With a population of 165 million, Bangladesh is often overshadowed by its giant of a neighbor, India, even though the two countries share so much history, including once being a unified nation.
India, with its more than 1.3 billion residents, usually drives tourism to the region. But when Exotic Heritage Group made the first-ever modern day river cruise from Kolkata in India to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, this spring, it was clear that this smaller, neighboring country can stand on its own. Its lush greenery, rivers, monuments, historic villages, beaches, and welcoming people make it just as appealing.
"It's not the place that many tourists would come to," said Deepak Vohra, an Indian diplomat on the cruise. "But it is the sort of place that once you come, you fall in love."
Next year, the company will run the India-Bangladesh route on a regular basis aboard a new luxury ship, the 18-suite Ganga Vila. Dates and prices are still being solidified.
During our historic sailing on the Bengal Ganga, we were greeted like celebrities at every port. Adults and children, not used to seeing luxury cruise ships visiting their villages, ran toward us to stare and wave.
The first time Vohra visited Bangladesh was in 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War from Pakistan. He said he sees a much changed and grown up country now.
"Development has provided a collective catharsis," he said. "I see a new self-confidence."
That confidence was obvious in Dhaka, where we toured the University of Dhaka, the oldest university in Bangladesh. Physics students were busily collaborating at laboratory tables one Saturday during the spring semester. The university has more than 33,000 students and 1,800 faculty members. Established in 1921, it played a central role in the war that ended with Bangladesh becoming an independent country. The Memory Eternal monument there is dedicated to the teachers and students who died in the war.
"This is a very important, emotional place for Bengalis," said Raj Singh, managing director of luxury cruise and train tour operator, Exotic Heritage Group.
But it was in the smaller villages that we got a true sense of the people of Bangladesh.
Sonakur is a pottery village in southwestern Bangladesh where people live in huts and make pots all day long. Photo Credit: Sanjeev Hirudayaraj
"One should visit Bangladesh before it inevitably succumbs to the curiosity of the masses," said Motiur Rahman, managing director of Journey Wallet, a travel management company that organized excursions for the Bengal Ganga cruise. "There are plenty of reasons to visit Bangladesh for its naturally beautiful land."
Among the highlights: It is home to Bengali tigers; the Sundarbans, the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world; and Cox's Bazar beach, one of the longest natural unbroken beaches in the world.
The small villages in Bangladesh that we visited were just as fascinating without reaching world records.
They lined the three rivers we sailed down: the Meghna, the Dakatia, and the Padma, a tributary of the Ganges. As we reached the town of Chandpur, we climbed on the sun deck to watch the three rivers converge.
"What a sight to see," said Rothindra Biswas, a fellow passenger from Delhi. "It's one of the most exciting things, three rivers meeting together. It's magical."
We got off our cruise ship and boarded smaller boats, some of them standing-room only, to get to Sonakur, a pottery village in southwestern Bangladesh.
There was no dock so we had to climb up a hill to get to the main road, which like all other roads, was unpaved. Goats roamed freely. Pots of all sizes and colors were everywhere. People were living and working in huts.
Modhun Sudon Pal was crouched over a potter's wheel busily. He makes 100 to 250 pots a day. "It's hard work," he said.
When we were not on boats, we were on colorful rickshaws. Dhaka has been called the "rickshaw capital of the world," with about 1 million rickshaws traversing its streets. Rickshaw artists had their heyday during the liberation war, decorating the vehicles with political messages. But even smaller villages and cities have plenty of rickshaws.
We headed to Barisal, in the south-central part of the country, to visit the Church of Bangladesh. The church has a school with 800 students in the primary and high school levels. The church is Protestant, but Paul Sharkam, the grounds manager, said Bangladesh is a diverse country.
"Bangladesh is very harmonious," he said. "We have all religions here. Muslim, Hindu, Christian. There are no quarrels."
While touring the grounds of the church, which has a beautiful pond that reflects the compound's buildings, we ran into a tour group from Dubai of mostly British and Americans living in Dubai.
David Hirsch, who is from Los Angeles but works in Dubai, said of Bangladesh, "I like it. People are very friendly. It's very colorful. I don't feel security is an issue."
One of the most colorful places we visited was the floating market next to the Indarhat fish market, about an hour's drive from Barisal. Two motorboats took us there to watch vendors sell their vegetables, fruit, rice, and other goods off their own boats.
It was so crowded that we had to climb over neighboring boats to reach the dock leading to the market on land. There were fruits and vegetables I didn't even recognize, live chickens, buckets of spices, more types of rice than I've ever seen and men making different types of flatbreads such as chapati.
Bangladesh has an important and complicated history so we made sure to visit its ancient sites. The Mosque City of Bagerhat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by the Khan Jahan, a saint-warrior, in the 15th Century A.D. It was studded with mosques, tombs, reservoirs, and many other buildings. Their ruins remain, many of them in good condition.
The Sixty Dome Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the country. It has 60 pillars supporting 77 domes. The mosque was completed in the mid-1400s. The Nine Dome Mosque is rectangular-shaped with four corner towers. It is a rare example of Bengal mosque architecture. There is also a tomb to the Khan Jahan on the northern bank of a pond, where people were praying in tribute to him.
Sonargaon, also known as the "Golden City," was the local Hindu King's capital in the 13th Century. It then became one of the capitals of the independent Bengal Sultanate until 1610 when it was taken over by the Mughals.
When it came under British rule in the 19th Century, the neighborhood of Panam City was developed with buildings in the European style, temples, mosques, and other structures. Panam City became an important textile center for Hindus, Muslims and others.
It consists of 52 buildings that are now deserted, but some can be toured. Some even have the bed frames from families that once lived there. It felt like going back in time.
But back in the present day, we decided to go shopping for fish. We were in search of Hilsa (Ilish), Bangladesh's national fish.
The wholesale fish market in Chandpur was bustling, with an auction going on led by Maz Bawdi. He's been in the business for 32 years. He had a crowd around him and a pile of fish in front of him.
"I am independent. I don't work for anyone else," he said. "There's no tension, no stress, no corruption. It's pure business. You buy the fish, you sell the fish. There's no politics involved. There's no funny business."
A few minutes later, we accomplished our mission and walked away with four large Hilsa fish.