Dhaka Travel Guide
Date Visited: June 2019
Home to 19,000,000 souls, the capital of The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Dhaka, is a hot, humid, gritty, grimy, dusty, impoverished, chaotic city, a place which guarantees to assault all of your senses.
Despite all of these characteristics, Dhaka has an incessant energy which makes the city exciting, dynamic and far from dull. Add to the mix the Bangladeshis themselves, who are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you’ll ever meet, and it all makes for a rewarding and unforgettable travel experience.
Tourism is completely undeveloped in Bangladesh and travelling is a challenge. I saw almost no other foreigners during my ten days in the country and it was clear from the reaction of most locals that I was possibly the first foreigner they had ever encountered. Everyone was curious, friendly and welcoming and many wanted to know my nationality. The Cricket World cup was being played during my visit, so when I replied that I was from Australia, people smiled and told me how much they admired the Australian cricket team.
Currently, the country is best suited to intrepid adventurers but things are slowly improving. Bangladesh sees very few tourists. Whether it’s because of the lack of blockbuster sights, or a bad reputation, few tourists make it here. Regretfully, the majority of international news coverage on Bangladesh draws attention to unfortunate circumstances, natural disasters and poverty impacting this nation of 167,000,000.
Perception! Perception! Perception! It’s all about perception and unfortunately the negative perception of Bangladesh has had an adverse influence on the country’s tourism industry and has greatly hampered marketing and promotional initiatives. Bangladesh lags greatly behind its South-East Asian neighbour’s; many of whom having made remarkable progress in tourism development in recent years.
Things are starting to turn around with the Bangladesh Tourism Board firmly focused on increasing tourist arrival numbers. A recent relaxing of visa requirements, which now allow many nationalities to obtain Visas on Arrival (see the ‘Visa Requirements‘ section below for more details), have made it easier to enter the country.
Despite the hardships, the Bangladeshis are amazing hosts and will go out of their way to welcome you. I would nominate the people of Bangladesh as some of the friendliest on the planet. For those who take the time to delve beneath the grimy surface, the rewards are plentiful. As for security, the country is very safe and at no time did I feel threatened or at risk. After ten days in the capital, I was sad to say goodbye.
Located in South Asia, Bangladesh, is almost completely surrounded by India from which it was created during the Partition of India. At 4,155 km (2,582 mi) long, the land border between Bangladesh and India is one of the longest in the world.
In the south-east, Bangladesh shares a 273 km (170 mi) long border with Myanmar which is currently closed. To the south lies the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh is predominantly rich, fertile, flat land with most areas lying less than 12 m above sea level. The country is criss-crossed by some of the largest rivers in Asia which flow down from the Himalayas. The countryside is dominated by the fertile and low-lying, Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, which is prone to annual flooding resulting in the displacement of huge numbers of people.
The flag of Bangladesh consists of a red disc on a bottle-green field, with the disc representing the sun rising over Bengal and the green field symbolising the lushness of Bangladesh. The red disc, which originally included a yellow map of Bangladesh, is offset slightly toward the hoist-side.
The name Bangladesh means the Land of Bengal and, with a population of 167,000,000 is the world’s 8th-most populous country, as well as one of its most densely-populated. The capital, Dhaka, has a population of 19,000,000 in its greater metropolitan area making it the largest city in the country and one of the largest in the world.
Most Bangladeshis are Muslims (87%) while the remaining 13% are Hindus. Unlike Islamic countries in the Middle East, Bangladeshi woman play an active role in society, with the current Prime Minister being Sheikh Hasina, the country’s 2nd female Prime Minister. Many Muslim woman choose not to wear a head scarf.
According to the National Population and Housing Census of 2011, 2.8 million Bangladeshis were living abroad, 95% of whom were men. Many of these are based in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait where they work on construction and infrastructure projects, for which they are famously under-paid.
Likewise, significant numbers are employed on similar projects in Malaysia and Singapore. The annual remittances received in Bangladesh by this army of workers is an important economic contributor and, in 2015, amounted to US$15.4 billion.
Countries with significant populations of Bangladeshi workers include:
- Saudi Arabia – 1,005,000
- United Arab Emirates – 700,000
- Kuwait – 150,000
- Qatar – 137,000
- Oman – 130,000
- Bahrain – 90,000
South East Asia:
- Malaysia – 1,000,000
- Singapore -100,000
- United States – 187,816
- United Kingdom – 950,000
Mehndi is a form of body art originating from the India, in which decorative designs are created on a person’s body, using a paste, created from the powdered dry leaves of the henna plant. Especially popular during festivals, during my visit, many girls were sporting intricate designs on their hands in celebration of the ‘Eid al-Fitr‘ holiday.
