“Nicky, guess where we are going in December!” my excited boyfriend exclaimed when I saw him, that summer evening at our apartment in Bangkok.
Now, between the two of us, I am the incurable travel addict (and OCD organizer) that usually plans all of our travels (hey, planning a trip is almost as much fun as going on it!). So, when I looked at his enthusiastic face, I knew it would have something to do with his foremost passion, music.
“Where?” , I asked him warily.
“Bangladesh!”, he announced excitedly.
I admit, at first I wasn’t sold on the idea! Bangladesh is a country that wasn’t on my imminent bucket list, and I had reservations concerning the safety of such a destination. But as it turned out, it would be his first time playing as a DJ in a psychedelic music gathering, and I wanted to be a part of it. We would also reconnect with some friends we had previously met in Thailand.
But what finally made me say yes, was the fact that it’s a country I knew little about, that attracted few tourists. I could experience firsthand a place I never imagined I’d visit! On top of that, I would have fun at the 3-day music event, set in a beautiful rural area of Bangladesh, Sree Mongol. Gradually the idea won me over and as the 7th of December approached, I got more and more excited.
First impressions of Bangladesh
The plane landed with a 2 hours delay in chaotic Dhaka, at 11 pm. Going through the Visa on Arrival procedures wasn’t eventful, and everyone was helpful at the airport. We both got a 50 dollars tourist visa, reclaimed our backpack, exchanged some dollars to the local currency, taka, and headed out to look for our shuttle service from the hotel we had booked for the night.
And there’s my first shock! A sea of locals are flocking the area behind the bars that enclose the entrance to the airport. Several policemen with big guns are strolling around, and occasionally beat on the local tuk tuks with clubs, to move along. These three-wheeler tuk tuks, called CNGs but renamed to “prisoner cages”, are encased in bars; a rather depressing image but necessary considering the traffic in the capital.
As we are waiting for our shuttle to find us after multiple phone calls, holding on our belongings tightly, we get subjected to the first intense staring from the locals. They don’t see many tourists, so they stare openly at every opportunity to set curious eyes on foreigner specimens such as ourselves.
I should add that there wasn’t a need to be mindful about dressing modestly in this Muslim country, since winter in Bangladesh is chilly at nights. And outright cold in the northeast of the country where we headed the next day.
Finally, we get in our taxi and after a 20 minute ride, we were in our hotel in what our friends told us was the posh area of Dhaka, Gulshan.
Train station in Dhaka
Next morning, after our first taste of Bangladeshi food at the hotel’s breakfast, we meet with our local friend Jesus in the train station. This is located across the airport, and so far we haven’t had any taste of the heavy traffic in Dhaka… oh boy, would we experience its full glory later on! But we notice with interest the ancient buses in the streets, the constant honking, the cyclos (small bicycle carriages pulled by a pedaling driver) and the colorful trucks.
Everybody who knows me, is aware of how much I absolutely love train journeys! Well, the train stations in Bangladesh are the most interesting I’ve been so far. Not only because the buildings have this worn out look and the trains themselves are old. But because of the people! Children would beg for some money and grab on our pants and would reluctantly let go, after being shooed away or dragged by the ear by older locals. And as we are the only foreigners present, Bangladeshi people in a radius of 1 km would form a circle around us and stare continuously without being phased if we return the stares.
I actually felt like a rock star! This is how celebrities must feel, minus the request for an autograph.
“Can I take a picture of them?”, I ask our friend Jesus.
“Sure, no need to even ask, you are the boss here and you make the calls”, he replies.
Later he asks me how I find Dhaka and Bangladesh so far.
“I like it!”, I reply. He looks at me dubiously, so I explain:
“I love traveling, and I love new experiences and getting off the beaten track and out of my comfort zone.”
Train journey to Sree Mongol
The train leaves on time, and the sight of some people actually riding on the roof of some trains is admirable!
“You should see how the roofs are swarmed with people during Islamic holidays. You can’t see any uncovered part of the trains”, Jesus informs us.
The 5 hour journey to our rural destination is pleasant, with peddlers hopping on and off to sell their fares. Some local “lady-boys” stopping by every male’s seat and demanding money, or else they will start fondling their victims and harass them. They are quite persistent and scary! Not your typical Thai lady-boys, these ones! Out of some superstitious belief, most men hand them a 20 taka note. My amused boyfriend obliges and they move on their way.
Between discussions and munching on snacks, the rest of the time passes gazing at the landscape out of the window. It’s dotted with green fields, small towns, children playing among the rail tracks and drivers going on their business on overloaded vehicles.
Beautiful Sree Mongol
Finally we arrive at the town of Sree Mongol just after sunset. Market stalls on the streets, cows and goats, a colorful assortment of cyclos. We are driven to the amazing Hermitage guesthouse , run by Jesus’ lovely mother who supplies us with wonderful homemade food for the next 3 days! After settling in our room, we go and meet with our friends and other new people who are writing history: they organize the first psychedelic event in Bangladesh ever!
We explore around and help a little bit, setting up decorations and just chilling. Alcohol is illegal for Muslim Bangladeshis and we learn that the punishment for getting caught with it is severe. However, foreigners don’t face such restrictions. It’s just difficult to get their hands on it.
The next 2 days passed very quickly, with non-stop music, dancing and hanging out with amazing people in the beautiful area where the guesthouses’s cottages are located. Breathing fresh air, interacting with the not so shy kids, watching the cows and goats mingling with humans in the streets. During daytime it was hot, but we were freezing after sunset! We also enjoyed a walk in the countryside following the stream, the scenery is beautiful! I wish we had more time to wander in this area.
Back to Bangkok
On our last day back to Dhaka, our flight was leaving at 10 pm. Therefore, we wake up late but confident that we can still hit the sights in the Old City. As merry, little (and naive) tourists, we get in a taxi – with a meter, at least – and set off on what ended up to be a 6 hour drive… In the taxi. I kid you not, 6 hours! The traffic is the worst I’ve ever been in. The streets in the Old City are narrow and packed with people and cyclos. So we often get stuck, sometimes for 15-20 minutes. (“Road. Problem.” The driver keeps repeating while turning off the engine and preparing for the long waits.)
Wait for it…
And before reaching our first destination, we realize it’s too late and we need to head back to the hotel, pick up our luggage and rush to the airport. More traffic on the way back… My boyfriend remained calm, while I confess I cried a little with frustration. I did want to do some sight-seeing!
After the anxiety of the final 2 hours of the longest taxi ride ever, we get to the airport without missing the flight, yay! In retrospect, I can only laugh about my naivety. Imprinted on my memory are the good times, the fun we had, the cultural shocks, the nice people, the amazing homemade food and the beautiful nature.
Bangladesh, I think we will return!
For a sneak peek into this aptly named, amazing “psychedelic music and arts” event, set in this beautiful part of the country filled with eco-resorts, tea plantations and forests, stay tuned for an upcoming post!
For more photos, check the album in my Facebook page 😉
Which is the most intense developing country you’ve visited? Would you travel to Bangladesh?
Let me know in the comments!