Our first day of navigating Dhaka’s traffic on our own using tuk tuks (auto rickshaws) was challenging. Our second day touring Old Dhaka, was in the comfort of a car, driver, and an English speaking guide, as we started the first day of our 3-day Bangladesh tour with Taabu Tours.
We started by visiting the City Government South building which sits in the divide between Old Dhaka and New Dhaka.
From the roof top of this building, we can see from one side the overcrowded Old Dhaka with its narrow streets, lack of any city plan, and generally older buildings.
On the other side of the roof top, we can see New Dhaka with newer buildings, wider and straighter city streets that appeared to follow a plan.
After the bloodshed of the past, Bangladesh is now a country where Muslims and Hindus live in harmony. We visited Dhakeshwari Temple, a Hindu temple, and witnessed a family of Hindus praying together, and another family conducting funeral rituals. Outside of the Hindus temple was a street full of shops with wedding goods, colorful saris, herbs, spices, incenses, and shrines.
Muslim being the main religion observed by over 90 percent of the population, the five per day call to prayer can be heard coming from the city mosques loud and clear. We visited two Mosques, the large one, Baitul Mukarram National Mosque, capable of holding up to 30,000 devotees, is the 10th biggest mosque in the world.
But it was the small mosque, the Star Mosque, that is more impressive with all of its ornate designs and is decorated with motifs of blue stars.
At this point our driver needed to refuel the car. As we pulled into the gas station, we noticed cars were being re-fuel via the hood of the vehicle instead of the typical gas tank near the rear of the vehicle. Our guide explained to us that Bangladesh vehicles are all retrofitted to run on natural gas as the country has many natural gas fields. Natural gas is a fraction of the price compared to petroleum, an imported resources. Hence, all car, tuk tuks (locals call them CNG), cooking, air conditioning, are powered by natural gas.
Our stop before lunch was the Lalbagh Fort, a peaceful oasis right in the southwestern part of chaotic Old Dhaka.
Lalbagh Fort is an incomplete 17th century Mugal fort complex. Besides observing the historical architecture at this complex, it was pleasant to observe all the young men and women enjoying each other’s company beside the beautiful flower gardens within the grounds.
Lunch at a busy local restaurant we were introduced to the Kachchi Birani dish. It was a large mound of rice with a large piece of roast lamb buried within. It was very delicious and a nice change from the curry dishes we have been eating.
After lunch we toured the Armenian Church. The church bears testimony to the existence of a significant Armenian community in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Then we toured the Alsan Manzil (also called the Pink Palace), a magnificent palace building that started off as the official residential palace and seat of the Nawab of Dhaka in 1859. To preserve the culture and history of the area, it has been become the Bangladesh National Museum since 1992.
Then it was off to the Sadarghat (City Wharf) river port. The bustling port has ships serving almost all of the districts of Bangladesh. There was an incredible amount of activity going on. Passengers, including families with large shopping bags, luggage were boarding the passenger ferries (launches).
All manners of goods, from steel, clothes, carpet, plastic, rice, vegetable, potatoes were being loaded and unloaded from boats.
The street next to the port was completely clogged up with trucks, vans, cars, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, and motorcycles. It was almost impossible to cross to the other side of the street.
Every big city normally begins with the river and Bangladesh is no exception.
The Buriganga river is where the city began and it appears to be just as important today with the amount of activities going on. Big barges, big cargo ships, small cargo ships, big passenger ferries, small wooden boats are all out on the river busy coming and going.
We boarded one of the great many wooden boats and rode across the river. It was a bit unnerving to be on the river, not because of the boat handler’s skills; but rather knowing that we are on a river that is so polluted that a fish will instantly die upon entering the brown color polluted water.
After disembarking on the other side we went on a long walk through the ship building yard. Very old boats are being retrofitted into service again. Incredibly, the safety records of these boats are excellent. A lot of manual labour goes into the retrofitting.
The ship yard was like a mini city with shops selling parts, supplies, welding shops, pipe shops, etc. towards the need of retrofitting the ships. There were food stalls and snack stores serving the workers.
Throughout the walk, we did not see any workers wearing safety equipment such as safety helmet, harness, safety shields. In fact, most were wearing sandals or flip flops. There were children, dogs and even a few goats at the boat yard. As chaotic and as unregulated it seems, the tour guide explain that the retrofitted ships all have excellent sea worthy safety record. He was not aware of any major safety incident with the retrofitted boats.
After the ship yard tour, it was time to board our ship, the historical Rocket Steamer ship for our overnight journey to Hulahat.