Dhaka and Khulna
I have to be honest and say Bangladesh was a tough tour for me. What made it worthwhile was the scenery and the people, especially the children, who were lovely. On the flip side; the sheer degree of poverty, the level of corruption, the lack of resources in the schools, the near death experiences on the roads, being constantly hassled in Dhaka and getting sick all contributed to a major culture shock.
Maybe everything else would have been bearable if we’d had a good meal and a drink at the end of the day, but as Bangladesh is a dry country and the quality of food is not too good, this was only occasionally possible and they didn’t usually coincide. (Packing tip: bring the biggest bottle of vodka you can find). Because we were working on an aid project, our hotel budget was fairly low and so I wouldn’t want to recommend the Aristocrat where we stayed (in Golshan the posh area).
All of us who stayed there got sick simultaneously, probably from the food. (Packing tip two: take a bumper box of Immodium). Although it’s fairly inevitable you will get a bug, it’s still preferable to try and avoid it. A combination of stomach bugs, temporary vegetarianism, enforced teetotalism and a fair bit of jogging meant I lost about 5kg in 5 weeks! Generally my priority here was just finding clean places to eat rather than having any kind of gourmet experience, although there was the odd delight along the way.
Our group arrived at Dhaka airport at 8am and waited a long time for baggage and passport control before finally getting out of the airport at 9.30. The mozzies were waiting for us in the arrivals hall and were very happy to see us. Changed taka at 103.5 to the pound at the airport, but I could have got 108 from the Aristocrat reception (perhaps more from the moneychangers at Gulshan circus?). It’s a good idea to take plenty of sterling with you to change as some of my colleagues had problems getting money out of cash machines, whether with Visa or Mastercard. A bank clerk told one of us that the technology is not always good enough to get a constant connection to the credit card intranets and hitting a window is a matter of luck.
Cafe Mango (B), Road #72, House #3/A, Gulshan-2, Dhaka 1212, Tel: 0171 647 3260, Open 11.00-22.00
A pleasant cafe selling reasonably priced and good quality continental food and drinks, very popular with the Gulshan locals. I had ‘Fish & Chips’ where the fish had been dusted in breadcrumbs and turmeric, fried and cut up into slices. This was accompanied by a handful of cold fries and a dollop of coleslaw which I avoided because of the mayo. I would score the food I had a C+, nothing special but perfectly edible. Cost was 220 taka. The fresh orange juice was great (120 taka). About ten mins walk from the Aristocrat. Entrance is through two large double gates, not particularly well marked, which are next to a kebab shop.
Samdado (C), House 27, Road 35, Tel: 822 8499
The only Japanese restaurant in Dhaka, I thought I would try it because Bangladesh is famous for fish. I went for the Sushi Bento box for 800 taka. The fried fish and chicken were ok but the Nigiri Zushi was very disappointing with bland tasting and colourless fish. However, I suppose the tuna and salmon must have travelled a long way. A strange aftertaste seemed to pervade all the food, and although edible, I couldn’t finish it. They also sell some Korean dishes such as Bibimbap. Pleasant enough service and surroundings but I wouldn’t go again.
Dhanshiri (B), House 32a, Road 45, Gulshan 2,Tel: 988 2125, Open 7am-12pm
Good Bangla food, popular with the locals, I had the Special Chicken Pilau with peas, shredded carrot, sultanas, leg of chicken, hard-boiled egg and a tiny lentil fritter which was delicious but too much to finish. Just round the corner from the Westin Hotel front door. However I became ill the day after, and I don’t know if it was from here! Could have been from anywhere really though as we Westerners are very susceptible.
Heritage (?), House 10, Road 109, Tel: 882 9359
Bangla fusion cuisine presented by British-Bangladeshi celebrity chef Tommy Miah. I didn’t go but some friends came in 2009 and waited a very long time for their food. When it eventually arrived, the suspicion was that the restaurant didn’t have enough food in so they ordered it in from another restaurant! Mr. Miah was nowhere to be seen. Might be very different on a busy night though.
Gulshan Lake Park is just at the end of the hotel road and is a nice place for an early morning run or stroll, it’s exactly 1 kilometre round. It’s best to go early, before 8, when it’s nice and cool. The Aristocrat has a small museum of gym machines and weights from the last century. You could try using them but they would probably fall apart.
