Bangladesh is a densely packed country sandwiched in-between Myanmar and India. It is a place which faces many problems including climate change, overpopulation and mass scale malnutrition. Despite all of this, this majority Muslim country is full of wonderful people who are in generaly welcoming and interested in outsiders. I went there in late January of 2016, and spent about 1 month there.
A busy intersection in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Upon setting foot in the Shahjalal International Airport, I didn’t know how much I would be shocked by the city of Dhaka. Out of all of the places in Asia I had been, Bangladesh was the most extreme. There were more people, more traffic and more colors then I had ever seen. It was surreal.
Dhaka is an exhausting place and getting from point A to point B, will normally take at least an hour during the day. It is indeed overwhelming, but it is an experience unlike any other. Even if you are there for a few days, you will find that the streets will offer more photo opportunities than you’ve ever had in your life.
In this article, I would like to go over some of the places in Dhaka and around Bangladesh that I visited and how you can make the most out of a trip there from the perspective of a photographer and photojournalist. On the bottom, there are some of my personal observations about logistics.
People’s attitude towards photography
If you like street photography, and if you like portraits, you will love Bangladesh. It was rare for people to turn me down if I asked to take their portrait. What was better, was how they assume such wonderful poses, without the cheesy smiles and V signs seen in other parts of Asia. I would get some of the best looks from normal people in the street. People would make captivating expressions with their dynamic faces for my camera. I can’t say there is a country more photogenic than Bangladesh.
A Hindu woman pictured in Satkhira, Bangladesh. I was told that the red mark (Sindoor) on the woman’s hairline signifies that she is married.
A boy is pictured in the Dhaka boat yards, across the river from Sadarghat Boat Terminal.
Women and girls on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
As always, be kind and respectful. Don’t just walk up and point the lens in someone’s face. Ask them, and better yet get to know them. Sometimes language is an issue, but we as humans can get to know each other easily without languages. Sometimes, I feel my camera bridges that language gap. If I take someone’s photo and show it to them, I mean to communicate that I find them interesting, and I hope they appreciate that.
Passengers wait in congested traffic near Sadarghat Boat Terminal in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Photographic places to visit
You will see things that catch your eyes everywhere, however, there are some places I would like to point out.
In Dhaka, you must visit Sadarghat. This is the harbor where all kinds of boats are docked. It is erupting with life, in all of its beauty and sadness. It is polluted and dirty, yet ironically beautiful with color and people. See it in all of its splendor in the golden hours; sunrise and sunset. You will notice all of the small rowboats you can take around the river for very modest prices.
Boys paddle a boat on the Buriganga River near Sadarghat, in Dhaka.
From Sadarghat, you can visit the boatyards on the other side of the river.
I also went to the Sundarbans in southwestern Bangladesh, which is home to a variety of wildlife, as well as the Bengali Tiger. I didn’t see any animals, as I was photographing a different story there, but there are many tours available.
Also, make sure you take a boat ride. There are overnight boats that can take you South, as well as to Chittagong. I personally enjoyed the overnight ride on the boat, as it was a quiet break from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka.
Other friends of mine have visited tea farming areas near Sylhet. You can ride a train there, and this in itself is a fantastic photographic opportunity. If you’ve ever heard people speak of Myanmar’s interesting train rides, Bangladesh is all the more interesting.
All in all, I would suggest doing your own research about areas in Bangladesh to visit, but you can also consider making Dhaka a side-trip in your India travels. Being a majority Muslim country, Bangladesh will have a slightly different feel than India.
In recent years, there have been increased occurrences of terrorist activity, in some cases targeting foreigners. These were mostly concentrated in the diplomatic areas on people who reside in the country. Most likely they had been targeted beforehand, and such incidences are rare. If you keep a low profile, you will probably be ok. Just keep your head up and don’t tell people where you are staying unless you know them. (People will ask! Every time I met someone on the streets, they asked me where I was staying.) I do not want to promote fear by writing this, but I think it is only fair that I state it. That said, such incidences can occur anywhere, and I do not believe your risk increases by being in a country like Bangladesh.
Caught in the rythym of daily life in Dhaka, pedestrians walk past a rickshaw driver taking a break from the bouncy roads and traffic. Taken from inside a CNG.
One thing you will notice, is that as a foreigner, you attract a huge amount of attention. People will want to talk to you and ask you questions because they are interested in you. Be prepared for this. There may be times when you have a group of people surrounding you. I would be as cordial as possible, and politely answer their questions. I met some amazing people on the street this way, and some even took me around their neighborhoods where they showed me some interesting things. On the other hand, if this makes you feel nervous and you aren’t the social type, Bangladesh may not be for you. It will be impossible as a foreigner to avoid such situations.
It isn’t common for people to rob foreigners, but like anywhere be careful. I sometimes walked around with two camera bodies and I was ok. People in Bangladesh are mostly honest and hard working people, who are kind to outsiders.
When eating, make sure to dine in places that are clean. Stay away from street food, unless a Bangladeshi friend gives you the go ahead. Even then, you may get sick here. I sure did, and couldn’t leave where I was staying for five days. The fact is, that the food sanitation is quite poor. Sometimes, dishes are washed in a bucket of water that is probably not sanitary. Food is often served at room temperature which can lead to many interesting bacteria developing on it. After my stomach problems, I had food microwaved until it was very hot to try and avoid those unfriendly bacteria.
The most dangerous thing in this country is definitely traffic. Riding atop trishaws, the bicycle taxis, is definitely not safe, even though it is a great experience. The chances of being killed or injured in an accident are higher than anything else I’d assume; I even saw about three accidents in Dhaka during my time there. My advice is to have some travel insurance and hold on tight. Trishaws are for short hauls, but CNGs are for longer rides. You will notice that CNGs are green, makeshift cars that look like cages. They also have regular taxis if you don’t mind spending the extra cash.
A CNG driver is pictured through the mirror in Gulshan, Dhaka.
A young girl rides a Ferris wheel with others in a weekend carnival in Kamrangirchar slum, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
There was mixed information about how the visa process worked, but I did find out that I could go in on a tourist visa. The cost was not clear on this; I saw on internet forums that it cost about $150 USD, but upon arriving it was only $50. In the airport there were no pens to fill out the visa forms, but a docent was there willing to help on the condition you give him money. I ended up borrowing a pen from a Chinese traveler, surprised that this type of shake down could happen in an airport. This first impression was contrary to the country outside the airport doors. I rarely had people trying to swindle or cheat me because of being a foreigner.
Stuff to eat and rides around town are cheap, but expect to pay about $40 USD per night for mid-range accommodation. I stayed in a pretty drab hotel for $20 USD per night, but it was not in the least bit comfortable. You can also find Air Bnbs for decent prices.
For ATMs, there are plenty. I usually had good luck with BRAC Bank ATMs.
You can get cheap cell phone service directly upon arrival in the airport.
As always, traveling is your own choice, be careful doing it, and have fun! Let me know if you have any other questions about Bangladesh and I can do my best to help.