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|Introduction to Bangladesh
Hiding behind the evening-news images of cyclones and floods is a lush land with a rich history. Visit archaeological sites dating back over 2000 years, check out the longest beach and the largest littoral mangrove forest in the world, and see the decaying mansions of 19th-century maharajas.
Despite being the world's most crowded country, rural Bangladesh feels relaxed, spacious and friendly: travellers from India have been agreeably surprised to find border officials offering them cups of tea rather than reams of forms to fill in.
Facilities are limited but, if you have an independent streak, it's definitely worth avoiding the crowds heading to India and Nepal and following the old slogan of Bangladesh's tourist body: 'Come to Bangladesh before the tourists'.
Travellers are advised to avoid travelling to the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, site of ongoing civil unrest.
Monsoon season in Bangladesh leads to annual floods that can often be devastating. Check with government travel advisories before departure.
Full country name: People's Republic of Bangladesh
Area: 143,998 sq km
Population: 138.44 million
Capital City: Dhaka
People: 98% Bengali, 250,000 Bihari, tribals less than 1 million
Language: Bengali, English
Religion: 83% Islam, 16% Hindu
Government: parliamentary democracy
GDP: US$175.5 billion
GDP per capita: US$1,380
Annual Growth: 4%
Major Industries: Jute manufacturing, cotton textiles, food processing, steel, fertilizer, rice, jute, tea, wheat, sugarcane, potatoes, beef, milk, poultry
Major Trading Partners: Western Europe, US, Hong Kong, Japan, India, China, Singapore
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Visas: Bangladesh visas are valid for six months from the date of issue and are good for stays of one or three months.
Health risks: cholera, hepatitis, malaria, meningococcal meningitis
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +6
Dialling Code: 880
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Muslim festivals follow a lunar calendar. Ramadan is a month-long period of fasting. The date changes with the moon, and moves on about 11 days with each year that passes. At the full moon 14 days before the start of Ramadan, Shab-e-Barat is a sacred night when alms and sweets are distributed to the poor. Hindu festivals follow a different calendar but they generally fall on much the same date each year. The Holi Festival or Festival of Colours, commonly known as the spring festival, is celebrated in the first week of March. Durga Puja is celebrated during October, and statues of the goddess astride a lion, with her ten hands holding ten different weapons, are placed in every Hindu temple.
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|Best time to Visit
The best time to visit Bangladesh is in the cold season, from October to February, when the weather is dry and fresh. Avoid April when humidity and heat gang up to make conditions intolerable.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Bangladesh is a very cheap country to travel if you're prepared to travel on a budget, but the quality of budget food, accommodation and travel is low. It's possible to average US$4 a day if you go 2nd class on trains, travel on local buses, stay in the cheapest of hotels with shared bathroom and no air-con and eat at the very cheapest restaurants. If you want to escape nerve-shattering buses and reduce your risk of stomach bugs, US$10-15 a day will get you a decent hotel room with its own bathroom, a couple of good meals a day and first-class train travel. If you want to spend big, it's possible, but there isn't a huge range of top-end accommodation or restaurants outside Dhaka.
Cash and travellers cheques in US dollars are preferred by banks to British pounds. Outside Dhaka and Chittagong you'll have problems changing pounds. Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in Dhaka and Chittagong, but virtually nowhere else. Amex users can get a cash advance with their card.
A tip, or baksheesh, seems to be demanded in almost every exchange, except in the more isolated rural areas. In restaurants, Bangladeshis almost never tip, but waiters may expect a 5% tip in Dhaka restaurants frequented by foreigners. Most transactions require bargaining, which is considered a normal part of life in Bangladesh. A rule of thumb is to offer about half the original price and work up. It's worth remembering that a few extra taka are likely to help your bargaining adversary more than they'll hurt you.
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The intriguing capital city of Bangladesh sits on the north bank of the bustling Buriganga River, roughly in the centre of the country. The oldest section of the city runs along the north bank of the waterfront and was developed when Dhaka was a significant Moghul trading centre.
Dhaka's premier attraction is Lalbagh Fort, an unfinished fort dating from 1678 located in the Old City. The National Museum is north of the Old City in the old European zone known as Modern City. It has fascinating displays of Bangladesh's Hindu, Buddhist and Moghul past, art and handicrafts.
The second largest city in Bangladesh sits on the bank of the Karnapuli River and has an interesting old waterfront area known as Sadarghat that reflects the importance of river trade to the city's growth. Nearby is the old Portuguese enclave of Paterghatta which remains mostly Christian.
The Shahi Jama-e-Masjid and Qadam Mubarak Mosque are two of the most impressive buildings in the city. The Ethnological Museum, in the Modern City, has interesting displays on Bangladesh's tribal peoples, while Fairy Hill in the northwestern part of the city offers good views and cooling breezes.
Bangladesh's only beach resort is near the Myanmar border in an area where Rohingya refugees have settled to escape persecution in Myanmar. It has a Burmese Buddhist flavour and ever increasing amenities to service the visitors attracted by its enormous expanse of shark-free beach.
Even modestly clad bathers, especially females, should expect to be gawked at by locals. South of Cox's Bazar are more secluded beaches such as Himacheri and Inani where having a swim can still be a private experience. Note that the beaches are not considered entirely safe at night.
Famous as an important centre of Buddhist culture from the 7th to 12th centuries, the buildings excavated here were made wholly of baked bricks. There are more than 50 scattered Buddhist sites, but the three most important are Salban Vihara, Kotila Mura and Charpatra Mura.
Salban Vihara was a well-planned, 170 sq m (182 sq ft) monastery facing a temple in the centre of the courtyard. Nearby is a museum housing the finds excavated here, which include terracotta plaques, bronze statues, a bronze casket, coins, jewellery and votive stupas embossed with Buddhist inscriptions.
Kotila Mura comprises three large stupas representing Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the 'Three Jewels of Buddhism'. The most important discovery at Charpatra Mura were four royal copper-plate decrees, three belonging to Chandra rulers, the other to Sri Viradhara Deva, a later Hindu king.
Note that some of the major ruins are within a military cantonment and cannot be visited without permission from military officers.
The 8th-century Somapuri Vihara at Paharpur was formerly the biggest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalaya. It's by far the most impressive archaeological site in Bangladesh, and covers some 11 hectares (27 acres).
Although in an advanced state of decay, the overall plan of the temple complex is easy to figure out and includes a large quadrangle with the monks' cells forming the walls and enclosing a courtyard. From the centre of the courtyard rises the 20m (66ft) high remains of a stupa which dominates the surrounding countryside.
The monastery's recessed walls are embellished with well-preserved terracotta bas-reliefs, and a small museum houses a representative display of the domestic and religious objects found during excavations.
Sundarbans National Park
The Sundarbans are the largest littoral mangrove belt in the world, stretching 80km (50mi) into the Bangladeshi hinterland from the coast. The forests aren't just mangrove swamps though, they include some of the last remaining stands of the mighty jungles which once covered the Gangetic plain.
The Sundarbans cover an area of 38,500 sq km (14,865 sq mi), of which about one-third is covered in water. Since 1966 the Sundarbans have been a wildlife sanctuary, and it is estimated that there are now 400 Royal Bengal tigers and about 30,000 spotted deer in the area. The park is also home to sea gypsy fishing families who catch fish using trained otters. To see this pristine environment, you need to get a permit from the Divisional Forest Office in Khulna. With permit in hand, it's possible to hire a boat from Mongla or Dhangmari to get you to Hiron Point. From Hiron Point you will have to hire a guide to take you into the park.
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