 40 to 45€ per day.
Rental car in Bangladesh
Renting a car is not a problem in Bangladesh. There are local companies as well as big international companies like Europcar at the start. You can book your rental car with driver as well as for self-driving. Attention: Driving in Bangladesh can take some getting used to if you are not used to the South Asian driving style. For a car you should calculate at least a budget of 25€ per day.
Public transport in Bangladesh
Taxi driving in Bangladesh
Besides rickshaws and CNG (closed vehicles with three wheels and natural gas drive), there are also taxis in Dhaka and other larger cities. Both CNG and taxis are comparatively expensive, but of course not at European prices. The average basic price in Dhaka is 0.51€, plus 0.41€ per kilometre. Trustworthy taxi companies include Uber, Pathao, AmarRide, Toma Taxi and Trust Taxi. At Toma Taxi there is also a Fare Calculator with which you can calculate your travel costs.
Bus travel in Bangladesh
Bus travel between cities is very cheap in Bangladesh, and there are frequent connections. You can simply buy tickets spontaneously. But it can get quite crowded on board – and the travel comfort is rather low overall. Also the safety of the vehicles and roads is not always… optimal.
Probably you’ve also seen the pictures of the buses where the people on the roofs ride along. Although this is officially forbidden, it is usually tacitly tolerated by the police. Even if it looks like a cool adventure: Every year a lot of people die in this adventure – so maybe you’d rather look for a place inside, and it may be so cramped.
Rail travel in Bangladesh
This is at least one thing for which one can be grateful to the British colonial rule: Thanks to it, Bangladesh has a very well-developed railway network. For you as a traveller, rail travel is definitely a good alternative to uncomfortable buses and expensive domestic flights.
Of course you also know of the trains in Bangladesh, especially the pictures of completely overcrowded railways, on which grapes of people hang. Those who have a few more dollars left – unfortunately this is the case – can count on much more luxury here. In the air-conditioned wagons there are usually enough seats available, and by European standards travelling by train is still quite cheap. Further information can also be found on the Bangladesh Railway website.
Ferries in Bangladesh
In former times, Dhaka had a very wide canal system, a lot of public transport took place over water; today, there is not much left of it, but there are still many ferry connections from Dhaka (Sandarghat) to other cities. Ferries are not only a good alternative to bus or train in terms of price, it is also a unique experience. Depending on ticket category, route and ferry, the costs are between 2€ and 100€.
Flying within Bangladesh
There are eight airports in Bangladesh that are used for private passenger transport: Besides Dhaka, there are Chittagong, Cox’ Bazar, Sylhet, Saidpur, Rajshani, Jessore, Barisal. Many travellers use the short domestic flights as an alternative to overland travel, but you don’t really see much, and flying is expensive, as everywhere. For orientation: A one-way-flight from Dhaka to Chittagong costs between 30 and 40 euros. The plane is therefore only interesting as a means of transport if you have very little time and would like to see another corner of the country.
A trip to Bangladesh lives from the contact to the local population – it is not necessarily a country that is full of tourist highlights. This is mainly due to the fact that the country is practically undeveloped for tourism, and that is what makes a trip to Bangladesh so attractive. How you can plan a short trip to Bangladesh and what you should do if you have more time, you can read here.
Route 1: Bangladesh for those in a hurry (12-14 days)
- 2 Days Dhaka – Arrive and explore the city
- 2 Days Cox’s Bazaar – Beach Life
- 1 day Chittagong
- 1 day Dhaka
- 2 days Srimagal – Tea plantations
- 3 days Sundarban National Park
- 1 day Dhaka – Departure
Route 2: Bangladesh intensive (approx. 21 days)
- 2 Days Dhaka – Arrive and explore the city
- 1 day Chittagong
- 5 Days Chittagong Hills & Cox’s Bazaar
- 1 day Dhaka
- 3 days Srimagal & Sylhet – Tea plantations
- 3 days Sundarban National Park
- 1 day Dhaka – Departure
Travel times in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a monsoon region. The only possible travel time is the cool season between November and February. At this time of year the temperatures – for the Central European taste – are pleasant and during the day they are about 25°C. During this time there is very little precipitation and the humidity drops to a normal level.
