Have you ever thought of taking a stroll in the streets of Dhaka? Unusual, often underestimated, the capital of Bangladesh is full of surprises and hidden treasures.
Dhaka is not a conventional beauty for sure with symmetry and perfection. But the roughness and irregularities it offers leaves a certain charm that may seduce the visitors. Dhaka, the misapprehended city of South Asia, is undeniably a place to explore. Often associated to monstrous traffic jams and extreme poverty, pollution and insecurity, the city can indeed be qualified as breathtaking. But it would be incorrect to reduce the megacity to its struggles only. Dhaka is also synonymous to sheer hospitality and shines with an incomparable energy. With right expectations and appetite for bold, atypical places; the visitor, without a doubt, would experience a remarkable stay in the capital. For Indian travellers, Bangladesh unfolds a familiar environment as well as exotic elements. Spending time in this country would not enrich one with authentic experiences, but also remind of the common origins and history that shaped the journey of these two countries.
Dhanmondi of Dhaka
To discover Dhaka, Dhanmondi and its growing artistic scene is the perfect place to start. With a subtle balance between broad lanes and narrow alleys, small dhabas (roadside local restaurants), newly opened restaurants and fast food chains, branded cars and rickshaws, stretches of buildings and patches of green; the area situated South-West of the capital invites its visitors for an unanticipated tour.
Among the unavoidable spots of this neighborhood are the art centers. With its growing middle class population, Dhanmondi is well known for its high quality yet affordable lifestyle. Without a surprise, it is here that one finds the effervescent cultural scene. Situated few steps away from the lake, the Dhaka Art Center is an ideal space to discover local and contemporary artists, should it be painters, photographers, sculptors, or filmmakers. Focussed on visual arts in general, the non-profit organization offers an interesting program all-year long, punctuated by workshops and original events. While visiting the center, one must not miss its adjoining cafe, Ajo. Beautifully decorated, modern and cozy, friendly and classy at the same time, it is the ideal spot to share soft drinks and snacks among friends during break, or gather for a professional dinner with quality food.
To extend the cultural experience, a walk few minutes from the art centre leads to Drik Gallery. This internationally acclaimed multimedia organization is famous for its photography department and spaces dedicated to various events. Founded by awarded photojournalist Shahidul Alam, Drik regularly holds exhibitions of local and foreign photographers, making it the right space to experience country’s talent and enthusiasm for this form of art. Every two years, Drik sets up Chobi Mela, the largest festival of photography in South Asia for two weeks that causes frenzy throughout the city.
Dhanmondi is also the right place for culinary experiences. Local food served in small typical restaurants, like those bordering Pantha Path, near the huge Bashundara shopping center is something not to be missed. The delicious elish fish cooked in a curry or fried with onions and green chilies is worth trying. Crispy fried chicken with local spices is also a piece of choice. In the adjacent area of Lalmatia, few minutes away from Dhanmondi, the famous restaurant Kutum Bari with its fresh bamboo decoration and bright, airy spaces, serves traditional dishes as well as international food, for both vegetarian and meat-lovers.
Discovering the city
The best way to enjoy Dhanmondi and Dhaka in general, is by giving it time. To slow down and forget the feverish pace of to-do lists and mingle with the population and the environment around. As most of the places, early morning offers a magical view of this giant city. While the first rays of sun colour the capital with nuances of warm tones, only few early risers cross path in the soon-to-be chaos. Instead of honking, the footsteps resonate alongside the chirping of the birds and the early adhan or call for prayers cast from surrounding mosques. Sophisticated rickshaws, decorated with splashes of bright colors and beautiful ornaments can be seen running along this path. A ride around the neighborhood allows one to see the city waking up all the way long. In the southern part of the capital lies puran Dhaka or Old Dhaka. This is a wonderful place to start the day. With its typical streets forming a maze, the area reminds of the Old Delhi and delights one by its distinctiveness. The lanes are occupied with people of different professions, specialized in wood or metals, tires or ropes. Also seen are the fruit sellers with generous baskets of grapes, mangoes, watermelons and coconuts; sweet vendors displaying all kinds of familiar delicacy, fabric shops with delicate salwar kamiz (traditional dress of South and Central Asia, primarily women) and small places dedicated to Hinduism and its rituals. The surrounding buildings in puran Dhaka have admirable architecture. One may notice the different influences on the city that once used to be a renowned junction for traders between Europe and Asia and vice versa. Old Dhaka, originally called Jahangir Nagar, used to be the center of the worldwide muslin trade.
To know more about the different histories and influences that have shaped the place, a weekly tour organized by the association Save Puran Dhaka is highly recommended. Founded by two committed architects, the association gathers a dozen of young volunteers to highlight the unique beauty of this area and raise awareness about the fragility of historical buildings that have survived through years. One may be surprised to notice gorgeous 19th century French rococo style buildings occupied by unaware lower-class families who complain about the lack of facilities in there. Their laundries hang on delicate balconies and graffiti cover the walls. The team of Save Puran Dhaka, not only enables one to discover unexpected architectural gems hidden in narrow alleys and secret courtyards, but also allows to go inside the buildings, meet the inhabitants and listen to their stories, learn the cultural, social, and economic challenges surrounding the preservation of old Dhaka. And beyond its intellectually enriching aspects, the tour is also about meeting inspiring people and getting closer to the local life and preoccupations.
Buriganga River and its banks are also something not to be missed, preferably during sunset when the sky wears shades of orange and pink. People of all ages set out for a chat or walk along the waterside, or enjoy an occasional show with snake charmers during this hour. A romantic tour on a boat gives a different view of the city. The river is one of the most popular way here to cross one part of the city to another – but a lonely ride can’t be expected as many more enjoy the smooth silky water.
When sun disappears above the horizon and the moon glimmers high in the sky, the city is still far from falling asleep. Nighttime suits Dhaka. Under the neon and the streetlights, passerby, late shoppers, workers, students; all throng in the capital, creating a new momentum in the darkness. Near the famous Shahbag Square, life seems to really start after sunset. Not far from Dhaka University and the Art College, the spot and its surrounding areas are packed every night with its young crowd gathering there around chai (tea), cigarettes and music. Diverse crowd ranging from science and engineering students, photographers, poets, singers, actresses, entrepreneurs, journalists can be met here. Some seating on benches, some on the grass and some on hammocks. Some might even be carrying guitars and sing along with the crowd, humming on local songs or few popular western ballads. The sweetness and talent of Bangladeshi when it comes to music and singing is undoubtedly appraisable. If well accompanied, it’s worth spending time there, meeting new people and sharing deep conversation about art, politics, society, sports and other matters. Plenty of option to eat are also available here if one gets the craving to eat in the middle of the night. Sweet curd with slices of banana and cereal served on the roadside are good options to kill the hunger. Numerous oily snacks, popcorns and appetisers can also be found displayed on stands.
The nights allow one to enjoy, at last, a ride on broad empty lanes. But one may need to be careful with the belongings. But, beyond the usual petty worries, one realizses how fascinating is the city. Huge yet intimate, aggressive and dizzying for sure but friendly and welcoming. Mysterious, authentic, powerful. And so much more. Don’t miss Dhaka.
Stellenbosch, South Africa