Selfies & Photography
Bangladesh is a photographer’s dream!
Of the 194 countries and territories in which I’ve photographed, Bangladesh stands out as a photographic highlight. The Bangladeshis love posing for the camera and despite the fact that Dhaka is a fast moving, bustling city, locals will always pause to have their photo taken. Whenever I asked to take a photo, permission was granted.
Often, while walking through the streets of Old Dhaka, locals would ask me to take their photo. Not happy just to be photographed by the tourist, hundreds of Bangladeshis insisted on snapping a selfie with me. The selfie craze is alive and well in Bangladesh!
My visit coincided with the 3-day ‘Eid-al Fitr‘ holiday, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. During this time, Bangladeshis swarm popular sights such as Lalbagh Fort and the Pink Palace. At every sight, I was the only foreigner in attendance and was well out-numbered by thousands of visitors, many of whom wanted to pose for selfies.
I, in turn, took photos of those taking selfies. Often people lined up to get selfies or some, who didn’t want to wait, took a selfie of someone else taking a selfie with me.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a rock star, you only need to visit the sights of Dhaka on a weekend or a public holiday – you will be swarmed by curious locals!
The official currency of Bangladesh is the Bangladeshi Taka (Tk) which has the international code of BDT. The word taka in Bengali is used generically to mean any money, currency, or notes.
Currently (June 2019), USD$1 = Tk 84.60
Notes are issued by the Bangladesh Bank (the Central Bank of Bangladesh) in denominations of Tk 5, Tk 10, Tk 20, Tk 50, Tk 100, Tk 500 and Tk 1000. All notes feature the portrait of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh.
The good news for backpackers is that the cost of travelling in this impoverished nation is very budget-friendly. For the flash-packer, mid-range and top-end options provide a more comfortable travel experience, most of which is very affordable, compared to destinations elsewhere.
Typical daily travel budgets:
- Budget: Tk 3000 (USD$35)
- Mid-Range: Tk 3000 – 10,000 (USD$35 – US$120)
- Top-End: Tk 10,000+ (USD$120+)
- Coca Cola (0.33 litre bottle): Tk 27 (US$0.32)
- Water (500 ml bottle): Tk 15 (US$0.24)
- Lassi Drink (sweet/ salty): Tk 120 (US$1.40)
- Cafe Latte at North End Coffee Roasters: Tk 175 (US$2.00)
- Cycle Rickshaw: Tk 100 (US$1.17)
- Auto Rickshaw in Dhaka: Tk 200-400 (US$2.40 – $4.80)
- Meal (inexpensive restaurant): Tk 100 – 300 (US$1.17 – US$3.53)
- Meal (mid-range restaurant): Tk 500 – 1000 (US$5.88 – US$11.76)
- Double Whopper at Burger King (no McDonald’s in Bangladesh): Tk 449 (US$5.30)
- Room in a budget hotel: Tk 1,200 (US$14)
- Room in a mid-range hotel (Golden Tulip Hotel): Tk 6,600 (US$78)
- Room in a top-end hotel (Intercontinental Hotel) : Tk 16,000 (US$190)
The good news for male travellers is that, while you’re in Bangladesh, you will not need to bother shaving yourself! Dhaka is full of cheap barbershops, especially in Old Dhaka, where it seems every 5th shop is devoted to grooming.
A shave costs between Tk 100 (USD$1.17) and involves lots of lathering with shaving foam, a two-pass shave (the 2nd pass leaves your face feeling like a babies you-know-what!) then a splash of invigorating (i.e. stinging) alcohol. The whole process takes 30 mins and is something that should be experienced on a regular basis!
Apart from shaving, a hair-cut costs Tk 100 and a head massage will also cost the same. You could combine all three to treat yourself to a 90-minute pampering session for Tk 300 (US$3.50).
If you’re in the neighbourhood of the Bongo Bazar, I recommend visiting the talented team at Patuatuli Five Star Salon.
If, like so many people in this world, you spend a small fortune on prescription drugs, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a thriving pharmaceutical industry in Bangladesh which specialises in making affordable, generic versions of all major drugs. A drug which costs US$1 per tablet elsewhere can be purchased in Bangladesh for less than US$0.20 per tablet.
Pharmacies are everywhere and are always fully stocked. Drugs can be purchased in any quantity and without prescriptions.
The specific number of tourists who visit Bangladesh is unavailable from any government department, however according to the latest available figures from the UNWTO, 125,000 tourists visited Bangladesh in 2014 (although I saw few foreigners during my stay).