Between March and June there is pre-monsoon time, it falls partly violent precipitation and it becomes very hot; the main rain time then goes from June to September.
Between September and November there are already few regular rainfalls, but these can be extremely heavy and accompanied by hurricanes. As a result, there will be severe flooding – no time when you would like to stay in the country.
Accordingly, the German winter is the best time for you to visit Bangladesh. Apart from the fact that one can hardly enjoy the landscape and cultural sites during continuous rain, the extreme humidity paired with the heat makes the stay sometimes rather a torture.
As already mentioned at the beginning: Bangladesh is not a typical backpacker country and there is still no distinctive tourist infrastructure. But that also means that if you get involved with the country and its people, you can really experience something special and unique here.
However, as a foreign traveller you should be prepared for the same reason that you are extremely in the centre of attention – simply because foreigners are still rather rare, especially away from the capital and main attractions. This is especially true for single travellers. Women travelling alone should be prepared for the fact that they have to fend off some “attempts at rapprochement”. (But it makes perfect sense to fend them off because you are in a Muslim country – women who get involved in short-term adventures are quickly regarded as “fair game”… and you certainly don’t want that!) But there are no reports of assaults – a “no” is usually respected without any problems.
Backpacker Highlights in Bangladesh
One of the absolute highlights of every trip to Bangladesh is a visit to the Sunderban National Park. The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world. Many endangered animal species live here – including the Bengali tiger, of which there are only about 500 specimens left. Travellers can enjoy the beauty and diversity of this natural wonder on small boats. With a little luck one of the rare tigers will run in front of your lens.
Also Cox’s Bazar belongs to the absolute Must-Sees in Bangladesh. This sandy beach is the longest continuous natural beach in the world. It stretches over 125 km along the coast of Bangladesh and is one of the main excursion destinations for Bangladeshi. Beyond the touristically developed place with its beach section this beach is largely untouched sand beach.
Srimangal lies in the northeast of the country and is the tea capital of Bangladesh. You can easily reach Srimangal by train from Dhaka – the journey takes about 5 hours. The gentle hilly landscape of the region offers a pleasant change to the otherwise flat Bangladesh. Here you can experience tea plantations and tea production up close – and bring home some impressive photos!
Backpacker insider tips in Bangladesh
If you are on your way to Sundarban National Park, Khulna is probably your closest stop where you will stay overnight. At first glance, the city doesn’t have much to offer – but take your time and ride a rickshaw from Sonadanga bus station to the Shait Gumbad Mosque. This mosque is the largest and also the most traditional in the country – a must for all architecture fans. Don’t choose a Sunday for your visit, because the museum belonging to the mosque is closed on this day. In the surrounding area you will find many traditional villages where tourists rarely get lost. The inhabitants are, as everywhere in Bangladesh, very cordial and you will always find someone to show you the area.
Another region off the beaten track worth visiting are the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in the hinterland of Chittagong. The CHT borders on the Indian provinces Tripura and Mizoram as well as on Myanmar. A visit is especially worthwhile for those interested in culture, because here live the largest minorities of Bangladesh, the Jumma, which are divided into 13 different subgroups. They are different from the Bengals of Mongolian, non-Indo-European origin. The Jumma are largely ignored by the government, but partly their rights are curtailed and even persecuted. However, as the CHT is an autonomous region, a trip there is not entirely easy. Permits must be obtained beforehand – so such a trip needs to be planned well in advance. In addition, a visit to the region is also associated with an increased security risk.
There are many hostels and guesthouses in Bangladesh. Some of them – mostly in the bigger cities – you can also book online in advance. However, hostels in Bangladesh are very simple and often have no running water.
Via Hostelworld.com you can currently book hostels in Dhaka. The average price per night is 17€ in the dormitory.
Alternatively you can opt for the more comfortable hotels. For a middle class hotel you should already calculate 70 to 100 € per night. You will almost always find cheaper hotels than via the international booking systems, but you have to be prepared that they do not correspond to western standards.
