A Travellerspoint blog

April 2010

Bangladesh and Bhutan

Greetings after a 1st month in the subcontinent. I've been to a couple of very poor countries way down most peoples list of places to visit but through some innovative thinking have developed societies that were fascinating to see. I'm now back in India slowly beginning to drown myself in tea and it's just starting to get a little warm...

If you're still unsure about where you're gonna go on holiday this Summer and are looking for a bit of R & R then may I offer the recommendation to NOT pick Bangladesh. Having left Thailand which is the most touristy place I've ever been to, Bangladesh was the complete opposite. There are very few tourist attractions and unsurprisingly nearly zero tourists in what is one of the most hectic and chaotic places in the world. The country is so heavily populated (7th in the world at 150m people) because of the awesomely flat Ganges delta running through it, this makes the land extremely fertile and virtually everywhere is settled to some extent. Whilst at times it's really hard traveling there, watching how this riparian state works as it literally lives and dies on the river is definitely the enjoyment of being there.
Earlier on this trip I wrote about the population density in Taiwan but Bangladesh has even more at over 1,000 people per square km and there's really no getting away from them. The phrase "it's rude to stare" doesn't seem to have a Bengali translation and as there are virtually no tourists and most people are obviously too poor to travel abroad they REALLY take an interest in you. Within hours you have to get used to being watched by 50+ people (well, men and kids actually as it's a Muslim country) doing the simplest things like drinking tea or eating a meal. If you stop to try and buy something on a street stall or even stop to chat to someone within seconds you have to move on as such a big crowd around you forms, not even saying anything to each other just staring at you. I went to the 'longest beach in the world" (maybe) at a place called Cox's Bazaar and inadvertently managed to hold up the filming of an advert for 5 minutes as the locals required for a crowd scene all abandoned the camera to gawp at me for a bit. The glamorous actors found it funny but the director was amusingly getting quite hacked off before I started walking away.

Thanks to umpteeen geography lessons, in the UK Bangladesh is of course famous for the manifestations of the extreme poverty faced there. Foremost amongst these are the fast spreading diseases and difficulties of educating the population but it also shows up in other ways. I tried to visit the hill tracts towards the Burmese border but was turned back because of recent violence against new settlers in the area. The government has tried to relieve some pressure off the overburdened major cities by moving people to more remote parts of the country but this has led to real anger often resulting in riots and deaths against the newbies over the competition for resources.

But all the negative news and views about the Bangladeshis is a little bit out of date; Bangladesh went through huge population growth during the '50's and 60's but in the last 30 years has been very successful in lifting many of its poorest out of absolute poverty and interestingly this has mainly been achieved through its women. On a social level they set up mobile family planning clinics to head to the villages and made it compulsory for the women to attend classes about best managing their family's size and highlighting policies such as banning dowries and female infanticide etc. As a result the average family size has dwindled to under 3 children per family which has both allowed for much more effective forward planning for the country but also drastically reduced the number of dependents on the country's water and land resources, as a result now almost every year there is enough food to feed the people, which wasn't always so of course.
Mohammed Yunus recently won the Nobel prize for Economics for his invention of giving micro credit loans in Bangladesh through his Grameen Bank. This is a system whereby bank branches in virtually every village give the poorest members of society small loans in order to improve their lives on a micro scale. This could be buying crop seeds, basic machinery or even loans to help them pay for education. Virtually all of the money (97%) is loaned to the nations women and it's been phenomenally successful with a default rate of less than 2%. It's become a story which very poor countries around the world especially in conservative Africa would do well to follow. By handing the loans to women the idea is that not only is the money more closely tied to the family and community but it also provides a vital way of empowering them in what is still a fairly conservative Muslim country where normal employment for women is much harder to obtain. The number of people living on less than $2 a day has drastically come down and whilst it would be foolish to describe the country as anything other than extremely poor it is at least moving slowly in the right direction.

I found Bangladeshis to be a really likable people; besides their overwhelming curiosity in you they were unfailingly polite and I did enjoy answering their many questions. Beyond my nationality, name and 'Do you play for England?' ("Yes, I'm Michael Carberry"), interestingly one of the first questions you were guaranteed to be asked is "What is your qualification?".
There's a strong argument that Bangladeshis have been the single least successful ethnic minority to settle in Britain. They've never really been able to get beyond the lower skilled jobs and poorer neighbourhoods and consequently they still have the lowest household income and academic achievements rates out of any ethnic groups in the UK. Answering my qualification would lead to other questions about my education and it was definitely a time when I felt grateful for going to a university people have heard of; they'd quickly become very deferential and want to know my opinions on everything from American politics to Tamim Iqbal. They would also ask 'Why are you here?" and on receiving the reply of "why not?" they were genuinely grateful for you being there and would thank you and shake your hand. Whilst this self effacement I found a touch annoying about the cricket team- in the people it was really nice to be around.