Bangladesh remains a largely unexplored tourist destination, mostly unknown to the international community. Tourism infrastructure is undeveloped and, with crushing crowds, chaotic traffic and impoverished cities – the country remains a destination for intrepid travellers.
The Bangladesh Tourism Board is responsible for promoting tourism and acts as the Tourist Information centre in Dhaka. The office is located in the building next door to the Intercontinental Hotel in the downtown district of Shahbagh.
Dhaka is an enormous city, and it shows. It is crowded and always on the move, but that also makes it a dynamic and entertaining place to be. The city streets are a constant flow of traffic and rickshaws, and there is something new to discover at every turn.
Most of the city’s historical monuments and points of interest can be found in the area of Old Dhaka, such as the Lalbagh Fort and the stunning Pink Palace. It’s also an area of great spiritual importance, gathering the Hindu Dhakeshwari Temple, the Orthodox Armenian Church, and the Tara Mosque, among others.
The city’s more modern side can be found in New Dhaka and the neighbourhoods of Gulshan & Banani, two affluent neighbourhoods where you can find large upscale shopping centres and international restaurants, mixing more tranquil residential areas with commercial buildings and businesses.
Different sights are closed on different days of the weeks. There’s nothing more frustrating than negotiating the crazy traffic of Dhaka to then arrive somewhere to find the gates locked so it’s always best to check opening times in advance. I have included opening hours under each sight.
Dhakeshwari Mandir (means “Goddess of Dhaka”) may seem modern, but it stands on a sacred spot, where temples have stood for centuries. Pronounced ‘Dhakesh-shwori‘, it is the centre of the Hindu religion in Bangladesh, dedicated to Dhakeshwari, the protector deity of the city.
The original temple was built in the 12th century and it’s said the city is named after the goddess. The temple was severely damaged during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when the Indian army mistook it for a mosque. During the war, the main worship hall was taken over by the Pakistan Army who used it as an ammunition storage area.
Shoes are to be left at a cloak room by the front gate for which a small fee is payable.
Opening Hours: The temple is open every day and is always busy with worshippers.
Tickets: Entrance is free.
Located in the heart of Old Dhaka, the beautifully serene Lalbagh fort is an incomplete 17th-century Mughal fort complex which is surrounded by lush gardens, providing a vital green space in an otherwise congested part of town. The best panoramic view of the entire complex (as seen above) is from the rooftop Royal Castle restaurant which occupies the 4th floor of a building across from the main entrance of the fort.
Construction on the complex was started in 1678 AD but was never completed. Surrounded on all sides by a crush of humanity, the fort complex includes three monuments: the Quilla Mosque, the Tomb of Pari Bibi and the Hall of Audience, which is the only building open to visitors.
The most iconic building, the Tomb of Pari Bibi is closed to visitors, but you can peer through the open, grilled windows to view the tomb of Pari Bibi – the daughter of Shaista Khan.
The Hall of Audience, also known as the ‘Diwan-i-Aam‘, is a two storied former residence of the Mughal governor of Bengal. It houses a small museum and the remains of a hamman (Turkish bath).
Included in the museum displays are several dusty, glass display cases which house incredibly beautiful, ancient, hand-written, gold-leaf Islamic manuscripts. Anywhere else in the world, these would be prized items in any museum, but here, they are slowly rotting away in a sweltering hot room which is fully open to the hot, humid, polluted city.
The third building in the complex is the Quilla mosque, which is accessible through a side gate from the main street.
Opening Hours: The museum is closed on Sunday, open Monday from 2 pm – 5 pm, then Tuesday to Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Tickets: Tickets cost Tk 20 for locals and Tk 200 for foreigners.
The tight streets around Lalbagh Fort can be very congested, as can be seen in this video which I filmed outside the main gate.
Ahsan Manzil Museum
Perhaps the city’s most iconic landmark, the Ahsan Manzil Palace (Pink Palace) museum is located on the busy Buriganga River and once served as the official residential palace and seat of the Nawab of Dhaka.
This impressive palace dates back to 1872 and is a must for any visit to Dhaka. Renovations in the 1980’s have left all 23 rooms just as they looked at their most luxurious and grandiose, and a walk through the palace is like a trip through time.
I visited the palace on a weekend which I would not recommend unless you like to engage in a rugby-style scrum to get a ticket from the tiny ticket window (which, at the time of my visit was surrounded by hundreds of people, pushing and shoving, trying to purchase a ticket). Once you have a ticket, you then battle crushing crowds, who push their way through the 23, tight, stuffy, hot, (un) air-conditioned rooms of the palace. During my visit I was asked to pose for dozens of selfies. Better to visit mid-week!
