The capital -and largest- city of Bangladesh, Dhaka has a long and complex history. First founded in the 4th century, it became the Mogul capital of Bengal in the 17th century before submitting to British rule in 1765. After India achieved independence in 1947, Dhaka was made the capital of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.
The city with a busy past has grown into a city with a busy present; first-time visitors to Dhaka are frequently astonished by the sheer pace and volume of activity. Official calculations estimate the number of rickshaws at 400,000 but with a city population of around seven million it certainly feels like there are many, many more. Dhaka’s brightly decorated rickshaws make seven million passenger trips a day, covering 17 million kilometres; nearly double the output of the London Underground.
The Mughal Governors and princely Viceroys who ruled the province of modern-day Dhaka adorned it with many monuments, mosques, tombs and fortifications. With these buildings often surrounded by beautifully laid out gardens and pavilions, large parts of Dhaka are unexpectedly lush and leafy.
Don’t miss Ahsan Manjil, a vivid pink concoction which used to be the official palace residence of the Nawab family. The family reigned Dhaka until their rule was abolished in the 1950s and the palace, located on the banks of the Buriganga River, is now a museum. Also consider exploring the curious lines of Parliament House at Sher-e-Bangla; a striking building designed by Louis I. Khan. Described somewhat erroneously as an architectural wonder, its stark lines and conical turrets contrast sharply with the elegant lines of the Pink Palace of Ahsan Manjil.
Dhaka’s location in the heart of jute-growing region ensures that its thriving textile industry churns out a vast supply of rope, string, baskets and bags. Cotton and muslin are also common in this part of the world and colourful saris and other textiles can be found in abundance.
Dhaka is known for its cottage industries, and many visitors enjoy browsing the many different handicrafts on sale, which include embroidery, carved shells and confectionary alongside the material staples. As the city slowly meanders into the 21st century, roadside vendors are inevitably being replaced by shopping malls, but enough remain for you to practise your haggling skills. For fixed-price items, head to New Elephant Road where shrewd shoppers can buy beautiful, handcrafted crockery sets for the price of a Western tea cup.
Dining in Dhaka ranges from cheap roadside eateries (which are best avoided) to midrange eateries on Gulshan’s Road No. 11 and fancy restaurants in upmarket neighbourhoods such as Banani. Most international styles are available; however, try the Bangla-fusion cuisine in Gulshan – Bangladeshi favourites with a twist.
Nightlife in Dhaka is not as prevalent as in other Asian destinations, but clubs and bars with DJs can be found in a handful of international hotels in areas such as Gulshan and Banani. Ask around or consult a recent travel guide for the best suggestions.
Many visitors find Dhaka’s overwhelming urban sprawl somewhat claustrophobic, and there is no better antidote than taking a trip south to the Sundarbans. A transfrontier wildlife park with over 10,000 square kilometres of land and water split roughly 60:40 between Bangladesh and India, the Sundarbans is situated in the Ganges Delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal.
Sundarban translates as ‘beautiful jungle’ in Bengal, and it’s easy to see why. As the world’s largest concentration of mangrove forests, the Sundarbans has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997 and is home to an estimated 300 Royal Bengal Tigers. These elusive animals are not a guaranteed sighting, but there are plenty of other flora and fauna to keep your cameras clicking, including macaques, pangolin, crocodiles, turtles and dolphins.