The capital city of Bangladesh sits on the north bank of the bustling Buriganga River, roughly in the centre of the country. If you've arrived in Dhaka from South-East Asia, you'll probably be struck by the lack of hype and commercial activity. If you arrive from Delhi or Kathmandu, you're sure to notice the relatively clean air. If you've flown from Calcutta you might find it clean and orderly and if you've come overland through rural Bangladesh, it will seem like Babylon. Here the lights are as bright as they get in Bangladesh, and there's a range of goods and services lacking elsewhere in the country.
The oldest section of the city runs along the north bank of the waterfront and was developed when Dhaka was a significant Moghul trading centre. A must-see in the Old City is the area between the two main water transport terminals, Sadarghat and Badam Tole where the panorama of river life on the Buriganga is particularly fascinating. This area is always crowded with people and watercraft of every type. Along the waterfront is the old baroque-style palace, Ahsan Manzil which has been painted bright pink.
Dhaka's premier attraction is Lalbagh Fort, an unfinished fort dating from 1678 located in the Old City. The area also contains a couple of attractive mosques, including Hussain Dalan. The National Museum is north of the Old City in the old European zone known as Modern City. It has fascinating displays of Bangladesh's Hindu, Buddhist and Moghul past and an extensive collection of fine folk art and handicrafts.
Most of the cheaper accommodation and restaurants are in the Modern City of Central Dhaka. This area also contains the Motijheel Commercial Area, the business district where most of the banks, travel agents and airline offices are located. Dhaka is the rickshaw capital of the world, with over 300,000 colourfully painted rickshaws in operation. Taking a ride in one is as essential as catching a red double-decker bus in London.
The second largest city in Bangladesh sits on the bank of the Karnapuli River and has an interesting old waterfront area known as Sadarghat which reflects the importance of river trade to the city's growth. Nearby is the old Portuguese enclave of Paterghatta which remains mostly Christian. The Shahi Jama-e-Masjid and Qadam Mubarak Mosque are two of the most impressive buildings in the city. It's also worth visiting the Ethnological Museum in the Modern City which has interesting displays on Bangladesh's tribal peoples. There are good views and cooling breezes from Fairy Hill in the British City in the north-western sector of the city.
Flights between Dhaka and Chittagong leave three to four times a day, as do the trains, which can take up to seven hours to reach Chittagong. The Dhaka-Chittagong highway is one of the better roads in the country, and there are several bus lines that use it, but the trip can be hairy at times and takes almost as long as the train trip, which is more comfortable and less nerve wracking. Chittagong is 264km (164mi) southeast of Dhaka.
Bangladesh's only beach resort is near the Myanmar border in an area where Rohingya refugees have settled to escape persecution in Myanmar. It has a Burmese Buddhist flavour and few amenities to service the visitors attracted by its enormous expanse of shark-free beach. Even modestly clad bathers, especially females, should expect to be gawked at by locals and Bangladeshi holidaymakers. Bangladeshi women who swim (they are a rare breed) do so in a flowing shalwar kameez. South of Cox's Bazar are more secluded beaches where having a swim can still be a private experience rather than a public spectacle. They include Himacheri Beach and Inani Beach. Note that the beaches are not considered entirely safe at night.
At the moment the road from Chittagong to Cox's Bazar is one of the worst in the country and still unfinished, but you can avoid it altogether by making your way from Dhaka to Chittagong, and then doing a short 20 minute flight from there. Alternatively buses go straight from Dhaka to Cox's Bazar, a distance of 370km (230mi).
Famous as an important centre of Buddhist culture from the 7th to 12th centuries, the buildings excavated here were made wholly of baked bricks. There are more than 50 scattered Buddhist sites, but the three most important are Salban Vihara, Kotila Mura and Charpatra Mura. Salban Vihara was a well-planned, 170sq m (182sq ft) monastery facing a temple in the centre of the courtyard. Nearby is a museum housing the finds excavated here, which include terracotta plaques, bronze statues, a bronze casket, coins, jewellery and votive stupas embossed with Buddhist inscriptions. Kotila Mura comprises three large stupas representing Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the 'Three Jewels of Buddhism'. The most important discovery at Charpatra Mura were the four royal copper-plate decrees, three belonging to Chandra rulers, the other to Sri Viradhara Deva, a later Hindu king. Note that some of the major ruins are within a military cantonment and cannot be visited without permission from military officers.
The ruins are about 70km (43mi) southeast of Dhaka.
The 8th-century Somapuri Vihara at Paharpur was formerly the biggest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalaya. It's by far the most impressive archaeological site in Bangladesh, and covers some 11 hectares (27 acres). Although in an advanced state of decay, the overall plan of the temple complex is easy to figure out and includes a large quadrangle with the monks' cells forming the walls and enclosing a courtyard. From the centre of the courtyard rises the 20m (66ft) high remains of a stupa which dominates the surrounding countryside. The monastery's recessed walls are embellished with well-preserved terracotta bas-reliefs, and a small museum houses a representative display of the domestic and religious objects found during excavations.
