As near to out-of-this-world as only a few habited places on this earth are, Bangladesh challenges the visitor to find fulfillment despite excessive population density, national poverty, and robust environmental extremes. The rewards for those who take on such a challenge, though, are unique and intriguing insights into the rich regional Bengali culture and the current state of South Asian and global society.
One of the younger countries in the world, Bangladesh attained its independence from Pakistan in 1972. Dwarfed and almost engulfed by neighboring India, the country is on the very edge of South Asia, adjacent to Burma (Myanmar) to the east. Bangladesh is situated at the confluence and delta of three great rivers–the Ganges (Padma), Meghna, and Brahmaputra (Jamuna)–that together drain most of the Himalayan snowmelt, and this is the defining geographical feature of the nation.
Population density is extreme countrywide: more than half the population of the United States lives in a land area smaller than many American states. The gross national product is heavily subsidized with foreign aid, and the average annual income is less than US$200.
War with, and independence from, Pakistan in the early 1970’s represents the dominant intracontinental political struggle of the past half-century, in which Bengalis established themselves as a distinctive ethnic group. The Cold War passed over the limited economic and military power of the region, but did align Bangladesh as an American aid recipient and potential ally.
Honored and nurtured, ancient and venerable prayer stupas and Bodhi trees scattered across the country represent the roots of the thousands-of-years-old Bengali culture. Cultural wealth was at a high point half a millennium ago, when ports on the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers traded wares from the interior of the Indian subcontinent with Africa and beyond. Isolated, crumbling palaces on the Ganges floodplain, and the cazbah walls surrounding urban areas, bear evidence of this prior cultural renaissance. Impacts of later colonization by the British are conspicuous: tea plantations continue to operate, and the colonial-era railway system is still the most dependable form of transport. The modern paradigm of globalization is hard on the indebted nation with its sparse infrastructure and high propensity for natural disasters. Although not a major economy of the world, Bangladeshis contribute heavily to the development of the global petroleum industry and also to United Nations armies.
Traveling in Bangladesh
Division of the Indian subcontinent 1948-50 established the current ethnic distribution, which, in Bangladesh, is approximately 88% Muslim, 11% Hindu, and 1% Christian. Politically, Bengalis tend to be moderately conservative, and the country does not suffer from ethnic and political tension so common in that region. Consideration of local customs, especially those regarding gender and religious roles, is recommended to those who wish to minimize their travel impact.
Although a high percentage of Bengalis know some English, actually communicating in English can only be done reliably in urban areas. The native language is Bangla, which has roots in the region and Arabic.
Iconic architecture is a highlight of the capital city–Dhaka–as are the high-density urban amazements such as markets and busy intersections. However, the pollution in any Bangladeshi urban area is powerful and pervasive, and includes trash and garbage as well as open sewers, noise, and vehicle exhaust.
Rural Bangladesh lies in seemingly stagnant transition between the 18th and the 21st centuries, a condition that has fallen upon much of the resource-poor postcolonial world. There are few wilderness or natural conservation areas, with the major exception of the Sundarbans in southwestern Bangladesh, where the graceful Bengal Tiger roams among immense coastal forests and mangroves. Rural villages tend to be well kept and productive, and people are inviting and interactive. To sit and have cha, a sweet creamy tea, and make conversation is the essence of traveling in Land of Bengal.
Bangladesh visas are valid for six months from the date of issue and are good for stays of one or three months.
Health concerns include cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, malaria and meningococcal meningitis. Consult your physician before visiting Bangladesh, and be aware of shots or medication that should be taken in advance of your trip.
Weather in Bangladesh
Monsoons from the Indian Ocean contribute to annual flooding, and the land area of Bangladesh reduces by about one-third each year from August to October. The best time to visit is from October to February–the cold season , when the weather is drier. Springtime in Bangladesh–roughly around April–can be very uncomfortable, with extreme heat and humidity.
People’s Republic of Bangladesh
129 million (est.)
55,598 sq mi (143,998 sq km)
Dhaka (pop: 8.5 million)
98% Bengali, 250,000 Bihari, tribals less than 1 million
88.3% Islam, 10.5% Hindu, 1.2% other
Jute manufacturing, cotton textiles, food processing, steel, fertilizer, rice, jute, tea, wheat, sugarcane, potatoes, beef, milk, poultry