Opening Hours: The museum is closed on Thursday, open Friday from 3 pm – 8 pm, then Saturday to Wednesday from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Tickets: Tickets cost Tk 20 for locals and Tk 500 for foreigners.
Within the windy streets of Old Dhaka is a district known as Armanitola. The district takes its name from a significant Armenian settlement which existed in the old town during the 17th and 18th centuries. The centre piece of the community was an old Armenian church – the Church of the Holy Resurrection, which is located on Armenian Street.
Founded in 1781, the Church of the Holy Resurrection can be visited free of charge any day of the week. The church is surrounded by a small cemetery where 350 people are buried. One prominent grave includes a statue on the tombstone of Catachik Avatik Thomas, portraying his wife. Many tombstones are written in Armenian and English script and one is dedicated to a person who passed away at the very young age of 108+ years.
One modern claim to fame for the church is that Mother Teresa stayed in the church compound during a 1996 visit to Dhaka.
Opening Hours: The church is open every day and is accessible via a covered gate from the main street. If the church doors are locked, an onsite attendant can provide access.
Tickets: Entrance is free.
Tara (Star) Mosque
Located a short walk from the Armenian church, the Tara Mosque, or Star Mosque, is covered in beautifully detailed mosaics.
Originally built in the late 18th century in the Mughal style, the mosque was renovated 50 years ago using Chinese clay tiles imported from Japan and England. The mosque is covered with tiled blue stars, hence the alternate name of ‘Star mosque’.
I attended the mosque during Friday lunchtime prayers. In most Islamic countries, a tourist could never enter a mosque at such a holy time of the week, however at the Tara mosque, I was invited by worshippers to enter.
Opening Hours: The mosque is open every day.
Tickets: Entrance is free.
Sadarghat Boat Terminal
The busy, and heavily polluted, Buriganga River runs through the centre of Dhaka and is home to the sprawling Sadarghat Boat Terminal (means ‘City Wharf‘), the largest such terminal in Bangladesh. The wharf is located in front of the Pink Palace museum and from here, large passenger vessels operate to most parts of the country, taking advantage of the large watery highways which criss-cross the country.
What’s it like at the busiest boat terminal in Bangladesh? I shot the following video from one of the many piers.
Numerous wooden ferries cross the river, connecting the two banks which are home to many large piers. The area in front of the Pink Palace is home to a large, chaotic produce market which makes for excellent photography.
For the best panoramic photos of the busy river and terminal, you should climb the stairs onto the Babubazar road bridge which is a short walk north of the Pink Palace museum.
Bangladesh National Museum
Located in the Shahbagh district of New Dhaka, the engaging and comprehensive Bangladesh National Museum (BNM) takes visitors on a tour through the country’s natural, social and art history, its geology, flora and fauna, and much more.
With display’s housed in 45 rooms, over three levels, the museum is a compulsory stop if you wish to understand the complex history and culture of Bangladesh and, depending on your interest, could require several hours.
Many of the displays are old and dated, especially the huge wooden map of Bangladesh on the ground floor, where different districts are indicated by little lights (which a seated attendant will illuminate upon request).
Of the 45 galleries, some have recently been renovated, giving them a modern look and cool feel, thanks to air-con being installed, while other galleries are very old, dusty and dated and feel like sauna’s due to a lack of A/C. Not surprisingly, the hordes tend to linger longer in the cooler galleries!
One of the more interesting galleries is located on the third floor and is devoted to World Art. It’s here where you’ll find some of the world’s finest works of art – albeit not the original versions.
Why should an impoverished nation waste precious money acquiring expensive western artworks when it can simply frame coloured prints of different works. Where else can you view Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” side-by-side. The gallery includes works from all the great masters, from Matisse to Van Gogh to Picasso and many more – all in poster form.
Opening Hours: The museum is closed on Thursday, open Friday from 2:30 pm – 7:30 pm, then Saturday to Wednesday from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Tickets: Tickets cost Tk 20 for locals and Tk 500 for foreigners. Camera’s and bags are not allowed inside.
Located across the busy road from the Bangladesh National Museum, Suhrawardi Park was once a racetrack, and the place where the Bangladeshi Declaration of Independence took place. The park is home to two important sights; the Eternal Flame and the Museum of Independence.
Museum of Independence
Opened in 2015, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Independence, this is one of the best kept secrets in Dhaka. Literally! The whole museum is hidden underground and is built on the sight where the historic declaration of Independence was given by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of modern Bangladesh.