To get to the archeological site from Dhaka, take a bus or train to Bogra, and another bus to Jaipurhat. From Jaipurhat there are two options: either take a rickshaw to the crossroads, and then a tempo to Paharpur village; or walk, or take a rickshaw, to Jaipurhat station, a train to Jamalpur, and then another rickshaw to Paharpur. It's also possible to reach Paharpur from Rajshahi, although more difficult than the Bogra-Paharpur trip, and involves an 8km (5mi) trek on the final leg. Paharapur is 260km (161mi) from Dhaka.
Sundarbans National Park
The Sundarbans are the largest littoral mangrove belt in the world, stretching 80km (50mi) into the Bangladeshi hinterland from the coast. The forests aren't just mangrove swamps though, they include some of the last remaining stands of the mighty jungles which once covered the Gangetic plain. The Sundarbans cover an area of 38,500 sq km, of which about one-third is covered in water. Since 1966 the Sundarbans have been a wildlife sanctuary, and it is estimated that there are now 400 Royal Bengal tigers and about 30,000 spotted deer in the area. The park is also home to sea gypsy fishing families who catch fish using trained otters. To see this pristine environment, you need to get a permit from the Divisional Forest Office in Khulna. With permit in hand, it's possible to hire a boat from Mongla or Dhangmari to get you to Hiron Point. From Hiron Point you will have to hire a guide to take you into the park.
Puthia has the largest number of historically important Hindu structures in Bangladesh. The most amazing of the village''s monuments is the Govinda Temple, which was erected between 1823 and 1895 by one of the maharanis of the Puthia estate. It''s a large square structure crowned by a set of miniature ornamental towers. It''s covered by incredibly intricate designs in terracotta depicting scenes from Hindu epics, which give it the appearance of having been draped by a huge red oriental carpet.
The ornate Siva Temple is an imposing and excellent example of the five-spire Hindu style of temple architecture common in northern India. The ornate temple has three tapering tiers topped by four spires. It''s decorated with stone carvings and sculptural works which unfortunately were disfigured during the War of Liberation. The village''s 16-century Jagannath Temple is one of the finest examples of a hut-shaped temple: measuring only 5m (16ft) on each side, it features a single tapering tower which rises to a height of 10m (33ft). Its western facade is adorned with terracotta panels of geometric design.
Puthia is 23km (14mi) east of Rajshahi and 16km (10mi) west of Natore. Catch a bus from either town. Puthia is 1km (6mi) south of the highway.
St Martin Island
This small coral island about 10km (6mi) south-west of the southern tip of the mainland is a tropical cliché, with beaches fringed with coconut palms and bountiful marine life. There''s nothing more strenuous to do here than soak up the rays, but it''s a clean and peaceful place without even a mosquito to disrupt your serenity. It''s possible to walk around the island in a day because it measures only 8 sq km (3 sq mi), shrinking to about 5 sq km (2 sq mi) during high tide. Most of island''s 5500 inhabitants live primarily from fishing, and between October and April fisher people from neighbouring areas bring their catch to the island''s temporary wholesale market. A ferry leaves Teknaf for St Martin every day and takes around 3 hours.
Getting to St. Martin''s is a three-step program. First you''ll need to fly or bus it down to Cox''s Bazar, and then catch a bus to Teknaf, which is right on the very tip of Bangladesh, sandwiched up against Myanmar. From Teknar, ferries run daily to St. Martin Island. The total distance from Dhaka to the island is 510km (316mi).
Chittagong Hill Tracts
Decidedly untypical of Bangladesh in topography and culture, the Chittagong Hill Tracts have steep jungle hills, Buddhist tribal peoples and relatively low density population. The tracts are about 60km (37mi) east of Chittagong. The region comprises a mass of hills, ravines and cliffs covered with dense jungle, bamboo, creepers and shrubs, and has four main valleys formed by the Karnapuli, Feni, Shangu and Matamuhur rivers.
Rangamati, a lush and verdant rural area belonging to the Chakma tribe, is open to visitors, as is Kaptai Lake. The lake, ringed by thick tropical and semi-evergreen forests, looks like nothing else in Bangladesh. While the lake itself is beautiful, the thatched fishing villages located on the lakeshore are what make a visit really special. Boats that visit the villages leave from Rangamati. Bring your swimming gear because you can take a plunge anywhere.
To get to Rangamati, in the middle of the Hill Tracts, take a train, bus, or plane from Dhaka to Chittagong, and then a bus from Chittagong to Rangmati. It's about 314km (195miles) from Dhaka to Rangmati.