India’s sleepy eastern cousin, Bangladesh slumbers gently under monsoon skies at the mouth of the Jamuna River, one of the world’s great deltas. Formerly East Pakistan, this intriguing backwater gained independence in 1971 after a civil war that still plays a major role in the national psyche.
An influx of tourists was predicted following independence, but this has yet to materialise, meaning visitors have Bangladesh’s many and varied attractions to themselves. Those attractions range from Mughal palaces and gleaming mosques to palm-fringed beaches, tea plantations and jungles full of snarling Bengal tigers.
Bangladesh’s frenetic capital, Dhaka, was once the main port for the whole of Bengal, and its rickshaw-crammed streets present a faded mirror to Kolkata across the border. Dhaka is a city of rain-washed colonial buildings, gaudy film posters, docksides thronging with boats and the constant cacophony of car horns and rickshaw bells. It can be a shock for the senses, but the blow is softened by friendly, inquisitive locals and delicious Bengali cuisine.
South of Dhaka, the Jamuna River breaks down into a tangle of jungle-choked waterways as you enter the Sundarbans, one of the last refuges of the Bengal tiger. Here, as elsewhere in Bangladesh, the best way to get around is by river – legions of boats ply every waterway, from tiny coracles to the paddleboat ‘rockets’ that chug between Dhaka and Khulna.
The south of Bangladesh is something else again; tropical beaches give way to forested hills that hide a host of Buddhist and animist tribes. Then there’s Sylhet, in the heart of tea plantation country, where foreign remittances have built a miniature version of England amidst the monsoon hills.