Without doubt the biggest negative about Bangladesh were the roads; in Vietnam I wrote about crossing the road being 'exciting' but in Bangladesh it equals possible death. A driving license is still something you pay 2 quid for and with no road markings or any road safety education schemes the roads are truly terrifying. With no lessons or tests unsurprisingly Bangladeshis are appalling drivers and in the countryside no less than 32 people a day are killed on the roads! In the capital Dhaka however, you remember it more for the traffic. It's a city of 12million people but is 10 times more densely populated than London, there's no metro or Skytrain of course so you're forced to take rickshaws everywhere- either cycle or autos. The problem is that between roughly 7.30am and 11pm virtually the entire city is in gridlock, after spending maybe 2+ hrs a day every day for 8 days (before, during and after the cricket) and having to put up with taxi drivers who don't know where the equivalent of Old Trafford and the British Museum are - I've never been more pleased to leave a city.

So I cut about 15 degrees of the temp and went North up to the Himalayas where after spending a wk or so in India (which I'll cover in the next email) I headed into Bhutan.

Geographical ignorance is not something I forgive easily and I've been nigh on disgusted with the number of 'travelers' I've met on this trip that have not even heard of Bhutan. Whilst it is a very small country, it's unique culture and society mean that everyone should be aware of it. It's a small landlocked kingdom in the Himalayas and as you might expect from that description is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Almost all the country is above 2000m altitude and whilst journeys are slow and long, Thimphu the capital is one of the most picturesque in the world and there's an incredible mountain view literally wherever you are.
Due to the mountainous barrier, for centuries the kingdom has been near isolated and the culture that has developed bears little resemblance to any of it's neighbours. However, in recent years the development of road engineering, airports and other means of communication threatened to change this and so successive kings have brought in various measures to preserve their unique national identity. Phones weren't brought in until 1986 and TV didn't arrive til as late as 1999, they put strict limits on the number of tourists allowed to visit the Kingdom and enacted a law which meant that everyone has to wear the national dress (a sort of striped robe) at work rather than switch to Western clothes.
However, the thing Bhutan is most famous for is the development of the concept of Gross National Happiness or GNH. In the 1960's and 1970's the developed world really thought that poorer countries could be lifted out of poverty and therefore made more 'happy' by throwing money at them, developing their economies and raising their GDP. The Bhutanese king however, took a different view and in the early 1970s established the concept of GNH as the most important factor in measuring the peoples wellbeing. Using a complex system of assessments and measurements for areas such as spiritual wellbeing and family togetherness, the populations happiness is measured and given a $ value. Absolutely key to the nations happiness is the role of Buddhism in Bhutanese lives. As with most other countries in this part of the world much of their lives revolve around the religion and maintaining a happy spiritual balance. The people are incessantly trying to build up 'credits' to boost their birth position in the next life and as with most Buddhists on a practical level means they're incredibly easy going and friendly. Therefore government spending is aimed at increasing overall wellbeing so money is pushed towards different areas (such as religious and educational programmes) than would normally be seen as logical to improving standards of living in dollar terms. Overall this means that whilst Bhutan on paper is very poor and ranks about 125th on GDP, the last government survey showed only 3% of people described themselves as unhappy and despite its financial poverty it ranks 8th on the world happiness database. Unsurprisingly this unique method of measuring development is beloved by left leaning aid groups and gaining increasing credibility as a more progressive way to measure our social progress rather than in mere financial terms.

It was somewhere I expected to love and it really was a magical place. From the awesome Dzongs (huge monasteries) dotted on precarious mountain cliffs, to the fascinating culture and awe inspiring scenery it's one of the most memorable places I've been to. The unique culture and way the people try to live their lives with spiritual rather than financial goals means it's one of the most 'unspoilt' places in the world and I'm truly delighted we went.

Now I'm firmly back in India gorging myself on cricket and chapatis but with the thermostat already hitting 42 I'm preparing myself for one of the hottest months of my life as I head West to the Great Plains.

From Kolkata,

Posted by carlswall 13:14 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)