The entrance to the museum features a terracotta mural depicting the Bengal nation’s struggle for emancipation. Nearby, the 50-metre high, glass monument tower – the Tower of Light – is composed of stacked glass panels which are illuminated at night.
The museum features a collection of over 300 historic photographs in 144 glass panels that depict the history of Bangladesh and its struggle for Independence. A modern, concrete space, one of the most striking features of the museum is the underground waterfall.
Opening Hours: The museum is open everyday from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm, except on Friday when it is open from 3 pm to 8 pm.
Tickets: Tickets cost Tk 20 for locals and Tk 200 for foreigners.
Located alongside the Museum of Independence, the Eternal Flame monument marks the spot where, in 1971, the independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Raman, delivered a historic oath of independence.
Baitul Mukarram National Mosque
Located in downtown Dhaka, the Baitul Mukarram mosque is the National Mosque of Bangladesh. Although it has a capacity of 30,000 – the mosque has often suffered from overcrowding. Due to this, the Bangladeshi government have added extensions to the mosque, increasing its capacity to at least 40,000.
The mosque accommodates worshippers on two levels, which are built within a large cube structure, which was modelled after the Ka’abah at Mecca.
Opening Hours: The mosque is open every day.
Tickets: Entrance is free.
Located in New Dhaka, the modern National Parliament House was designed by American architect Louis I. Kahn and has the distinction of being one of the largest legislative complexes in the world.
Known as the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, the entire compound is off-limits to the public but can be visited by tourists after presenting yourself and your passport to the guards at the security gate and paying a fee of Tk 600. Visiting hours are from 10 am to 12 pm.
Liberation War Museum
Located a short drive north of Parliament house in New Dhaka, the Liberation War Museum commemorates the Bangladesh Liberation War that led to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
The modern, concrete, multi-level museum sits in stark contrast alongside a slum of small, corrugated-iron shacks. The footpath of the museum acts as a playground for the children from the slum.
Opened in 1996, the museum features informative and engaging display’s which are arranged in four galleries over two levels. The displays outline the protracted struggle of the people of Bangladesh for establishing their identity as a nation under the British regime as well as their struggle for democracy, political and economic emancipation from Pakistani rule, following the division of India.
Opening Hours: The museum is open everyday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, except on Sunday.
Tickets: Tickets cost Tk 20 for locals and foreigners. Camera’s and bags are not allowed inside.
Dhaka’s ‘New Market’ was Bangladesh’s first attempt at creating a modern, family-friendly, open-air shopping centre, and has been a central hub for all shopping in the city for over 70 years. The market is home to many electronic and textile shops and features a number of restaurants which provide cheap, filling meals for less than Tk 300.
If you wish to have a business shirt tailor-made, shops in the market charge Tk 1,600 (US$19) per shirt but require 7 days to complete an order.
The Bongo Bazar is loud, chaotic and at times overwhelming, but that only adds to the experience. Vendors here sell the excess brand-name clothes that you would end up buying at expensive boutiques in America and Europe for a fraction of the price.
The sprawling bazar covers a whole district of town, and features different buildings which specialise in particular goods, with one of the more interesting being a building overflowing with Islamic books.
Established in 1990 with a focus on revising the process of natural dye, Aranya is perhaps the best place to get high-quality traditional Bangladeshi clothing. Silk, cotton and other yarns are hand-dyed and then woven and embroidered into saris, ready-to-wears and other accessories.
An established fair trade initiative, their main showroom is located at #60 Kamal Ataturk Avenue in Banani.
Hotels.com currently list 147 properties in Dhaka while Booking.com lists 140 properties. While hotels can be found all over the city, many of the mid-range and top-end options are located in the upscale, adjacent neighbourhoods of Banani and Gulshan.
During my stay, I resided at the Golden Tulip Hotel, a 4-star property in Banani which offers excellent service, comfortable rooms and breakfast for Tk 6,600 (US$78) per night.
Located on a quiet side street, away from the incessant cacophony of street noise, the hotel offers a rooftop pool, gym, Thai spa and provides airport transfers for Tk 1,600 (US$19).
If you wish to splurge on a fine top-end option (US$190 per night), the amazing Intercontinental Hotel is located in the downtown district of Shabagh, a short walk from the National Museum, Independence museum and other sights.
The basis for every meal in Bangladesh, the locally grown Chinigura rice is described as a ‘short grain‘ rice, but is one which I would describe as a ‘microscopic grain‘ rice. A delicate Bangladeshi rice, it’s smaller than Basmati and tastes similar to Jasmine rice.
About a 1/3 the size of a regular grain of rice, Chinigura is always served light and fluffy and in large quantities. Previously, Basmati was my all-time favourite rice, however after visiting Bangladesh, I have been converted and Chinigura is now my #1 rice choice.
