Off the beaten track in Bangladesh

Posted by James Anderton on August 24, 2018


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Bangladesh is somewhat of an unknown quantity in terms of bike touring. Few cyclists venture here. My brief research was not promising. There are no mountains, it is hot and has one of the highest population densities in the world. None of which points to great cycling. I decided to head there nonetheless. The promise of sampling a country largely untouched by tourism is always enticing and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Even some of the cycling was excellent.

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Back roads of Bangladesh

There are an astonishing number of people in Bangladesh. There are 160 million people here. It is the 8th most populated country in the world. It is the 92nd largest. I don't remember being outside and not seeing someone. Answering a call of nature can be problematic. The cities are one big traffic jam and it's every man for himself. Try being polite about it and you will never move. The main roads are not a lot of fun. Traffic is constant. Rickshaws everywhere. The buses rule the roads. They overtake at full speed without looking and it's up to everyone else to get out of the way. The sheer volume of people can make wild camping tricky. There is very little room to camp discreetly. I tended to wait until the light was fading and then dive off into a palm plantation hoping no one saw me. 5 minutes later I would be surrounded. The people watched fascinated as put up my tent and cooked my noodles on my little stove.

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Rickshaw traffic jam Bangladesh

That said the back roads are as great as the main roads are bad. These roads are too narrow for cars and bigger and you can find yourself some peace. They meander through the countryside, often in the shade, connecting the thousands of tiny villages dotted around. This is the real Bangladesh and the secret to an enjoyable cycle trip. Improvisation is required. Even your best map apps won't mark these roads so you often have to make it up as you go along. The locals will happily point the way to the next village. There are over 700 rivers in Bangladesh and not a lot of bridges. The ones there are tend to be made of bamboo but there's always a guy in a boat to get you across. Picking my way across the countryside was the highlight of my time in Bangladesh. The border road across the north of the country was in particular a wonderful place to sample rural Bengal life and get away from the madding crowds.

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People of Bangladesh

The Bangladesh people are extremely welcoming and curious. They genuinely want to know why on earth you’ve decided to visit their often overlooked country. In the rural areas a tourist is something of an event. They never see any. Bangladesh is an important tea producing country and as soon as anyone found out I was English I would be invited indoors for a cup. (I do love the English stereotype that all we do is drink tea).The people would often tell me I'm the only westerner they have ever met. I tried to give a good impression. They might never meet another. Whenever I stopped on the road within a few minutes I would have a crowd of curious onlookers. It is like being a celebrity only without the bank balance and I live in a tent. At times it can be disconcerting. I found it a little off putting in roadside restaurants when there are 20 people around the table watching me eat. Especially when I get surprised by something spicy. The people of Bangladesh do not smile a lot but that doesn’t mean they are not friendly. Smiling is considered a sign of immaturity in this culture. My number one rule when meeting new people is to smile at all times so I'm not sure what they thought of me.

One evening I thought I'd found a quiet spot to camp but it didn't stay quiet for long. A local fisherman insisted I join his family for dinner. Bangladesh has the third largest Muslim population in the world. Half the village soon crowded round and I was introduced to all the elders and plied with tea and local delicacies. The people here are very kind and hospitable. I eventually managed to get back to my tent but word had got around that there was a foreigner camped down by the river. Twice during the night I was awoken by having my tent opened and a light shone in my face. Just curious kids. Enough is enough though. I got the impression they were going to watch me sleep so I had to get grumpy and shut my tent. Eventually they sloped off.

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Jumpers for goalposts

The people here are every bit as obsessed with cricket as their Indian neighbours. On every spare patch of land there is a game of cricket going on. They love it. I put the bike down and joined in a couple of times without covering myself in any glory. There's a lot of uneven bounce. I also happened to be in Bangladesh on national Independence day. 47 years ago Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan and was recognised as an independent country. It is always a happy event when you stumble upon local celebrations. The hotel owners took me out to the local football stadium to enjoy the festivities.

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Women of Bangladesh

Bangladesh turned out to be a fascinating place to cycle. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for a 2 week cycling holiday but if you are in this part of the world it is definitely worth a visit. Navigating my way across the countryside in the north of the country was great fun. If you prefer your cycling flat then Bangladesh might just be your paradise. I barely changed gear for 2 weeks. The cities may often resemble a cesspool but out in the countryside there is much for the intrepid cyclist to enjoy. It is a very poor country. 47 million people live in poverty in Bangladesh. Outside the cities there is little electricity or running water. Everyone washes in the rivers. The people have very little but that doesn't stop them sharing what they have. The country has faced many hardships through its flooding, but has made the most of the situation. The flooding has made the soil fertile, providing its people with jobs in agriculture. I was well treated everywhere I went. Everyone I met thanked me for visiting their country. No one tried to rip me off. The attention was mind boggling. Anonymity is impossible. Embrace it. You have the rest of your lives to be anonymous.

Roads:

The main roads are paved but bumpy and extremely busy. The back roads are narrow dirt roads but perfectly rideable and wonderfully quiet.

Wild camping:

Easy but expect company.

Visa's:

Visas are required for most countries and can be picked up in any Bangladesh embassy. A visa on arrival is available if you fly into Dhaka but the only land border it is available is the one 90km east of Calcutta. Ensure you have a passport photo and an address of a hotel in Bangladesh. Just something to put on the application form. You don't need to be staying there.

Bicycle Shops:

There are a few bicycle shops dotted around Bangladesh but they are as basic as it gets.

Tips:

I usually use Maps.me app to guide me around but Bangladesh is one of the few countries where it will not help you. Very few of the back roads are marked. At the time of writing anyway. All the interesting back roads lead somewhere. There are no dead ends in Bangladesh. I say if you see a quiet narrow back road going in the general direction you want to head then take it.

When to Go:

In many ways Summer in Bangladesh is a great time to cycle. You will see the traditional look of Bengal: cultivation, organic farming and fruits in most of the country. It will be hot (36-38°C). With humidity never going below 70% there will be plenty of sweat involved. There is a mild winter from late October to late January with temperatures ranging from 20-26°C. There is much less chance of rain during this time. Bangladesh is prone to monsoon flooding and cyclones during the rainy season from June to October.

Water:

Water outside of Dhaka and the big regional towns is fairly clean and safe. Especially in the villages, where they drink well water.

Side of the road:

Left.