Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s one of the most polluted, and it’s a regular on the lists of top 10 worst cities for traffic. It’s no surprise that it receives few visitors.
I knew that there had to be more to it than that, and as an avid urban explorer I was looking forward to visiting Dhaka to see what I could find. When I arrived I knew that I was going to love it.
Initially it reminded me of India, which is not surprising as 71 years ago it was India. My first impression was “like India, without holy cows”. A more accurate description is that as Bengalis Dhaka has more in common with Kolkata, where Bengali is also the official language.
After checking in I went out for a walk to find something to eat and familiarise myself with the neighbourhood. I was staying near the old city, but I had no idea where I was. Once I started walking I was enticed by one side street after another.
I soon found a tea vendor which was to become a liquid staple during my visit. A cup of hot milky sugary tea is Tk10 ($0.12).
Points of interest in Dhaka
It soon became apparent that the city was too big to wander without some sort of plan. At the hotel they didn’t have any maps, nor did I find any maps anywhere in the city. Instead they were selling bootleg copies of the Bangladesh Lonely Planet. I rarely buy the copied version as the maps are terrible, so I do not endorse this if you are reading, good people of Lonely Planet. The book was years out of date, though that doesn’t matter when you are just reading it for the things to see and do. I also like the Lonely Planet for the condensed history at the start of the book.
I picked out all the recommended points of interest in the old city area and starred these in Google Maps. From my hotel I then had a path I could follow to these main points.
My first port of call was the Mausoleum Of Three Leaders.
From there I wound my way through the streets to the Dhakeshwari Mandir, which is the primary Hindu temple in Bangladesh.
I got to Lalbagh Fort, which was the only place I paid admission to enter. There was not much here, though the open garden space is a nice respite from the crowds. It was here that I realised that I just preferred to walk around the streets, drinking lots of tea on the way while meeting interesting people.
I still kept walking to each starred location to give me direction. It was the things that I saw on the way that made the trip. If there is a market I can’t help but walk through them.
And I find markets on the side of the road as interesting as any museum.
I like to find beauty where ever I go, such as this old tree standing by itself.
Or an old barber shop with hand-painted signs.
I always go to supermarkets and malls in foreign countries as well, as you never know what you will see. I stopped in at the only supermarket I found in my wanders, and saw a random live turkey for sale.
By now I was well and truly in deepest Old Dhaka. Here the roads become narrower and the traffic even more chaotic. The old city of Dhaka is truly a spectacle to see.
When I was booking accommodation I thought it would be wise to book in the old city to be close to the action. I couldn’t find anywhere to stay though, which turned out to be a good thing. There is no way you could stay in the old city without getting lost or losing your mind.
My highlights map included temples, mosques, and churches. I saw that there was an Armenian Church, which there always seems to be an Armenian church in far-flung Asian trading cities. Sure enough there is a web page dedicated to Armenian churches in Asia.
There are some old historic buildings here and there. Most of the interesting old buildings were covered in advertising and wiring, and too hard to get a photo. Like many other places in the world, Dhaka is struggling to save its historic buildings from developers.
I thought Bangkok and Saigon had a crazy wiring game. Mere amateurs compared this this city!
I knew that Dhaka had bad traffic, so I was braced for the worst when I arrived. Coming from the airport was like many other cities in Asia without a public transport system, but I got to my hotel with an hour.
The traffic of legend can be found in the narrow old city streets, where the traffic slows to a crawl.
Dhaka is filled with old cycle rickshaws, of which there are thousands on the road. Apparently there are 1.1 million rickshaws in the city, which I would have said was unbelievable if I had not been here myself.
Market goods in the old city are carried by rickshaw or balanced on top of heads.
If there is no traffic, people will fill in the space.
I would have guessed that I could have walked faster through the market streets past the rickshaws. At times though I found myself stuck in the traffic, unable to get past the jam of rickshaws parked wheel-to-wheel on the road.
From the main artery of Mitford Road I eventually escaped the maze that is the old city and made my way to the riverfront. From the bridge the river appeared to be black, which thought was a trick of the light of the midday sun. No, this is a dead river that is black from pollution.
There is so much activity on the river that I could have spent a day just taking it all in. Bangladesh is a nation of rivers, and I left the riverbank realising that I won’t get to see a more natural representation of a Bangladesh river system on this trip.