The cuisine of Bangladesh has been shaped by the country’s long history and geographical location and is made up of a diverse range of delicious spices, herbs, rice, fish, meats and naan breads. Curries are one of the most popular forms of Bangladeshi food and many restaurants in Dhaka offer opportunities to sample the local cuisine.
Whether I dined in cheap and cheery budget restaurants or more deluxe establishments, the service was excellent, the food tasty and always the owner would ask if I was satisfied with my meal. Meal prices in budget restaurants average Tk 200 – 300 while in more expensive restaurants you pay up to Tk 1,000. Upmarket restaurants will add 25% tax to the cost of a meal which is comprised of 10% service charge and 15% VAT/ GST.
Old Dhaka is home to lots of grimier budget restaurants while the ritzy new town neighbourhoods of Banani and Gulshan are home to mid-range and top-end restaurants and western fast food chains such as Burger King, A&W, KFC, Johnny Rockets and Pizza Hut. You will not find McDonald’s in Bangladesh.
Many restaurants in Banani and Gulshan are located on the upper levels of office towers, so it’s essential to gaze upwards when looking for somewhere to dine.
One of my favourite restaurants in Banani is the excellent Tarka Restaurant which serves the most amazing curries with lots of fluffy Chinigura rice. Their Dosa (cooked flat thin layered rice batter) is very tasty and goes best with a signature, freshly blended Lassi (a blend of yogurt, water and spices).
Coffee culture is alive and well in Dhaka with many local cafes providing the perfect caffeine hit. One of my favourites was inspired by the world’s first coffee shop in Istanbul. The charming Kiva Han is located in a quiet side street in upmarket Gulshan and features walls covered in colourful, hand-painted artwork. Apart from great coffee, the Kiva Han offers fusion food, tasty sandwiches, burgers and cakes.
Starbucks has no presence in Bangladesh, but it’s not needed, with the locally-owned cafe chain, North End Coffee Roasters, satisfying the caffeine requirements of thirsty locals. Originally from the North End of Boston, the company now has nine branches in Dhaka and offers great, freshly roasted coffee and excellent pastries. WiFi is available with the cost of a regular-size Cappuccino or Latte being Tk 200.
The cafe offers free WiFi, wonderful coffee, incredible cakes, pastries and a comprehensive menu. As is to be expected from one of the best hotels in town, prices are not cheap but it’s great to indulge – at least once every day!
Bangladeshis have a sweet tooth and love nothing more than to frequent one of the many sweet shops which are to be found in every neighbourhood of Dhaka. One of my favourites is Madina Mishtanno Bhandar which is located a short walk from Lalbagh fort in Old Dhaka. Madina is a local institution where each piece of their syrupy, sweet morsels of heaven cost just Tk 10.
The basis of most deserts is sugar, milk, ghee and Chhena, which is curd made from water buffalo or regular cow milk and is similar to cottage cheese. Sweet shops always offer cups of milky Chai (tea) which is the perfect accompaniment to a small sampling plate of sweets.
For further information on the sweet culture, the Top 10 Sweets of Bangladesh are covered in this article.
Generally, alcohol is not available in Bangladesh, but can be procured in a few lounge bars which are hidden away inside the top-end hotels.
Currently, 23 nationalities do not require a visa to enter Bangladesh while many other nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival (see the following section for more details). To check your requirements, refer to the Visa Policy of Bangladesh.
Visa on Arrival Process
In order to encourage tourism, the Government of Bangladesh has recently relaxed visa requirements, allowing nationalities from certain countries (refer to the Visa Policy) to apply for a Visa Upon Arrival (VOA) at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
The process is straightforward but time consuming. At the time of my arrival, I was one of four applicants. My visa was issued after a wait of one hour.
A description of the process is included here:
- Upon arrival, eligible passport holders should approach the ‘Visa Upon Arrival‘ desk, which is located inside the immigration hall.
- You hand your passport to an immigration officer, who will record the details of your passport on a paper register. Any other applicants will also have their details recorded on the same register
- Once everyone is registered, the form is then sent (faxed/ emailed?) to Police headquarters in Dhaka, where all applicants are checked against a database. VOA’s will only be issued once the OK is received from headquarters, which, on the day I arrived, took 30 minutes.
- While waiting for the clearance process, you should complete the ‘Arrival Card‘ and the ‘Visa Application‘ form.
- The visa fee should also be paid at the bank booth which is located alongside the VOA desk. The visa fee is US$51 and is payable in US dollars cash only.