The Westin Hotel (20 mins walk or 20 taka in a rickshaw) has a pool and terrace on the fifth floor which non-guests can use at a rather extortionate cost of 1600 taka for the day, about £15. It’s open from 7am to 11pm but the sun stops shining on the terrace at about 11am and doesn’t come back till 5pm (in late Feb). Ginger tea from the bar is a nice choice. However you do get fluffy towels, a whirlpool bath and a steam room thrown in too. The fully equipped gym costs 3200 taka. If you’ve got the money, stay here.
The Bangla club has a small pool too. It’s members only (minimum one month) but a small group could get in as a one off if you ask to sample the facilities before you join 😉 Beers are cheap but it can be hard to get seats.
Despite being a regional capital, the restaurant scene is very limited. All the following eateries, except Cloud 9, were gleaned from the Lonely Planet and Bradt guides.
Cloud Nine (B), I-7, K.D.A. Avenue Khulna. (a couple of doors down from the Hotel Castle Salam, you will see the white awnings on the roof).
Had only been open for two months so didn’t feature in the guides, it’s the best place we found for ambience (modern design, bright decor) and second best for food (Western, Chinese and Bangla, the latter in the evenings only). The indoor restaurant has comfortable banquettes but we preferred to sit in the garden area at the back, or on the roof terrace where there is a nice breeze. The food is variable but we kept going back because it’s still better than most other places and it’s very close to the hotel. You’ll need insect repellent if sitting outside in the evening.
We worked through most of the menu, generally avoiding meat for health reasons, and graded our choices to save you being disappointed! A: Sweet Lassi, freshly squeezed Papaya and other juices, French Onion Soup. B: Mixed Salad (ask for Rice Vinegar to dress), Vegetable Jahl Fry (sic Jalfrezi), Vegetable Rice (enough for 3!), Garlic Naan, Tomato Soup. C: Mushroom Soup, Vegetable Burger, Beef Burger, Chicken & Chips, Vegetable Dopiaza, Thai Soup, Veg & Casunut (sic Cashew),. D: C9 ‘Special’ Chicken burger, Sizzling Fish, Oriental Rice, BBQ Pomfret (fish), Prawn Bhuna, Veg Sesa(me) Kebab, C9 Special Mixed Veg. (A means great, B means good but could be better, C just about edible, D don’t do it!) Many things, e.g. salads, burgers will come doused in sauce or mayo unless you specify otherwise.
Aloka (C), First Floor, 1 Khan A Sabar Rd. (Bit hard to spot but get to the crossroads and ask a local).
Recommended by both guides, it serves entirely edible Bangla food in not particularly salubrious surroundings. I had a nice but typically bony fish curry with rice and onion salad while watching Tom & Jerry on the telly.
Grill House (?), KDA Market
The best place in town for kebabs according to locals. We couldn’t get past the dank unpleasant smell on the ground floor, so we’ll never know. Apparently the best place to sit used to be the roof but they were building another floor on top when we went.
Hotel Castle Salam (C)
Probably the best hotel in the whole of Khulna division. Large clean smelling rooms, friendly and helfpul staff, satellite TV with BBC and CNN. There’s no wireless in the rooms (maybe get a dongle from Grameenphone the local telecom company) but the internet in the business centre is 1 taka p/h, or complimentary depending how they feel. There’s a small slightly dirty pool and two rickety sun loungers on the roof however you are charged 150 taka per hour for the pleasure of swimming. The boys in charge of the pool can be quite annoying, constantly asking for your signature in lieu of payment while you are sleeping or swimming. I got round this by paying for our whole stay in advance and got a discount so that it only cost 100 taka a day. You could also pay to use the antiquated gym but all the machines are broken, although the pool table looks servicable.
The food in the hotel restaurant is slated by the guides but, after an initial poor impression, we found it to be quite good, although it did vary according to which chef was on. Our favourite things were the Tandoori Chicken, Spinach (fried with Garlic), Gobhinatar Tomato (made with Green Peace and Carrot Gravy!), Mixed Veg Salad, Mixed Veg Rice and Potol (a small gourd, delicious fried with onion). Our routine was to go to the restaurant at 6pm and place our order with Sohel, one of the red-tied floor managers who speaks good English, go and do something else for 30 mins and reconvene when the food was ready in Cafe Goon Goon, which has a nicer ambience than the restaurant (modern upmarket burger bar vs Bollywood wedding hall). Both are on the first floor.
