Slow down for this rural wonderland laden with waterways, peppered with villages and bursting with famously friendly people. Find the world's longest beach, countless mosques, the largest mangrove forest in the world, interesting tribal villages and a wealth of elusive wildlife in Bangladesh.
Dhaka: A gloriously noisy and chaotic place, Dhaka is always bubbling with energy. This city can sometimes threaten to overwhelm the casual visitor, but once you climb into the back of one of its myriad colorful cycle-rickshaws, Dhaka's charm starts to slowly reveal itself. Life flows from the boats on the Buriganga River to its unexpectedly green parks and university campuses. Mughal and British monuments speak of its history, its mosques and Hindu temples of its spiritual side, and the thriving arts and restaurant scenes – plus the rush to build new roads and a metro railway system – give a glimpse of the direction of future travel.
Ratargul: Bangladesh's only freshwater swamp forest, Ratargul was formed by the spilling over of the Gowain River into a 200-hectare jungle basin shaded by innumerable evergreens. The water level in this 'Amazonian' swamp peaks at about 7.5 metres in the rainy season, dropping to about 3 metres during winter. A variety of trees, including the readily recognisable millettia or koroch, stand with their trunks immersed in water and provide refuge to bird species such as kingfishers, cormorants, cranes and herons, as well as a large assortment of snakes.
Sundarbans National Park: A shroud of mystery and danger looms over the UNESCO-protected Sundarbans National Park, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Bleak and haunting at the same time, the wilderness here comprises an enormous network of interconnected waterways, stretching inland for about 80km from the Bay of Bengal. This is truly wild terrain, and a three- or four-day boat trip into the heart of this magnificent part of south Asia often ranks as the chief highlight of a trip to Bangladesh.
Lowacherra National Park: This wonderful patch of tropical semi-evergreen forest, around 8km east of Srimangal, provides some lovely forest walks and also your best chance of seeing the endangered hoolock gibbons in the wild. These are the only apes in Bangladesh and there are only around 200 left in the country, some 60 of which live here. Protected as part of the government-run Nishorgo Network, the park now has walking trails as well as knowledgeable eco-guides. Apart from the hoolocks, a further 19 mammal species have been identified here, including capped langur, macaques, the delightful slow loris, orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel and barking deer. There are also some 246 bird species and 20 varieties of orchid.
Kantanagar Temple: Set amidst gorgeous countryside, the vault-roofed rouge sandcastle of Kantanagar Temple, also known locally as Kantaji, is a stunning piece of religious artwork, and one of the most impressive Hindu monuments in Bangladesh. Built in 1752 by Pran Nath, a renowned maharaja from Dinajpur, it is the country’s finest example of brick and terracotta style temple architecture. Its most remarkable feature, typical of mid-18th-century Hindu temples, is its superb surface decoration, with infinite panels of sculpted terracotta plaques depicting both figurative and floral motifs.
Shait Gumbad Mosque: Built in 1459, the famous Shait Gumbad Mosque is the largest and most magnificent traditional mosque in the country. Shait Gumbad means ‘the Temple with 60 Domes’ – a misnomer considering there are actually 81. This fortress-like structure has unusually thick walls, built in the tapering brick style, and is a hugely impressive sight. The overall architectural influence is unmistakably Turkish, and the arches within the main hall are a graceful exercise in geometry.
Tajhat Palace: The flamboyant and wonderfully maintained Tajhat Palace is arguably one of the finest rajbaris in Bangladesh. The palace was constructed in the 19th century by Manna Lal Ray, a Hindu trader who was forced to emigrate from Punjab and found his way to Rangpur. He eventually became a successful jeweler, acquired a lot of land, subsequently won the title of raja (ruler) and built this huge mansion. Local villagers believe there is treasure hidden in its walls. Structurally, the palace is similar to Dhaka’s Ahsan Manzil (Pink Palace) and has a frontage of about 80 metres. The main building is crowned by a ribbed conical dome and features an imposing central staircase made of imported white marble.
Varendra Research Museum: This gem of a museum is tucked away in an unassuming building on a quiet street, but can easily take up half a day of your time. Founded in 1910 with the support of the maharaja of Dighapatia, it is managed by Rajshahi University and is the oldest museum in the country. Housed within is a fantastic and superbly curated collection of relics spanning the entire subcontinent, from the earliest civilisation of Mohenjodaro in Pakistan to local archaeological excavation sites. Keep enough time in hand to view the wonderful sculpture galleries, with exquisite figurines of Hindu gods, goddesses and mythical figures. The collection of Islamic artefacts from the medieval era, comprising weapons, ensembles, daily objects and a number of ornate hand-written copies of the Quran, is simply stunning. The building itself is a curious mix of British and Hindu architectural styles.
Somapuri Vihara: The hulking 20 metres-high remains of a 1300-year-old red-brick stupa form the central attraction of the vast monastery complex at Somapuri Vihara. Shaped like a quadrangle covering 11 hectares, the complex has monastic cells that line its outer walls and enclose an enormous open-air courtyard with the stupa at its centre. The stupa’s floor plan is cruciform, topped by a three-tier superstructure. Look out for clay tiles lining its base, which depict various people and creatures in a variety of postures.
Shrine of Lalon Shah: For both foreigners as well as Bangladeshi tourists, the white onion-domed shrine of musician and poet Lalon Shah is the main reason for visiting Kushtia. Lalon Shah is one of the most famous mystic personalities in Bangladesh, and the serene shrine is a peek into the spiritual side of Bangladeshi life. The shrine centres on the holy man’s tomb and that of his adopted parents, while around the perimeter of the shrine are the tombs of various local dignitaries. Behind the tomb complex is a covered area where musicians sometimes play and sing Lalon Shah’s songs, while pilgrims burst into dance. In mid-March and mid-October, the Lalon Festival is held on the grassy maidan, overlooking the river nearby. It is a five-day folk-music extravaganza and attracts thousands of pilgrims and itinerant vendors.