Walk on water
Sadarghat Boat Terminal is the best place to witness this megacity in full swing. A jetty with hundreds of boats awaiting customers for trips to outlying towns and cities, it’s one of the largest river ports in the world. Five taka (HK$0.50) gets you a ride on one of the many boats plying across the Buriganga River (60 taka gets you the entire boat), though the real spectacle is back on the ghat where cargo and people are loaded and unloaded in a constant, furious flow – often on planks of wood precariously balanced between boats. Poverty is close; children and adults pick through the plastic of the rotting riverbanks, while back on dry land the Hawker’s Market heaves.
Shop ‘til you drop
While Bangladesh’s garment export industry is worth a staggering HK$147 billion each year, Dhaka is where the seconds and rejects remain. The hectic New Market and Banga Bazaar are good places to bargain hard, but if you’re not the type that likes to haggle – or you don’t trust yourself to judge good quality from bad – take a trip to fair trade fashion outlet Aarong (on Tejgaon Link Road in the Gulshan area). Selling everything from leather bags, rugs and shawls to sandals, saris and kurtas (traditional menswear), this air-conditioned, fixed-price place is perfect for gathering a few souvenirs.
Meet and greet over a cuppa
Though it’s technically illegal to drink alcohol in Bangladesh, a strict Muslim country this is not. Most hotels will find you either imported beers or the local brand Hunter, though the drink of choice is definitely a glass of tea. In Dhaka it’s called cha and it’s made fresh by the pot, with sugar and optional Carnation milk. Strong yet subtle, the tea leaves come from the north of Bangladesh near Assam and Darjeeling, yet are rarely exported – it’s just too popular at home.
Cha stalls are found on almost every road and shouldn’t be missed; the pouring of the tea is a performance in itself and a few wooden benches are always provided. Perfect for a chat with the locals and for watching the world go by, try the cha stall at the eastern end of Shakhari Bazaar in for a delicious Dhaka experience.
Sample the land of milk and honey
Refrigerators are not common in Bangladesh, so all milk must be fermented. That partly explains the continuing popularity of milk desserts like rasgullas and dai. Deliciously sweet boiled milk dumplings soaked in syrup, rasgullas are served up all over Dhaka. You’ll get extra kudos if you also ask for dai, a fermented yoghurt often eaten as a pudding with a rasgulla or two. Sample them at Premium Sweets (Municipal Rd) north of Sadarghat.
Bask in the fame
Bangladesh isn’t high on most people’s list of places to visit, which leaves the intrepid traveller with a colourful country of 154 million friendly, inquisitive people all to themselves. Even in Dhaka, the most cosmopolitan place by far, you’ll be treated like a celebrity almost everywhere you go.
It may be a poor country (the minimum wage for factory workers in Dhaka is HK$290 per month), but mid-range mobile phones are everywhere; if you don’t get approached at least once every 10 minutes by smiling teenagers wanting their picture taken with you, you’re doing something wrong.
View world-class architecture
If you’re expecting dilapidated factories and slums, think again. Dhaka has some striking colonial architecture, though the most surprising is the intriguing Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (National Assembly Building). Designed by legendary American architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s, it’s best viewed from Lake Road where a reflection on the surrounding moat is guaranteed. Officially you’re not allowed to take photographs, and if you ask permission from the on-site police you’ll get a firm no. However, if you just start snapping away no one says anything. There’s another good view of the rear of this exquisitely odd building about 450 metres further on.
In with the (really) old
Responsible for making Bangladesh both the most fertile and most flood-prone country on the planet, the Ganges used to flow through Dhaka. Over time the course separated from the Ganges and was renamed the Buriganga (Old Ganges). A photographer’s dream destination, this is where you’ll find the Sadarghat Boat Terminal, Mughal-era Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil, also known as the Pink Palace, but it’s the entrancing Shankhari Bazaar that’s the must-see. Known simply as Hindu Street and sandwiched between busy Islampur Road and Johnson Road, decorated brick buildings hundreds of years old have verandahs that look down on a tight network of alleyways. Home to conch shell jewellery and other crafts, Hindu temples and over 10,000 residents, this is where Hinduism flourishes in a country otherwise dominated by Islam. Just be careful of the cycle rickshaws thundering through.
Eat like a local
Bangladeshis are obsessed with dal. A simple dish of lentils and other ingredients that differ by region, but often including turmeric, garlic and chilli, it comes with almost every meal and it’s always delicious. A plate of dal, mashed potatoes, omelette and rice is considered the top choice, with one exception – bhetki, a coral fish found in Bangladesh’s many waterways, is a national fish like no other and whose price skyrockets on March 26, Independence Day. Seafood aficionados should also search out hilsa and tilapia well as chingri (king prawns) and phasha, which are fried and eaten whole. In Dhaka seafood is best sampled at the upmarket Saltz Seafood Restaurant (Gulshan North Avenue) while Haji Biryani (Kazi Alauddin Road) is famed for its meat biryani.
Go to the market
Life is lived on the streets in Dhaka, and for many animals that’s where it ends, too. Take a trip to Kawran Bazaar, a wholesale market since the 17th century in the heart of the city, where the city’s meat, fish, fruit and vegetables arrive amid a cacophony of noise. You’ll see everything from chickens being processed in front of you to mountains of cauliflowers as big as human heads. The extraordinarily productive soils mean huge vegetables and up to three harvests a year for some produce. However, once again it’s the enigmatic people that make this place unmissable; everybody wants their photo taken. Walk the sidestreets to the north and you’ll find spices, fish and textiles, too.
Surround yourself with street art
While India has its trademark black and yellow auto rickshaws, Bangladesh does transport in a lot more style – for now. Dhaka is teeming with brightly coloured cycle rickshaws – about 400,000 of them – that charge no more than 20 taka per ride.
With intricately painted images of Bollywood film stars, animals and birds on the back plates, and even on the hoods, this is folk art at its best and gives the city a unique look. Cycle rickshaws are a great way of getting around Old Dhaka’s narrow streets, but with six monorail lines paid for by Japan due to open in 2021, Dhaka’s colourful rickshaws won’t last forever; ride them while you still can.
Tigerair Singapore flies three or four times daily from Hong Kong to Dhaka with a transit in Singapore. Prices start at HK$1,874 each way, including taxes and fees.
The Ruposhi Bangla Hotel (ruposhibanglahotel.com) has rooms from HK$1,090 a night with a buffet breakfast.