The breakfast however is rather uninspiring. Mixed veg alternating with dhal and chapattis were all we felt like eating, but if you are a bit assertive they will get you things that aren’t on the buffet, such as fresh fruit, freshly-made omelettes, liquid milk, a teapot and yogurt or curd. After several days of misunderstandings, I found the best thing to do was to give the very obliging but easily confused waiters a written note stipulating that the milk (cold, preferrably in a jug) should come with the teapot, followed by the omelette and finishing with the fruit, otherwise they may well come at the wrong times and in curious variations 😀
Cafe Goon Goon has surprisingly good coffee but doesn’t open till 11. The fries in there are nice too, and apparently the sandwiches and fast food too. You can order off the restaurant menu too if you wish.
Western Inn International (C-?)
This is the only serious competition to the Salam. It has spacious rooms with balconies but a strange smell pervades them and the plastic furniture looks most uninviting. The gym has a functioning jogging machine but the cross-trainer had cobwebs on it and again the room smelt bad. The Bradt guide rates the food in the windowless restaurant but we weren’t too keen. We made bad choices though and it probably deserves another go. Overall however we decided the Salam was the best choice for food.
A good place to go running is Sonadanga, a residential area with quiet streets and a couple of small parks which make a relatively traffic and dog free ten-minute circuit. You can get a rickshaw there for 20 taka or jog from the hotel in 15 mins. Maybe take a rickshaw the first time to find out where it is, ask to be taken to Sonadanga Road #5. There’s also a fair sized grassy area next to the Khulna Club. It’s best to run before 8a.m. when it starts to heat up. As a foreigner you will draw attention any time of day, I had people stop on their bikes to stare at me. My last leg to the hotel had spectators lining the streets like the London Marathon.
Khulna Club (C), Khan Sabur Rd, Phone 041 724 193, Mobile 0171 606 7123
For foreign passport holders only (it’s illegal for Bangladeshis to drink), you also need to know a member to get in. Fortunately we were befriended by Lisa, a local VSO worker from Cardiff we met by the hotel pool. It’s basically just two dingy rooms but the beers are cheap, 160 taka each as opposed to the 400 taka we were quoted at the hotel (before tax!!). If you fancy a bar snack, they do delicious giant deep fried shrimp (a speciality of the region) and tasty roasted peanuts too. Many Western aid workers rent rooms here.
Walking around Khulna at night is very atmospheric but it can be dangerous when the power cuts out and they are only driving by the candlelight from the street stalls! There are few cars and consequently this fourth city is not as polluted by exhaust fumes as Dhaka. My lasting sound memory of the town will be the constant ringing of bicycle bells. Please note you can drive/walk both ways around roundabouts!
Guide Tours, Ground Floor, KDA Building, Shivabari Mor (see Bradt or LP guides for a map)
The oldest, biggest and probably best Sundurban tour operator. Four of us hired a private boat and guide for a one-day trip for 8,200 taka, which may have been too much. You can book a 3 or 4 day tour on a public boat but it’s not really worth it according to one local ex-pat. Hasan Mahbub the director speaks good English. His mobile is 0155 662 6242. Make sure he gives you a detailed itinerary so you know exactly what you are getting for what you are paying (we didn’t and were suprised by the extra charges).
Guide Tours provided an English speaking guide, water, tea, soft drinks, fresh fruit and biscuits to snack on. The one-cabin boat is small and comfortable, although there is no toilet. It was really relaxing to sit on the sun-deck and watch life on the river pass by. First stop was a small, rather sad zoo which involved a deer compound, crocodile farm, a cage of unhappy monkeys and an uninspiring walk in the rubbish strewn forest. You have to stop at this place to get a permit and tickets to enter the national park (about 1000 taka with taxes/additions per Westerner, less for Bangladeshis) but you don’t necessarily have to pay in to the zoo and could just get back on the boat.
The other stop was a forestry commission office where you can take a walk in a true mangrove forest, a very eerie experience with the studs of the mangroves covering the forest floor. This was definitely the highlight; we saw fresh tiger and deer tracks, mudskippers by the streams and heard lots of birds (take binoculars if you have them). It’s also a good idea to take a hat, sun screen and wet wipes. The trip back takes twice as long as you are going upstream on the low tide and we got stuck on a sandbank briefly. In Mongla I bought some delicious Sundurban honey for 300 taka a litre after the guide to had phoned ahead to arrange it. The honey collectors going through the jungle looking for it let off firecrackers as they go to scare the tigers away! It was the best thing I took home, the fragrance and taste was amazing.
Don’t bother going to see the 200 year old Hindu temple in the centre of Khulna town, it’s apparently very grubby and unattractive and also in a totally different place to where the Bradt guide map says it is.
