Monday, February 23, 2015

[DHAKA] The Old and the New


I said bring me to Dhaka, NOT Manila. What? Oh, we’re here. Ah, okay, I see lots of Bangladeshi now. But what’s with the eerie resemblance, seriously? Congested roads! Sidewalk vendors! Suicidal tricycle drivers! Sari-Sari stores! Gated establishments! It’s as if I never left home. There is just this feeling of familiarity, yet also that feeling of weirdness. The people dress differently, though. All the travelogues I’ve read have been right so far. Dhaka is colorful. Dhaka is chaotic. Welcome to Bangladesh!


Chennai would have been easier from SG as I could have done the visa-on-arrival thing, but why not include most South Asian countries for this particular backpacking trip? Of course you have already read how the visa experience was, right? As for my welcome to South Asia, my Tiger Airways flight landed at quarter past eight. Immigration was not strict, but very, very curious. The money changers were jerks who would not accept my SGD10 notes, forcing me to change USD instead.


The guesthouse suggested that I ride a CNG because the taxis are more likely to rip me off. A CNG is a tricycle, except that their version has one wheel in front and a pair at the back. To add, you are also caged inside because of the steel mesh as if placed there to protect you from the urban jungles of Dhaka. Once you get to experience a CNG ride, you would know why those are necessary. Damn, I felt like I was shooting chase scenes for the sequel of The Bourne Legacy every time I hopped on one of those things.


I swear there have been a dozen times when I was 100% sure that we were going to ram the SUV in front of us, or collide with the rickshaw to the left which suddenly came out of nowhere. But still, the driver always managed to snatch me back from the clutches of death a mere second or two before impact. If you are the adventurous type who loves to flirt with danger, you and Dhaka would get along really, really well. Did I mention that you could also ride one of the half a million rickshaws in this city?


But enough of the CNG adventure stories. How did my first day go? The plan before I landed was to visit Old Dhaka on the first day, and then go to Sonargaon on the second day. However, everyone I met has warned me to avoid long distance trips because of the current transport strikes. It does not help that I am also on a tight schedule, so I just decided to let Sonargaon go and split the Old Dhaka itinerary into two leisurely paced day trips. The first day has been quite lackluster, though.


The superstar of tourist attractions here is Lalbagh Fort. Think Taj Majal, but with a military backstory. And so I contracted a CNG to get there. The trip took an hour and was dangerously fun. I already mentioned that bit about the Bourne Legacy sequel, right? They could not get Jeremy Renner, so I got the part. The trip was full of chase scenes and stationary ones caused by heavy traffic jams. When we finally arrived, the fort was closed even when it should not be. Don’t fret; there is a mosque and a Hindu temple nearby. Rickshaw!


If you view a tourist map of Old Dhaka, you would see that the convenient grouping of tourist attractions should be: 1) Dhakeshwari Temple – Lalbagh Fort – Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque; and 2) Ahsan Manzil – Armenian Church – Star Mosque. And so I did the first group today, with the exception of the fort, which I would have to squeeze in tomorrow along with the second group. Are they worth the visit? Well, this depends on your perspective of what is worth it.


Dhaka is skipped by most tourists for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the lack of attractions to see here, if you compare it to neighboring South Asian cities, that is. You would immediately notice the scarcity of foreigners roaming around. I have seen less than ten since I arrived here: three at the airport; three at the guest house; and two at the mall. Being the capital, the tourist infrastructure is good enough but due to visa restrictions and general lack of interest, it is almost always overlooked.


Most of the attractions are places of worship. The Dhakeshwari Temple, for instance, is a Hindu temple. Its main attraction is the quartet of pink and red domes immediately visible at the entrance. That’s about it. Unless you are Hindu and coming for religious purposes, there really is nothing else to do after you snap that photo. This is why I stayed for just around ten minutes before leaving. They seem to be hospitable enough to have you observe some religious rites, but the language barrier really gets in the way.


The Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque is at the crossroads of a residential and a commercial area. Think a combination of Quiapo and Tondo, put a mosque at the middle of the mayhem and this is what you get. In all fairness to the place, once you enter its premises there is this sudden feeling of tranquility despite the persistent chorus of clunking rickshaws outside. It was built back in the 1700’s. Old it is, but impressive not so much anymore.


The heat, the dust, and the chaos will take its toll on you after a while. That is when you have to go to one of the malls. There are two which are generally recommended by the locals because of their size: Bashundara City and Jamuna Future Park. The former is said to be one of the biggest in the Indian subcontinent, while the latter boasts being the 11th largest in the world. Sorry to say, but both are rather underwhelming.


Bashundara City is big alright, but the absence of any familiar brand makes it seem more like a glorified 168 on steroids. The only recognizable name at the food court is Taco Bell, but its authenticity is immediately comes into question after you see the menu. It is safe to say, however,  that you would be getting a good meal at one of the many food stalls there. The rest of the floors are reserved for lots of shopping, from clothes to jewelry.


Jamuna Future Park is named as such because construction is still in full swing and wouldn't be completed until the near future. This has the potential of being the posh one of the two, but then again the only recognizable brands in there are UNIQLO, KFC, and Pizza Hut. For a mall considered as the 11th biggest worldwide, shopping choices are rather limited to local products. But there is a theme park in front of the mall and it comes with a roller coaster! They are not operational, but will be. In the future.

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