Uncovering Dhaka: 10 things to know

Uncovering Dhaka: 10 things to know

As Bangladesh hosts this year's Asia Cup cricket tournament, here's a look at what defines this discreet capital

India's national cricket team continues to fight to defend its 2011 Asia Cup title in a match against Bangladesh today in Dhaka, a city that could very well be described as Asia's most discreet capital.  

Despite being spread over 150 square kilometers and home to an estimated 10 million people, Dhaka is not often a priority destination for travelers.

So what's there to know? Here are 10 things -- cricket included, of course -- that define the city.  

1. Crazy for cricket

Dhaka cricket fansExpect normally chaotic Dhaka to come to a stand still during Friday's match against India.

Bangladeshis are mad about cricket. Dhaka is home to the national stadium and many of the country's top stars; cricket is played everywhere: alleyways, parks, roads and even rooftops.

With the Asia Cup hosted by Bangladesh this year, the city is a blaze of green and red flags as kids run around cheering for the national team.

2. Dhaka is addicted to cha 

Dhaka chaFuel of the nation, cha (tea) is sold every few meters from stalls in the streets of Dhaka.

These sweet, milky, hot cups of tea are a Bangladeshi style caffeine fix.

Rickshaw drivers claim to drink up to 20 cups a day. If it can give them the power to fight their way through Dhaka, there must be something special about it.  

3. Rickshaw art is a serious business

Dhaka rickshaw artHindu gods, local film stars, depictions of Mecca and bizarre landscapes cover the rear flaps of Dhaka's rickshaws.

In a city of cycle rickshaws, the owners take their bodywork very seriously. 

Great pride is taken in a newly painted vehicle, and groups of drivers sit on street corners admiring the latest upgrades.

The artwork, created to order by young boys in crowded workshops on Bangsal Road in Old Dhaka, can be picked up cheaply as a great souvenir. 

4. World's worst traffic

Dhaka trafficYou’ll be hard pressed to see the point of doing anything but walking in Dhaka.

Sure, many Asian cities could stake a claim for the world's worst traffic. But in Dhaka, congestion gets to bad "rush hour" is what they call the least busy times, when rushing is somewhat possible. 

A 2011 government report stated that traffic stands still for more than seven hours a day. 

Traffic lights function as mere decorations as hundreds of thousands of rickshaws, buses, carts, bicycles, cars and motorbikes battle for space.

Watching rickshaw drivers scream and ring their bells to be heard over the deafening horns of buses and cars can make for an entertaining afternoon. But only if you can catch your breath through the clouds of smoke.

As for getting around, it’s almost certainly quicker to walk, hop or crawl.

5. Home to a 300-year old market

Dhaka Hindu Street marketDhaka's 300-year-old Hindu Street is the center of Bangladesh's Hindu community.

In predominantly Muslim Dhaka, Shankaria Bazaar, known locally as Hindu Street, is a vibrant splash of color, craziness and cacophony.

The area was first settled 300 years ago by Hindu artisans, and the descendants of the original settlers continue to ply their crafts in tiny workshops tucked away in narrow alleyways. 

Look out for kite makers, jewelers, tombstone engravers and artists painting pictures of Hindu gods in these caverns behind the decorated shop fronts.

Shankaria Bazaar is in Old Dhaka, a 10-minute walk northwest of the Sadarghat Boat Terminal.

6. The river that never sleeps

Dhaka riversideDhaka is summed up by all that happens along the banks of the Buringanga.

Dhaka's Buringanga River is the lifeblood of the city. Runnng through Old Dhaka, it's busy day and night, with porters, passengers and boatmen all jostling for space along the muddy banks. 

It's a major arrival point for those coming from the countryside to seek their fortunes in the big city, and the Buriganga riverside is pure Bangladesh.

Click on for five more things to know about Dhaka.

7. Fantastic bakeries

Dhaka bakeriesDhaka isn't famous for its bakeries. It should be.

After you’ve eaten your 20th chicken curry in Dhaka, the idea of biting into something sweet is pretty tempting.

Scattered across the city are bakeries bursting with sticky, sweet delights that are sold by the kilo.

Particularly busy on Fridays and loved by the locals, if you’re having trouble trying to choose, ask one of the sweet-laden housewives for a recommendation.

Grameen Sweetmeat, 80 Mothijheel Road, close to the National Stadium, is highly recommended by locals.

8. Chill out in a palace

Dhaka Pink PalaceCultural events are sometimes held in the gardens of the Pink Palace.

For a glimpse of how the Bangladeshi elite used to live, head to Ahsan Manzil.

Also known as the Pink Palace and once home to Dhaka’s wealthy Dhaka Nawab family, the building is full of grandiose ballrooms, snooker halls and river-view bedrooms.

It’s also good spot to sit and get away from the madness of the riverside. 

Ahsan Manzil is on Ahsanullah Road, 100 meters south of Shankaria Bazaar.

9. Education meets tranquility

Dhaka UniversityDhaka University is the oldest university in Bangladesh, established in 1921.

In a city as crowded as Dhaka it can be hard get away from the constant noise, smoke and hustle, but Dhaka University does offer one such spot.

Situated in beautiful grounds with libraries, art galleries and cafés, its great spot to take a book and just relax or go for a wander and chat to the friendly students looking to practice their English.

There are also some beautiful buildings from Bangladesh’s colonial past and a striking monument to the country's martyrs.

The University’s main entrance is on Abdul Ghani Road, one kilometer west of the National Stadium.

10. Chaotic, mesmerizing bookstores 

Dhaka bookstoresFor hot new reads, head to Dhaka's old market.

If you finish your book, which is likely with the lack of nightlife in Dhaka, head to the bookstores in a corner of the New Market.

From Hemingway to Dan Brown, and with plenty of titles on Bangladeshi history and culture, this labyrinth of bookstores will satisfy and enlighten even the best-read visitor.

The area is popular with students from the nearby Dhaka University and contains more than 20 shops stacked to the ceiling with books.

The New Market is on Mirpur Road, west of Dhaka University. 

Article first published April 2011, updated March 2012.

Matt Bennett is a writer and photographer based in Vietnam. When not rolling around the streets of Hanoi on his bicycle, he can be found wandering across Asia reporting on travel and culture. More examples of his work can be seen at www.mattjbennett.com

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