D for Dhaka [17 – 20 Feb 2012]
Shahjalal International Airport had a distinct South Asian feel, not dissimilar to New Delhi’s old T1. It was opened in 1981, the same year as Changi but it appeared that things had stayed pretty stagnant ever since.
There were only two counters for foreign passport holders but luckily I was only second in line. The immigration officer asked me for my occupation but couldn’t comprehend my answer (“civil servant”). I was still let through though.
After the immigration were some moneychangers but I didn’t have any use of them yet. Wanted to use the toilet but there weren’t any toilet paper and it reeked of urine. Decided that I would best wait till my hotel room.
Unlike India where touts descended upon the newly arrived tourists as they came out of the restricted area, I needed to find the taxi company to get a ride to the airport. I was quoted 1000 BDT, quite a bit more than I expected but decided to go with it since it was close to 11pm already.
I was thinking of a nice limousine considering the price that I paid but it turned out to be an old and battered Toyota. The driver hardly spoke any English so there were little interaction between me and him.
He went around the neighborhood of my hotel a few times and asked a few people before locating it. He asked for some baksheesh but received nothing from me since I only had 500 BDT notes and had overpaid for the ride anyway.
Accommodation: Tropical Daisy
The receptionist was expecting me since I was probably the last person to check in for the day. I was invited to sit down and a welcome drink (mango juice) was served while he processed my booking.
There was an American man in the lobby with two of his Bangladeshi friends. Apparently he wanted to stay in the hotel but didn’t want to pay the walk-in rate (US$70). I didn’t know how it was resolved in the end but I didn’t see him again during my stay.
One of the staff brought me to my room and my initial thought was “I had gotten more value for less money”. Perhaps it was unfair to compare between Dhaka and other places but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling.
The building which Tropical Daisy was located was not meant to be used as hotel but for residential purposes. My room 404 was a large room with a double bed and balcony. It was quite dimly lit and mosquitoes were flying around when I entered. The staff offered and brought the insecticide later. Surprisingly I wasn’t bitten at all during my stay there.
As the hotel was converted from apartments, there were a living room and a kitchen outside my room.
I wouldn’t be dying to go back but it was my oasis in the chaos of Dhaka. I paid US$144 for three nights; not particularly cheap but it came with breakfasts delivered to the room. There was also free WiFi which kept me connected to rest of the world.
The area that I was staying is Gulshan, one of the swankiest neighborhood of Dhaka.
Most probably one couldn’t tell how high-end it was from my pictures but the neighborhood did have some nice apartments and fancy restaurants.
Lalbagh Fort is Bangladesh’s premier tourist attraction (entrance fee: 100 BDT) and was in fact one of the pit-stops for Amazing Race some years back. I was imagining it to be of similar grandeur of Agra Fort but it turned out to be kind of underwhelming.
Considering how crowded everywhere else was in Dhaka, the Fort did make a good place for couples on a quiet date.
While I was there I happened to run into a movie set.
Okay I made up the last one. I had no idea who he was but I guessed he must be someone famous in Bangladesh.
Liberation War Museum
The next place which I visited was Liberation War Museum (entrance fee: 5 BDT). I thought it was a good place to learn about the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War although I couldn’t help but wonder what the Pakistanis would say in their defense.
Bangladesh National Museum
I made it to the Bangladesh National Museum (entrance fee: 75 BDT) the next day and spent a few hours inside there. Surely there were plenty of things inside the museum but the presentation didn’t feel well-curated. The most interesting exhibits to me were the ones on the Liberation War. The section featured quite heavily on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman but one would never know that he was assassinated four years after leading Bangladesh to independence from the exhibits at the museum. I had to read it up on Wikipedia after returning to the hotel.
No trip to Bangladesh is complete without going to Old Dhaka. It is South Asia at the rawest and energy’s bursting at every corner.
Other random sights
My first meal was at California Fried Chicken, located somewhere in Gulshan. I needed to break my 500 BDT note so I just randomly picked a place for lunch. Most of the items on the menu were unavailable and the meal which I got wasn’t impressive. The chicken pieces were quite small and the Pepsi was not exactly chilled.
I had chicken briyani for dinner the first night. It was at a random eating place along Topkhana Road in Segun Bagicha neighborhood (where Liberation War Museum was).
Like CFC earlier in the day, the piece of chicken was pathetically small. There were too much rice which I couldn’t finish. It was an okay meal but I thought 200 BDT for such a meal would be quite expensive for a local.
I didn’t have lunch on Sunday since I had a late breakfast. The only meal I had was the 75 BDT fried noodles for dinner at Gulshan Plaza restaurant.
Fried noodles was nothing special but it did taste good after a long day of walking.
I mainly relied on autorickshaws to get me from my hotel in Gulshan to the attractions in Central Dhaka. Most of the autorickshaw drivers hardly understood any English and my Bengali is probably at a worse level. They were also mostly clueless about the exact location that I intended to go and we usually ended up having to ask several people before locating my destinations. I had to agree on a price before hand since none were willing to use meter and most would ask for baksheesh at the end. I found it hard to refuse them (usually 50 BDT) considering how much time and effort that they spent transporting me around the city. Despite the baksheesh, I found most of them generally more honest than their Indian counterparts across the border.
The public buses on the roads were often battered, overcrowded and felt like death traps. I wondered how the hell are those relics still on the roads…
Dhaka is also famous for its many colorful rickshaws (the pedal kind) and I took a ride on one of them between Lalbagh Fort and Liberation War Museum. Most of the rickshaw-wallahs operated in the vicinity of their bases and were hopeless in the other neighborhoods. These rickshaw-wallahs probably lead pretty hard lives considering how little the fares are and there are so much competition for business.
The traffic of Dhaka was really bad, especially on weekdays. Most of my trips to and from Gulshan would take at least an hour; a trip of about 15km between Old Dhaka and Gulshan took me one and a half hour in an autorickshaw. I realized inefficient signalling at junctions contributed hugely to the jams. The roads ahead could be free of cars but the vehicles behind the junction could stretch a few hundred meters. Dhaka could certainly do better to alleviate the traffic problems.
After checking out, I walked to Gulshan-2 to catch an autorickshaw to the airport. The first guy quoted me 1000 BDT but the second one asked for a more reasonable 150 BDT. On the way to the airport I witnessed an minor accident when a truck drove into a ditch.
We didn’t stay till it was resolved. The driver stopped on the way to top up CNG and asked me to pay for the fare first. Knowing better, I ignored his request and paid him only after arriving at DAC Terminal 1.