Formed originally as the Islamic Republic of East Pakistan in the dying days of Britain’s direct control over the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh came to be after separating from its union with Pakistan (then West Pakistan) in 1971. This touched off a nine month long civil war within the nation, but with a largely coherent self-identity, the secessionist forces proved to be the victors in the end, giving us this unique low lying country that we know today. Indeed, before the British had governed the area in the previous century, the Bangladeshis have had a unique culture and history going back thousands of years into the past, giving them the will to fight against those who sought to keep them within an arrangement that was not consistent with the autonomy that they had enjoyed in centuries past.
Today, Bangladesh still has a way to go with regards to their readily apparent wealth gap, which will be noticed immediately to those coming from Southeast Asia. The locals don’t let their humble lot in life get them down though, as they will be quite happy and excited to see foreign guests in their country, flashing some of the most brilliant smiles you will see on your journey throughout Southeast Asia.
Being located north of most of Southeast Asia, the climate is more varied and cooler on balance than Southeast Asia, highly dependent on elevation and latitude. This gives the country six discernible seasons, from the chill of winter in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where the overnight lows can dip into the single digits (8-9 degrees Celsius), to the oppressive heat and humidity of summer, where temperatures routinely soar above 40 degrees Celsius. In the future, the weather may pose a problem for this highly vulnerable nation, as the majority of land is a scant 10 metres above level, putting it straight in the crosshairs of sea level rises induced by climate change. As such, make time to see this culturally diverse nation before the ravages of global warming wreck large swathes of this special place.
Currency: Bangladeshi Taka
Languages: Bengali, English
What To Do
With the journey of most travelers starting and ending in Dhaka, let’s begin here with one of the essential sights located within one of the most crowded cities on Earth. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority nation, with 88% of inhabitants claiming it as their faith. Baitul Mukarram Mosque is the nation’s largest, and it ranks as the 10th largest in the world. Pause to stop and appreciate its peaceful fountain and reflecting pool outside, before heading inside to check out in the inner courtyard, designed to let natural light into the main prayer area. Ensure you wear respectable clothes (minimize exposed flesh), no matter how hot and humid it happens to be.
Outside the big city in the western regional centre of Bagerhat, there is another mosque in Bangladesh that’s noteworthy to foreign visitors. The name of the Shait Gumbad Mosque translates directly to English as the Sixty Dome Mosque. The architects must have not finished their grand plans before the mosque was complete, as this impressive religious house of worship actually has 77 domes. While this is a rare example of a mosque where you actually have to pay to see what is contained on the premises, it is a worthwhile expense, as the domes and interior pillar will impress even those disinterested in religious sites. This UNESCO recognized structure also has a museum on site, which will appeal to the history buffs in your party.
Before Islam spread to where Bangladesh is today, Buddhism counted among this area’s more prominent faiths. As such, there are many archeological sites related to this religious group inside the country, with the Somapuri Vihara Buddhist Monastery at Paharpur being chief among them. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, the site was likely abandoned in the 12th century as the advance of Muslim inspired invaders was clearly imminent. Though time has worn down many of the carvings and stupas, teams have been restoring many of these relics, making this site well worth a visit for those who identify strongly with Buddhism.
The natural assets of Bangladesh are no less impressive, start your tour of them at the Sundarbans, a series of mangrove forests stretching west along the Bay of Bengal coast towards the Indian border. Ranking as yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sundarbans contain a wide variety of wildlife, including over 400 Royal Bengal Tigers, so be on the lookout with your binoculars!
After one too many sweaty chicken bus rides through the Bangladeshi countryside, you’ll be ready for a beach holiday. Those looking for enjoy the seacoast while interacting simultaneously with vacationing Bengalis will want to pay a visit to Cox’s Bazar. Ranking as the longest sea beach in the world, no maddening crowds (even if they are in fact, maddening) will concern you here, as there are over 120 kilometres of unbroken yellow sand to find a tract of land to call your own, and plunk your parasol down in the name of rest and relaxation. Culture vultures will note the effect of nearby Burma on the religious makeup here, as there is a sizable minority of Buddhists here, with many temples both old and new clearly visible in the area.
If you really want to escape the crush of people on the mainland and unplug, tiny Saint Martin’s Island is the perfect answer. Weighing in at a scant 5 square kilometres at high tide, there is little else available to do here but stretch out on the white sand, watch the sun rise and set, swim, drink multiple coconuts, and eat dal and rice until your stressors wash away with the receding tide. There is only generator electricity here at night, making it a great place to plan a digital detox holiday if you need one!
What To Eat
Bangladeshi food is varied and mouth-watering, but be sure to wash your hands and use your right one to om nom your food, as this is the common accepted practice by the locals. Many places do have utensils for squeamish visitors, but some places may not, so be sure to keep the previous tip in mind as you travel.
Arguably the most popular dish in Bangladesh would be Kachi Biryani, which is a variation of the popular rice dish served through the Muslim world, with a Bangladeshi twist. Here, this rice dish is prepared with mutton as the base meat, with yoghurt serving as the marinating sauce in the pan. Potatoes are also included in the cooking, and a salad and boiled egg often accompany this delicious meal.
Morog Pulao is a special chicken dish that is well-loved by many in this country, and it’s not hard to see why given its preparation. Served with a wide variety of spices and flavouring agents (like cumin, garlic and ginger), and vegetables, it is served over rice with yoghurt and gravy, making it a special comfort that you’ll be more than happy to dig into with nothing but your bare hands!
Finally, Bhuna Khichuri, which has been compared by some to be a sort of Bangladeshi “risotto”, is a conglomeration of dal, meat and rice that households all over the country cook as a communal meal, not unlike the cooking of hamburgers and hotdogs at a backyard BBQ in North America. Slow cooked to perfection with cinnamon, cardamom, and chili peppers, served with fried potatoes, it is said that you may have a religious experience upon consumption of this dish!