From a cost of living data collection point of view moving from India to Bangladesh was rather a surprise. I mentioned in my last post about the difficulties of getting imported foodstuffs in parts of India but in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka I found myself in imported food heaven! On the flipside, however, the choice of non-food items is pretty dire compared to the large metropolises of its neighbour. Clothing options, in particular, is fairly poor with no recognizable Western-brand clothing stores. This is perhaps rather ironic seeing as Bangladesh is noted for manufacturing and exporting clothing for the Western markets abroad. The country is one of the world’s largest textile exporters and the textile industry accounts for 70% of its export earnings. The industry came to international attention two years ago when an eight storey textile factory building collapsed in the capital. The deaths of over 1100 workers brought to light the terrible conditions and lack of adequate safety procedures concerned with the thousands of similar factories across the country. In response many of the Western companies involved have signed an accord to push through improvements in safety.
I can’t see any sweeping changes happening overnight though. Especially with regard to the structural integrity of many of the buildings. Even in the Gulshan area of Dhaka where I was based for my two days, and which is thought of as an expat haven away from the ‘real’ Dhaka, many of the buildings look like they could topple at any moment! In this respect it is not dissimilar from India, and the similarities don’t end there. At street level there are still the sights of all sorts of animals roaming around and the smells, noises and dirt are part and parcel of everyday life too. You’re unlikely to see many cows roaming the streets however as Bangladesh is a Muslim nation and the cow is not revered like it is by the Hindus. The traffic is as chaotic as anything which India can muster, though, and Dhaka has been given the sobriquet of Rickshaw Capital of the World.
I was surprised to read during my trip prep that Bangladesh has only been an independent nation since 1971. I assumed that it gained its freedom from India after the exit of the British Empire in 1947 but for 24 years Bangladesh was called East Bengal (and then East Pakistan) and was part of Pakistan. After independence the new nation suffered for 20 years with all sorts of political upheavals, widespread poverty and famine.
Since the 1990s, though, the situation has improved somewhat. Although still a less developed nation Bangladesh is part of the ‘Next Eleven’, a list of 11 nations described by Goldman Sachs as having the potential to join the BRIC countries as one of the world’s brightest economies. I think this seems very unlikely as there are still many problems affecting the country, not least of all its vulnerability to natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Bangladesh sits on the site of the world’s largest river delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers meet. On the plus side this provides ample fertile soil but on the downside is the constant flooding which much of the country suffers. Add in the odd tropical cyclone and tornado and you really have a recipe for disaster. In 1998 some two thirds of the country were under water after similar climatic comings together. It also doesn’t help that Bangladesh is the most densely populated large country in the world leaving millions of people at the whims of nature. (By ‘large’ I mean anything larger than Bahrain – which is tiny!).
After leaving Dhaka behind I flew on to Nepal, the only country in the world which doesn’t have a quadrilateral shaped flag! For some reason this fact had already endeared me to the country even though this was my first visit. Nepal is known as the home of Mount Everest and is also home to eight of the world’s ten highest mountains. So, bearing this in mind I was expecting it to be a tad lofty and cold in Kathmandu. Well, it wasn’t too cold (nudging the low 20’s) and it’s actually only the 17th highest capital city in the world, sitting below Guatemala City and Nairobi!
According to the Nepali calendar the year is 2071 and their time zone is some 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. But driving out of the airport it felt more like 1991 than 2015, or even 2071. I wasn’t expecting the place to be well developed but the city certainly has its fair share of run-down buildings and poverty. The last time I had street children begging for dollars and refusing to let go of my arm was years ago in Kolkata and it came as a shock to see how poor some of the citizens are. That said, it felt safe enough walking around the streets, as long as you keep your eyes on the pavements (or lack of) underfoot.
In terms of the shopping environment Kathmandu is no New York but the supermarkets are still better stocked with Western imports than many areas of India. For decades a pillar of the shopping scene in Nepal’s capital has been Bhatbhateni which now has four outlets. The Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue of Kathmandu is considered to be Durbar Marg (also known as Kingsway) but it’s got a long way to go before it can call itself a shopping mecca!
Tourism plays a big part in the Nepal economy and so I felt I had to indulge a little in what Kathmandu has to offer during my time there. I hope you enjoy the photos of the various shrines, mountains, monkeys, dragons and markets in the slideshow above! Next time I’ll be blogging from the continent I have visited the least – South America.