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Bangladesh is a country of mangrove jungles, sultry paddy fields and forgotten outposts, where the countryside is as peaceful and serene as the cities are loud and crowded. Frenetic Dhaka is an experience for the senses, but elsewhere the landscape is studded with ancient ruins, beautiful beaches and national parks where tigers roam.
Boats travel to almost every corner of this waterlogged nation, from local ferries to the mighty Rocket paddleboats that chug from Dhaka to Morrelganj. Buses and trains connect major cities, but domestic flights are quicker and more comfortable. For local trips, a ride in a rickshaw is an essential Bangladesh experience.
Dhaka is the gateway to Bangladesh, and the best place to experience the unique zest for life of the Bengali people. Dotted with colonial buildings, the historic old city is a warren of crowded bazaars, spilling out onto the waterfront at Sadarghat, where boats of every conceivable shape and size crowd the quaysides.
South of Dhaka, the mangrove jungles of the Sundarbans National Park are one of the last refuges of the royal Bengal tiger, while to the north are the remains of a string of vanished royal capitals and Hindu temples. Be sure to visit one of Bangladesh’s historic rajbari – the palatial homes of Bangladesh’s sultans, nawabs (governors) and zamindars (landowners).
In the far north, the steamy jungles give way to vivid emerald tea plantations around the prosperous city of Sylhet. Tea townships such as Srimangal offer laid-back days of plantation tours, tastings and peaceful wandering through the tea bushes.
Centred on bustling Chittagong, the southeast is something else again, a fascinating sprawl of fishing villages, sandy beaches and tribal villages where golden Buddhist pagodas rise above the jungle. The world’s longest beach traces the edge of Cox’s Bazar, but even more stunning strips of sand can be found offshore on St Martin’s Island.
Cox’s Bazar is the most famous beach resort, but locals rate Kuakata in the Ganges Delta as Bangladesh’s most perfect spread of sand. Escape the crowded cities to the ruins of ancient empires at Bagerhat, where tombs and mosques sprawl across the landscape, and Paharpur, the centre of learning for an ancient Buddhist civilisation. Closer to Dhaka, the village of Sonargoan is dotted with relics from ancient sultanates. The abundant rainfall produces some spectacular waterfalls, particularly around Sylhet in the north; in the south, guided treks offer glimpses of the fascinating Buddhist culture of Bangladesh’s tribal people.
The food of Bangladesh is born of its lush tropical environment, and local cooks make enthusiastic use of seafood and coconut. Spices are rich and complex, flavours are intense, and the variety of dishes is astonishing. Dhaka offers perhaps the most impressive eating experiences, with fantastic street-food in the winding lanes of Old Dhaka and fine-dining extravaganzas in the upscale districts of Banani and Gulshan. As well as formal dining, delve into the city’s famous biryani (fried rice) joints for some of the country’s tastiest food - Fakruddin in Gulshan and Haji Biryani in Motijheel are insider tips.