The food in Bangladesh is very similar to that of India and Pakistan. The most important staple food is rice – curries and lentil dishes are popular dishes. Bangladesh’s cuisine is rich in spices – popular vegetables are eggplants and tomatoes. Eggs, potatoes and dairy products are often used. The different cultural influences of the rulers as well as the many trade contacts of the country have developed over the centuries a versatile, cosmopolitan cuisine, which is definitely worth exploring.
Since Bangladesh is a Muslim country, most dishes are halal. There is also in very conservative families a separation of men and women when eating. Today this custom is no longer so widespread – but if you very much want your hosts to put women and men separately, you should just follow that.
Normally you will find the opportunity to wash your hands before eating, for example on a small sink or bowl. In Bangladesh this is part of the good manners, so be sure to wash your hands, even if you think that a disinfectant wipe would do the same.
Usually you get served first as a guest. Nevertheless you should absolutely wait until the eldest begins to eat. In general, you should follow the etiquette your host will show you – then you should avoid bigger fat cups!
Food in Bangladesh
Although Bangladesh’s cuisine is generally similar to South Asian cuisine, there are some special features and, above all, regional differences within Bangladesh. In the coastal regions and the river regions, for example, fish dishes dominate. Dried fish (Shutki) is particularly popular in the Chittagong region.
Pulao is a dish that is usually prepared on festive days. In the core it is fried rice with vegetables and many spices.
Sylheti cuisine is characterized by the sour taste of local dishes, which is created by the use of numerous vegetables and fruits with a lemony taste.
Especially interesting – if you have the opportunity to visit this region – are the cuisines of the Chittagong Hill Tract. The ethnic groups living there have very distinct dishes and ways of preparation that are worth exploring. Partly a strong cultural and also culinary influence from the neighbouring Myanmar is to be recognized here.
Everywhere in the country one finds a multiplicity of desserts – popular are various forms of rice puddings and other desserts, which are based predominantly on rice or rice flour and cow’s milk. For the European taste they are often sweet and need getting used to – but still quite tasty! So they definitely belong on the “Try it!” list.
Drinks in Bangladesh
As is typical for the whole region, a lot of tea is drunk, mainly as “cha”, sweetened with sugar and mixed with milk. The tea usually tastes very good, because locally grown tea is used. Coffee, on the other hand, is often simply instant coffee and takes getting used to – the coffee culture in Bangladesh is not particularly pronounced.
Alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Bangladesh; accordingly there is hardly any alcohol to buy – apart from a few localities specialising in non-Muslims and foreigners. Normally you will only find alcohol in the bars of top hotels in the big cities.
For the entry to Bangladesh a visa is required for German citizens. It is strongly recommended that you apply for a visa at the Bangladeshi Embassy in good time before your trip, even if you are currently arriving in Dhaka and are applying for a short-stay visa directly at the airport. This visa is only valid for 15 days. Otherwise, an invitation is required. The cost of a visa is currently 51 US dollars.
According to the entry regulations of the Federal Foreign Office, the following documents are accepted as travel documents:
- Passport: Yes
- Provisional Passport: Yes
- Identity Card: No
- Temporary Identity Card: No
- Child Passport: Yes
When you enter the country, your travel document must be valid for at least 6 months.
For all those who plan to continue their journey by land or who enter by land and then leave by plane: This requires a so-called “Route Changes Permission”, which must be obtained from the Department of Passports and Immigrations in Dhaka. Therefore: It is better to clarify in advance at the embassy what you need and what you have to do for it.
You should also inform yourself about current details on entry regulations directly at the Foreign Office before your trip.
Medical Information & Vaccinations for Bangladesh
For direct entry from Germany there are no special vaccination regulations for German travellers. However, as always: Keep your vaccinations up to date according to the vaccination calendar of the Robert Koch Institute.
In addition, active mosquito protection on site is indispensable. In Bangladesh, besides malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, the Zika virus and Chikungunya are also common. Wear long clothes and use mosquito repellent in every available form. Before your departure you should inform yourself in time with a tropical physician whether a chemical prophylaxis against malaria makes sense for you.
Vaccinations against hepatitis A and typhoid fever, and for longer stays also against Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis B and rabies are recommended.