- Once the police check is completed, the senior immigration officer will issue your VOA by stamping your passport.
- You are now free to exit the immigration hall by sailing past the ever-present, long lines of Bangladeshis and exit through the far left lane which is reserved for crews and diplomats (you just have to flash your VOA stamp to the immigration officer).
Welcome to Bangladesh!
Flights to Dhaka arrive at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, (IATA: DAC) which is located 18 kilometres north of Dhaka. The airport has three terminals; T1 and T2 for international flights (in the same building), and the Domestic Terminal.
The airport serves as the hub for the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, and three other local airlines; Regent Airways, Novoair and US-Bangla Airlines. The airport also serves as a gateway to the isolated Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, with regular flights to the capital, Paro, by the Bhutanese carrier, Drukair.
With a lack of demand from tourists, most flights to/ from Bangladesh serve as shuttle services for the huge army of Bangladeshi workers, connecting them with countries in the Gulf region and South-east Asia. I flew from Singapore with Biman Bangladesh Airlines on a flight which was fully booked, with one tourist (me!) on board and all other seats occupied by Bangladeshi (male) workers returning home, having completed work contracts in Singapore.
If you’re flying with Biman Bangladesh, you will only be able to manage your booking online if you booked your flight directly via their website. If you booked using an Online Travel Agent (OTA) such as Expedia, Priceline etc, you will not be able to view your booking on the Biman website.
The following airlines provide scheduled services to/ from Dhaka:
- Air Arabia – flies to/from Sharjah
- Air Asia – flies to/from Kuala Lumpur–International
- Air India – flies to/from Kolkata
- Biman Bangladesh Airlines – flies to/from Abu Dhabi, Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Barisal, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Dammam, Delhi, Doha, Dubai–International, Jeddah, Jessore, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur–International, Kuwait, London–Heathrow, Muscat, Rajshahi, Riyadh, Saidpur, Singapore, Sylhet, Yangon
- Cathay Dragon – flies to/from Hong Kong
- China Eastern Airlines – flies to/from Kunming
- China Southern Airlines – flies to/from Guangzhou
- Drukair – flies to/from Paro
- Emirates – flies to/from Dubai–International
- Gulf Air – flies to/from Bahrain
- IndiGo – flies to/from Kolkata
- Kuwait Airways – flies to/from Kuwait
- Malaysia Airlines – flies to/from Kuala Lumpur–International
- Maldivian – flies to/from Chennai, Malé
- Malindo Air – flies to/from Kuala Lumpur–International
- Novoair – flies to/from Barisal, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Jessore, Kolkata, Rajshahi, Saidpur, Sylhet
- Qatar Airways – flies to/from Doha
- Regent Airways – flies to/from Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Dammam, Doha, Jessore, Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur–International, Muscat, Saidpur, Singapore
- Salam Air – flies to/from Muscat
- Saudia – flies to/from Dammam, Jeddah, Medina, Riyadh
- Singapore Airlines – flies to/from Singapore
- Spicejet – flies to/from Kolkata, Guwahati
- Sri Lankan Airlines – flies to/from Colombo
- Thai Airways – flies to/from Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi
- Thai Lion Air – flies to/from Bangkok–Don Mueang
- Turkish Airlines – flies to/from Istanbul
- US-Bangla Airlines – flies to/from Bangkok–Suvanabhumi, Barisal, Chennai, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Doha, Guangzhou, Jessore, Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur–International, Muscat, Rajshahi, Saidpur, Singapore, Sylhet
Official taxi counters, where you can book and pay for a taxi in advance, are located inside the arrivals hall, to the left of the exit doors. Once you’ve made your payment, an attendant will guide you to your taxi. The fare from the airport to the main hotel districts of Gulshan or Banani, a distance of approximately 6 km, is Tk 1200 (USD$14).
Attempting to board one of the overcrowded public buses which careen along the busy main road would be totally crazy!
The short land border (193 kilometres) with Myanmar is currently closed while the 4,095 km long land border with India offers several crossings points.
What’s it like to be on the streets of Dhaka? I shot this video in the Sadarghat neighbourhood.
The incessant traffic in Dhaka can be overwhelming, chaotic, confusing, dangerous and often involves deadlock traffic jams taking hours to clear up. There are no rules, with drivers completely ignoring red lights, zebra crossings and driving on whichever side of the road offers the path of least resistance.
The city offers an amazing array of transportation options, from buses, taxis, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages, motorbike taxis, safari trucks and more – all competing for space on the over-crowded streets.
Getting around is easy – provided you speak Bengali! Most Bangladeshis do not read, write or understand English. If you plan to use any form of public transport in Dhaka, you will need to have addresses written in Bengali.
