1/8/2009 to 1/10/2009 | Bangladesh

Chittagong to Khulna (White Knuckle Bus Ride & Relaxing on the Rocket)

Having traveled thousands of miles along roads of all manner, I would consider myself a veteran of Asian bus travel, and as such very few things raise my pulse when it comes to the often chaotic roads of Asia.  I take the passing on blind curves, the often sardine-can-like seating, and one-lane mountain roads with sheer drops to certain death with little more than a sigh.  I would have never guessed my most freighting bus ride would be along the flat roads of Bangladesh.  The guidebook warns against travel by bus between Chittagong and Dhaka especially at night but I didn’t want to wait around in Chittagong for the train the following day, so having just arrived from Banderban I sought out the Dhaka bound buses and booked myself a seat on one of the many private luxury buses that ply between Bangladesh’s two major cities.  It was just after 5:00 pm and the twilight was beginning to give way to darkness when I took my seat on the aisle seat in the front row just to the drivers left (they drive on the left in Bangladesh thus the driver sits on the right).  This seat while quit comfortable also unfortunately would give me an unobstructed view of what our rally-car-racing-by-day-bus-driving-by-night driver was seeing.  The luxury bus companies in Bangladesh are often the most comfortable way of traveling catering to the upper class Bangladeshis but still quite affordable even for a budget travel such as myself.  The buses are usually of Volvo or Mercedes make with ample leg room, comfortable reclining seats, and A.C.  They also come equipped with engines designed to be driven on the autobahns of Germany not the two lane highways of Bangladesh.  Unlike the Tata buses of India which have a top speed of maybe 80 km/hr (50 mph) but are more often driven in 40-50 km/hr (30 mph) range these buses can reach 160 km/hr (100 mph) making them by far the fastest things on the road in Bangladesh.  Furthermore the roads in Bangladesh are quite good, surface wise, and with a country as flat as Bangladesh, if unobstructed, a vehicle with enough engine power can easily reach substantial speeds.  Of course the roads are rarely unobstructed, there in lies the rub.  For the roads are often as narrow as they are straight built on raised dikes to avoid flooding during the monsoon months. The traffic occupying the roadways ranges from bullock carts moving at maybe 5 km/hour, cycle rickshaws at 10 km/hour, motorbikes, trucks, and local buses at about 30-50 km/hr, the odd private car at 50-80 km/hr, and the deluxe buses at whatever speed they can reach.  The Chittagong to Dhaka stretch of road is one of the busiest in the country ensuring a plethora of all of the aforementioned modes of transport attempting to navigate the two lane roadway.

On this occasion it appeared our driver was trying to set the all time Bangladeshi speed record for the journey, or perhaps the imam at his local mosque had just issued a fatwa against oncoming traffic and our man in the driver’s seat was joining the jihad.   Whatever the motivation, he was weaving in and out of the traffic like he was driving a sports car, not a full size bus filled with 30 souls whose lives he held in the grip of his steering wheel.  At one point when the traffic came to a halt in front of him he pulled off on to the dirt shoulder and floored it, causing cyclists and pedestrians to dive out of the way of the maniac wielding a multi-ton killing machine.  I sat staring out the front window wondering how the man behind the wheel could see the same thing I was seeing yet still attempt to overtake three trucks with a vehicle barring down from the opposite direction.  A blur of near misses later we  miraculously made it to Dhaka without the driver killing us, or more remarkably anyone else on the road, in retrospect he was either a driving phenom who should be signed by formula 1, or certifiably insane and incredibly lucky, I tend to think the latter.

Despite the drivers efforts to get us to Dhaka at the earliest possible hour I still ended up being dropped off in Dhaka at nearly one in the morning in a part of town that I didn’t know.  Armed robbery and other street crime is hardly unheard of in Dhaka so I figured it would not be wise to walk the streets at this hour with all my gear.  Fortunately I was saved yet again by the friendly Bangladeshis.  A man outside the tea shop where I was dropped off first tried to help me get a cycle rickshaw to take me to the hotel where I was going, but then when he determined that the rickshaw wallah was trying to charge me too much he offered to drive me to my hotel in his car.  An offer which I gratefully accepted trusting my instincts on the honesty of the man, instincts which were proved correct, yet another helpful Bangladeshi.

After my less than relaxing journey the prior evening I was happy to continue my journey to Khulna aboard the colonial era paddle boat known as the Rocket.  Still used as basic transportation in the web of canals and rivers that make up the delta region of Bangladesh, $15 gets you a first class cabin aboard one of these relics of a bygone era for the day and a half journey from Dhaka to Khulna.  Certainly one of the highlights of a visit to Bangladesh is sipping tea from the deck of this classic ship while watching the river life float by.

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