Bangladesh floats my boat: From rickshaw rides to tracking tigers, our journey had it all
Bangladesh is still flying under the tourist radar as a travel destination, so when Far Horizon Tours announced their inaugural river cruise through this mysterious country, intrigued, I jumped at the chance.
Our journey would take us across the border from India to the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, the most densely populated city on Earth for its size then towards the Bay of Bengal to the mystic Sundarbans. These are the largest mangrove swamps in the world, a Unesco World Heritage site, home to the man-eating Bengal tiger.
Our journey started in the Assam region of northern India, at the base of the Himalayas with views of the cloud-cloaked mountains of Bhutan. There was a great atmosphere on board our cruise ship, the MV Mahabaahu, a real spirit of adventure.
From our balcony and sundeck we could sit back and relax, watching the awe-inspiring scenery drift by and enjoy cocktails as the sun set.
The ingredients for our delicious meals were sourced from local markets and our ship's captain bartered with local fishermen who pulled along side to buy their catch of the day. Entire villages turned out to wave at us from the shore, as intrigued by us as we were of them.
On crossing the border into Bangladesh, the scenery changed dramatically. We sailed through industrial landscapes with hundreds of ghostly brick factory chimneys fading into the horizon.
Bangladesh is known as the 'land of the rivers' and it seems all life takes place on the riverbanks. We docked just outside Dhaka at Sadarghat river port. The panorama of river life was fascinating.
We watched overloaded barges almost submerged by their cargo, children fishing from the banks, men hammering and welding rusting tankers beached until the monsoon arrives to refloat them (hopefully watertight in time) while small river boats ferried passengers and produce between the banks.
We travelled by car to the capital Dhaka and it soon became clear why the rivers are the lifeblood of the country. Dhaka is the craziest place I've ever been to. Everyone seems to be on the move, all at the same time.
Traffic is disorganised chaos with buses, cars, tuk-tuks and beautifully-painted rickshaws all fighting for space. It's a melee of motorised and human-powered transport. Even the local buses enjoy a tussle, evident by their many battle scars.
It's a developing country and they're busy at it. The universities are packed with students, there's major construction work and the markets are best described as frenetic mayhem.
All the locals were the friendliest and most energetic people I'd ever met. Everyone is working for a better future right down to the tiny one-man shops.
We passed a barber working out of a kiosk not much bigger than a wardrobe… just enough room for him and his client. Stepping out of this friendly riot is thankfully easy by visiting one of the many parks, monuments and gardens.
There's something for everyone in Dhaka. For the culture vulture there are temples, mosques, palaces and forts. The massive markets are a shopaholic's paradise where you can buy anything you need, plenty of things you don't and other unrecognisables and for all you adrenaline junkies out there, just take a death-defying rickshaw ride.
Dhaka has earned the unenviable award of the fifth worst city in the world… but to me, it's up there with the best!
On our many trips to shore, highlights included the warmest of welcomes at a Sikh temple, a place where anyone of any faith is treated to a delicious lunch. We also tried our hand at throwing pots at a local village with hilarious results.
An early start of around 5am took us to a floating market to stock up on fresh produce and at a fishing village we watched the catch being auctioned off (careful not to make any sudden arm movements for fear of accidentally buying a massive catfish).
Local fishermen showed how they use trained otters to corral sea creatures of all kinds into their nets, the otters squeaked with delight when they were rewarded with the smaller fish from the catch.
Back on board we were entertained by dancers and singers from local villages who performed traditional folk songs and showed us examples of their intricate needlework (great presents).
Our excursions took us to three Unesco World Heritage Sites, the Manas National Park in Assam, the Mosque City of Bagerhat in Bangladesh, and the Sundarbans, the largest tidal mangrove forests in the world.
From our cruise boat we took several excursions on a smaller boat to allow us to navigate the myriad waterways and venture deep into the mangroves. The twittering bird life was all that broke the serene silence.
We kept our eyes peeled looking for the elusive Bengal tiger. Spotting fresh paw prints sent a buzz of excitement through the boat but sadly this was as close as we got to spotting the regal beast.
We did have a close encounter with a saltwater crocodile. Basking on the mud flats it seemed fast asleep, but suddenly, with terrifying speed, it splashed into the water and swam under our boat.
Our Sunderbans tour ended with a magical night safari where phosphorescent plankton glittered and shone all around our boat.
From Unesco sites to rickshaw rides to tracking tigers, our journey from India to Bangladesh had it all. It was fascinating to explore these two countries by boat, navigating the ever-changing scenery and enjoying the beauty of nature.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the first travellers to take this trip and enjoy some unforgettably unique experiences.
Outbound flight: Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) from Dublin to Delhi.
Indigo Airlines (www.goindigo.in) from Delhi to Guwahati.
Inbound: Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) from Calcutta - Bangalore - Dublin.
To book with Far Horizon Tours, visit www.farhorizonindia.com
To book this trip, visit www.farhorizonindia.com/itineraries/16-nights-mv-mahabaahu-special-departure-itinerary
Prices for this trip started from £4,411.20 for a superior cabin without balcony.