Aarong is a Fairtrade shop (near the Guide Tours office, see Bradt guide map or ask a local, there’s a branch in Dhaka too) selling local handicrafts and textiles, however their Punjabi shirts are about 1000 taka when the ones in the nearby New Market are just 250 taka. (We bought about 20!) For good quality sandals, go to Apex, just a few doors down. I got 2 pairs for 750 taka each.
Safe ‘n’ Save (turn left down the side of the New Market and it’s on the left) is the largest supermarket in town. It has a great selection of spices, in the fresh veg area, and I bought lots of little bags as presents for friends, as well as muslin cloths, a very famous Bengali product. This is the only place I found sun cream, small expensive bottles of factor 20 and 30 for the local market.
Meena Bazaar on Khan A Sabur Road is nearer to the hotel but has a more limited selection of products.
Wonderful food does exist in Bangladesh but it can be difficult to find the good stuff sometimes, unless you go to someone’s home of course. Some of the terms they use may have slightly different meanings to us. Here is a brief list of the good and not so good food that I found.
Bhajee/Baji etc means lightly spiced vegetables (a typical breakfast dish) in Bangla whereas it means deep fried veg such as aubergine, okra or potato in Hindi/Urdu, which is the meaning we are used to at home.
Samosa in Hindi/Urdu can be either meat or veg filled, whereas in Bangla it generally just means with meat. If you want a veggie one (cauliflower, green peas, peanuts), ask for a Shingara.
Borta/Bharta etc is a generic name for mashed veg mixed with chopped onions and green coriander, usually served as a starter. Couldn’t bring myself to like these, no matter how much I tried, due to the overpowering combination of spices.
Potol is a small gourd which is delicious when halved and fried with onion. The seeds have a wonderful nutty flavour. Wish I’d asked the hotel chef for a cookery lesson on how to make it. He would be happy to do it.
Daber pani is green coconut water, refreshing and very good for upset stomachs. Schools will often serve you these at break so carry a straw with you, or just let it dribble down your chin. The empty coconut can be halved and a bit of the husk made into a spoon for you to scoop out the soft jelly inside. Getting a good one is a matter of catching it at exactly the right stage of maturity. They can sometimes be sour or dry, but the best ones are heaven.
Jhol is a thin stew of fish with vegetables, usually made with Hilsa (the national favourite), Pomfret or Rui fish, all a bit bony but generally ok. There are myriad variations but and it is the main dish at lunch during the summer.
Doy means curd and comes in two varieties, sour which I liked (as an accompaniment to rice and curry, or as the base for a Korma) and sweet which I wasn’t so keen on (an often brown coloured, too sugary dessert). Yogurt lassi’s are generally great too.
Sobeda is a very sweet fruit about the size of a small potato and really delicious if you can find it.
The only book I could find dedicated to local food was ‘Bengali Cooking-Seasons and Festivals’ by Chitrita Banerji. It’s a rather impenetrable factual description of typical foods eaten at different times of the year but does contain some classic recipes as well. Sadly few of these dishes rarely appear on menus in restaurants.
My general advice would be to ask what they have, get your favourites in, but also take a few (cheap) chances on the more unusual veg dishes. The same goes for fruit shopping. If it’s possible, have it cooked in front of you as this has the double benefit of knowing it’s fresh and learning how to make it yourself! Enjoy.
Some other useful information:
Some jabs are a must for all travellers, such as the combined Hep A/Typhoid and Diphtheria/Tetanus/Polio vaccinations.
It’s a good idea to get Hep B too but you need two or three appointments over about 6-8 weeks, and I didn’t have time. It costs £100.
With others you have to balance risk against price. I decided not to get Japanese Encephalitis (£135) due to the low risk and Rabies (£120) as I intend to avoid being bitten.
With regards to malaria, according to the travel website MDTravel:
“Prophylaxis is recommended for all areas except Dhaka City. Malaria epidemics occur especially in the northeast and southeast parts of the country. In spring 2002, an outbreak was reported from the hill districts in the eastern part of the country”.
The nurse told me the Chittagong hill tract was a high risk area but not Chittagong city itself.
It may be worth shopping around for malaria tablets. The standard price for 48 Malarone tablets at most pharmacies is £151.26 but Boots are discounting them at the moment for £136.13.
A mosquito spray with a high deet content and generally covering up with long sleeves/trousers should be enough protection at this time of year.
Power cuts are frequent, especially in rural areas, so bring a torch. A compass may also be useful if you are wandering the unmarked streets.