The amateur town planner
On my first trip to India in 2007 I discovered that my calling for life should have been town planning. I’m too deep into the web business now to consider going back to school, so I’m more of an amateur town planner and infrastructurist. Like in India, road works here are often left half finished. A ditch is dug on the side of the road, and then a big pile of dirt is left behind. Dust is everywhere here, and shop keepers are seen continually sweeping the front of their store in a futile attempt to keep the dust down.
There is rubbish everywhere you go as well, often as giant piles of refuse.
This road won the award for the greatest feat of wiring I’ve ever seen.
Refuge in a green space
To escape the urban mayhem I visited Ramna Park, the green heart of Dhaka.
The park used to have a racecourse in it during the time of the British, which gives you an idea of the size of the park. There is a lake, plenty of trees, and wherever there is an open space you’ll most likely find a group playing cricket.
A time capsule of a city with no chain stores
One of the remarkable things about the old city is that there are no chains or famous brand shops. For better or worse I saw few international brands during my wanders. I know people bemoan Starbucks and McDonalds being everywhere, but it is usually a sign of prosperity. It turns out that that the international stores are in the newer northern suburbs of the city.
It was fascinating to walk around in the old part of a capital city and see no signs of the global retail world. I did did miss fuelling up on coffee though, and I also became acutely aware that if I needed to go to the toilet in I might be in trouble to find a convenient bathroom.
I also went to a mall in my visit, which was basically the same sort of shops that are in the old city bazaar, in a mall setting. This might the the future for traders if the powers that be decide to clear out parts of the old city. The mall had a few brands that made me look twice, such as JC Peney.
And a version of UNIQLO.
The good news for the residents of Dhaka (and for the future prosperity of the city) is that a metro system is being built. The construction of the first metro line is visible when driving from the airport, though like the new Saigon metro the progress has been slow.
Is Dhaka safe?
I got asked if Dhaka is safe, and got comments saying that security was too much of an issue to consider going. I’m not your father, and I’m not a security expert, so now that disclaimer is out of the way I will say that I felt completely safe in the old city. I’ve felt more unsafe in American cities than in Dhaka. That is not to say there isn’t security issues here. My take is that the incidents you read about in the news tend to be of known foreigners in foreigner enclaves. My hotel had security staff with a metal detector, and the cinema and mall I went to also had metal detectors. I never felt threatened, and there is no hotel tout or other travel scam business here because there is no tourism. I felt more overwhelmed by the amount of selfie requests I got than anything else.
Where to stay in Dhaka
Seeing I was only here for a few days I figured I should stay close to Old Dhaka. I stayed at Hotel 71, which turned out to be ideal. It’s near the old city without being in it, it’s on a main road so it wasn’t a hassle for a taxi to get to from the airport, and it is near the main train station.
Another option is if you are flying in and out of Dhaka is to stay near the old city first, then end at Gulshan on the way out.
Gulshan is an well-to-do neighbourhood in the northern suburbs of Dhaka. It’s a residential area with shopping centres and international brands, and most of the embassies can be found here. I feel like I would of got a better representation of what living in Dhaka would be like if I went here. I even had a cafe marked out to visit, as there were literally no cafes in the old city.
Great report James – yes, i was wondering about the security aspect. Great (in my opinion) not to see maccas / starbucks etc – as you point out though, its a statement of the poverty, sadly.
James Clark says
Wow! this place looks chaotic yet fantastic. Great to learn about the security thing. Loved the blog and the pictures.
James Clark says
Thanks Simon, glad you enjoyed.
Pierre Gosselin says
Is it OK to walk around with your wife? Do foreign women have to dress with head scarf and long dress? I lived for 3 years in Saudi Arabia and it was not always fun to walk with your wife.
Thanks for the info
James Clark says
It wouldn’t be comparable to KSA, but I wouldn’t be able to make a judgement of a woman’s experience. I would ask Dan and Audrey as they are a married couple who visited Dhaka and Bangladesh https://uncorneredmarket.com/bangladesh-travel/
The clothing “rules” in Bangladesh are quite minor compared with Saudi Arabia or Iran. No required headscarf or long dress. We spent five weeks traveling around the country and I usually walked around in long trousers (e.g., travel pants) and a short sleeve shirt or 3/4 sleeve shirt. Just be sure to cover shoulders and no shorts or skirts. As foreigners, you will get stared at a lot just because people are curious and don’t see many tourists. But, I didn’t have the same sort of touching or physical harassment as I had in some places in India. Hope this info helps!
Audrey (from Uncornered Market)
Pierre Gosselin says
What an amazing place Bangladesh seems to be like. Thanks for sharing even the minute details. Cheers!
Great! 100% true report. Thank you very much James.