The small country of Bangladesh doesn’t have much of a reputation as a bike touring destination but Muntasir Mamun Imran would like to change that.
A Bangladeshi himself, he’s spent many weeks touring the country. Bangladesh, he says, offers wonderful hospitality, beautiful scenery and the quiet roads for cyclists. It is also an overcrowded country, so you’ll have plenty of chances to meet local people, and one that is largely untouched by tourism.
1. What is the best way for people to reach Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is very well connected with India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan by road. All the routes will be over India for at least a small distance. With India, Bangladesh has long borders and a number of custom offices on the border so it’s never tough to get an entry to Bangladesh after you have done a ride in India.
There is a very famous route from Karachi (PK) to Chittagong (BD) which was actually a rail route established by the British Raj before the division of India and Pakistan, mostly known as the Imperial Way from the book by Steve Mccurry and Paul Theroux.
2. Tell us about some of the general considerations for cycling in Bangladesh.
Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh, with nearly 18 million people in 350 square kilometers. It’s unimaginably crowded! But not every part of Bangladesh is as crowed as Dhaka. So, don’t get panicked after landing in Dhaka. Get a taxi to your hotel.
In Dhaka, it’s better to move on while it’s morning, more specifically before 8 am. After that it will make a huge difference of time, when 5 minutes means a lot even on a bike. If you’re not in Dhaka or the other big towns, life is fun!! So, for riding, the better option is to stay as long as possible in outside of Dhaka.
Foods are easily accessible like India. But it’s not advisable to have street food all the time. Small restaurants or mostly crowed shops are even safer for food. And in Dhaka, don’t even try to drink water on the street.
3. How does cycling in Bangladesh compare to its neighbours Nepal and India?
Indeed, riding in Bangladesh is not like in Nepal or India or elsewhere. The people are still very curious and helpful. It’s very likely you can get offers from people to stay at their place or to have meal. Exploring villages and the people that live there could be exciting. You can always try to be hosted by the locals. In that case, buy some food for all of them.
Bangladesh is a very small country but if you want, you can spend lots of time here. The most beautiful parts Bangladesh can offer are its villages and small and narrow feeder dirt roads. Its has nearly 80,000 villages so you can always get to the next one if you want get something better.
Bangladesh is unique in its hospitality and overcrowdedness. So before visiting here, keep that in mind. It’s also not India or Nepal, where bike touring is common. And when you are riding, it means you are poor to the locals!!! Because only poor people ride bikes in Bangladesh.
4. Bangladesh can have a lot of problems with flooding and other extreme weather. Are there certain times of the year that are best to visit?
There are a few misleading concepts about Bangladesh in terms of weather, poverty and other things. It’s true, once in every two years small parts of the land of the country go underwater for between a few weeks and several months but it’s not periodic like a clock! Geographically, Bangladesh is a sub-tropical country with a mild winter from late October to late January. Winter (average temperature 16-26°C) is the best time to travel in Bangladesh. There is much less chance of rain during this time.
If you can ride in summer then it would be great to go across Bangladesh in the summer. You will see the traditional look of Bengal: cultivation, organic farming and fruits in most of Bangladesh. It will be hot (36-38°C). You will sweat and never be dry as it is too humid (around 70%-90%).
5. Are the roads in good condition? Are they mostly paved or should cyclists expect to be on dirt roads?
Most of the roads of Bangladesh are paved but it’s not as smooth as silk. Mainly the highways or major roads are paved and connected to other bigger and smaller roads. One very interesting thing about road system of Bangladesh is that every road is connected to every other road, so if you miss one turn to get somewhere, you will always find another road to reach the same place.
Dirt roads are not uncommon but they are not used for any vehicle except rickshaws and some other three wheelers.
In general, most of the villages are connected through dirt road and divisional or district connecting roads are paved. One problem is that roads are often not clean and loose bricks or stones can frequently be found.
6. What about food and water? What kind of food can cyclists expect to find, and is bottled water readily available?
If it’s any major city then you can try different foods available in shops, restaurants and in the street. But in rural or suburban areas you have to rely on what is available in shops. It’s easy to get biscuits as snacks or rice, dahl, fish and meat for a full-course meal. There is no concept called “vegetarian” so don’t expect something if you tell restaurants that is what you are looking for. The easiest way to get only vegetables is to order only rice, parata (a handmade bread fried with oil), naan bread, vegetables or dal.
Water outside of Dhaka and the big regional towns is fairly clean and safe. Especially in the villages, where they drink well water. Bottled water and beverages are also available all most every corner of Bangladesh.
7. Can you recommend your favourite route for cycling in Bangladesh and what makes it so special?
In one word Sylhet (the northeastern part of Bangladesh) is the best for a few days ride. It is commonly known as Little Darjeeling, without the steep climbs. It’s green and tea gardens are almost everywhere on your route. The roads are well paved. This trip can start from Dhaka to Sylhet following some small towns in between.
But if you wish to have something more, then going from Dhaka to the north, across the country, will give you real exposure to Bangladesh. No formal accommodation or hotels are available but the experience will be unforgettable. This nearly 600km route follows the border of Bangladesh and India will give you a different landscape of Bangladesh, crossing around 200 kilometers of mud or unpaved roads!
8. What are some typical costs for things like hotel rooms and simple street meals ($1 U.S. = 70 Taka)?
Hotel in Dhaka or some other major cities may cost you from 200–5000 Tk. But in most of the places of Bangladesh you can always get an accommodation within 200-500 Tk or even very less like 100 Tk.
Food is cheap too, for a major meal outside Dhaka ranges from 30–150 Tk (depending on your demand). Beef or fish will cost you 40–70 Tk in street side restaurant where an egg might cost you 10-15 Tk or even less. There are so many other foods available on the street costing 3–20 Tk and some time you have to buy them priced by the kilogram.
9. Is language a problem or do most people speak English?
People may not speak fluent English but still you can work with them for basic necessities even in the very rural areas.
10. What is one typical Bangladeshi experience that you think cyclists shouldn’t miss?
The richness of the hospitality of local people. Mix with people. Talk to them. Take photos with them. Use some local words. They will like you and you will even get offers to stay at their homes, in most of the rural places where you stop to eat.
If you don’t get any place to stay, go to any shops or restaurant around and they will help you. I have never heard of anyone who was refused.
And if you are a woman, you will have VIP access to almost everywhere. Just make sure you maintain local decorum and dress modestly.
Thanks to Muntasir Mamun Imram for answering this week’s 10 Questions on bike touring in Bangladesh.