However, in a country with a literacy rate of 72.89%, there are approximately 50,000,000 people who cannot read or write. This includes many of the rickshaw drivers! Many drivers I interacted with had to consult a passer-by to get them to read the address aloud so they could understand where I wished to travel.
All fares should be negotiated in advance!
Public buses in Dhaka are operated by the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) whose beaten buses look as if they’ve competed in numerous demolition derby’s.
Hot and sweaty, the buses are often impossibly crowded and just getting on one is a challenge in itself. Running to any sort of timetable in a city as congested as Dhaka is impossible. With a complete lack of signage, the only way to use the system is to simply yell your destination at the conductor – he’s the guy hanging out of the door.
Routes can be confusing, so unless you know exactly which bus to take, it might be best to take a rickshaw.
Intercity buses connect Dhaka with all points in Bangladesh. Due to road conditions, buses travel at less than 50 km/h with the 400 km journey between Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar taking at least 10 hours. If you’re short on time, its best to book a domestic flight with either Novoair, Regent Airways or Biman Bangladesh Airlines.
A recommended company is Green Line Paribahan who operate luxury coaches from their bus station in the Dhaka district of Rajarbagh. Bookings can be made online but require a local cellphone number.
With an estimated 800,000 cycle rickshaws on its streets, Dhaka is known as the world’s capital city of rickshaws.
Ideal over short distances, all rickshaws are pedal-driven but many have been fitted with battery kits, which boost speed while saving the rickshaw-wallahs (drivers) from pedalling all the time.
While I found there was just enough room for me and my camera bag, entire families squeeze onto a single rickshaw.
The cheapest form of transport, the drivers rarely speak English and most will need someone else to ‘read aloud’ any address you hand them since they are often illiterate. Fares should be negotiated in advance but Tk 100 over a short distance is more than reasonable.
While there are many beautifully painted rickshaws, there are also many that are truly dilapidated. This is due to the ownership structure. Most rickshaw drivers don’t own their rickshaws, instead they lease them from an owner. Due to constant profit flows, the owners have no incentive to invest money improving their vehicles.
What’s it like riding a cycle rickshaw? I filmed the following video during one of my journey’s in Dhaka.
Just as Bangkok has its Tuk Tuk’s, Dhaka has its Auto-rickshaws, which run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Known as CNG Auto-rickshaws, they are noisy, obnoxious and often down-right dangerous as they duck and weave aggressively, accelerate and brake suddenly and drive on whichever side of the road offers the clearest run.
What’s it like riding an Auto-rickshaw through Old Dhaka? I shot the following video during one of my many journey’s.
Never dull, always thrilling and at times alarming, the Auto-rickshaws are a popular way to travel longer distances in Dhaka. More compact than their Thai counterparts, these real-life Dodgem cars are encased in metal mesh which provides passengers with a (false) sense of security.
Depending on your disposition, a ride in one of these will either be exciting and exhilarating or just downright scary!
Despite having functioning meters, the drivers ignore them. Fares should be negotiated before you enter the rickshaw with typical fares being Tk 200-300 for most rides around central Dhaka.
In a city which is ruled by rickshaws, taxis can be hard to find. Uber is in operation and is the best way to book a taxi, otherwise, taxis can be found waiting at busy intersections, outside hotel lobbies or the airport.
While taxis have meters, they are never used. Fares should be negotiated prior to starting the journey.
Before rickshaws invaded the streets of Dhaka, the city’s thoroughfares were home to hundreds of horse-drawn carriages. Today, around 30 carriages remain and while once they were the preferred mode of transport of the elite, today they serve as a novelty ride for local families.
Given that there are over 8,000 km of navigable inland waterways throughout Bangladesh, boats are a common means of getting around. The busiest boat terminal in the country is the Saderghat Boat terminal which lines the banks of the Buriganga River in Old Dhaka and from which you can catch boats to all points in the country.
Small wooden ferries provide cross-river travel, connecting the two banks which are home to numerous piers.
Dhaka Metro Rail
Currently under construction, the Dhaka MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Line-6 will initially consist of one single, elevated line, which will run from Uttara North, in the north of the city, and Motijheel which lies in the heart of the downtown area.
Once completed, the MRT should help reduce the extreme amount of traffic jams and congestion that occur throughout the city on a daily basis.
Forget it! Only someone with a death-wish would dare to drive on the crazy, chaotic streets of Dhaka. Most cars in the city are fitted with front and rear bumpers for good reason! Let the locals do the driving!
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Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
I hope you enjoy reading my content.