Bangladesh is a misunderstood country and one which does not receive a lot of tourists. As a result, most people cannot name any facts about Bangladesh without spending some time researching.
For example, did you know that its capital, Dhaka is one of the most populated and the most densely populated city in the world? Or that Bangladesh is a low lying country that is often flooded? Or that there are still tigers in its marshes?
I bet you didn’t!
There are a lot of Bangladesh facts that are not known to most, which is why I put together this post after my time in the country. Before visiting Dhaka, you should make sure to read this list.
- There are a lot of Bangladeshis out of the country
- Dhaka is the most densely populated city on Earth
- Traffic is insane
- The world’s least livable city
- Dhaka has a street with more people than a village
- It was once East Pakistan
- Longest female-led government
- Poverty is high, but drastically improving
- Bangladeshis are very slim
- The longest beach in Asia, but no bikinis
- A huge mangrove and delta
- Very unique food
- The reason for UNESCO’s Intl. Mother Language Day
- The birthplace of microcredit
There are a lot of Bangladeshis out of the country
You may not expect to read this one fact about Bangladesh but despite the country being the 10th largest in population in the world there are an estimated 7.5 million Bangladeshis living abroad. Almost half of these live in India but another 1 million are in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East.
That is right, 5% of the total Bangladeshi population does not live within its borders but instead migrated to find job opportunities, at a rate of half a million annually in the last few years, how is that for an interesting Bangladesh fact?
This is most apparent in places like Dubai, where I lived for five years and where the majority of the population are expats (83%) of South Asian origin working in the service and construction industries.
The Bangladeshi diaspora are great help to the economy as these foreign workers send remittances back home which account for 5% of the GDP in 2018, down from a peak of 10% in 2012. This is a similar percentage to that of Filipinos abroad, or Lebanese abroad.
According to a report from Knomad, a Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development from The World Bank, Bangladesh is not the largest country in remittances as total amount, India, China and Mexico receive larger sums, but in relative terms, it is. The country would have 10 percentage points more poor people were it not for remittances.
Dhaka is the most densely populated city on Earth
Sadly this is not a positive Bangladesh fact but one which helps us understand the reality on the ground.
Bangladesh is an incredibly highly populated country of close to 160 million (8th largest in the world) living in an area the size of Pennsylvania.
The capital of Dhaka is the 5th largest city in the world but it is the world’s most densely populated according to the World Economic Forum, with 44,500 people per square kilometer. But that is a useless Bangladesh fact unless fully understood.
To put things into perspective, Dhaka’s density is 10 times that of Madrid, and four times higher than the 9th city on the same ranking, Singapore where I live, but I can tell you the feeling is 100 times more intense in Dhaka.
That is because after Dhaka’s uber high density number the rest of the cities on the list are distant followers and by the 10th the numbers have dropped below 10,000 people per square kilometer.
This Bangladesh fact is one of the reasons why any visitor to the country feels overwhelmed from the moment they arrive.
Traffic is insane
I have lived in Singapore for years, and the word traffic here has no meaning. On a bad day, say a Friday evening at 7pm, you may be stuck in traffic for 10min, and we call that traffic.
Traffic in Asia’s capitals takes another nature. In Manila, it would take me from 30 to 45min to drive the kilometer to the office. You should have walked, you could say, but in a suit, with a laptop bag and in 35-degree, 80% humidity weather, I would rather wait for 30min in an air conditioned taxi than arrive at the client’s office covered in sweat.
So we got used to the 30min daily commute, even if we were going literally around the corner.
Traffic can be really bad in India as well. Legendary and predictably bad. Cows sharing the roads with rickshaws, bicycles, people, beggars, and lots of cars. But it can also be nonexistent, in the low quiet hours of the day.
Bad traffic has become one of the things Dhaka is famous for.
It is pervasive, impossible to avoid, a fact of life and the result of a population explosion coupled with corrupt officials who appropriate the investment meant for infrastructure. Public transportation is an unheard of term.
To make matters worse, there are practically no traffic lights in Dhaka, the ones that once were do not work any longer, or are not respected, and the rule of the jungle applies here, everyone for themselves.
The wealthy have big comfortable cars, drivers, and sirens, which they play nonstop to try to get through the traffic. The cacophony of sounds and the deafness of most locals give little value to these whining lights. Ambulances would be met with the same impassivity.
The city has minimal roads, far less than would be required of a city of this size, and more cars than it should, almost all occupied by a businessman and his driver. This results in an average traffic speed of just 7km/h and 3.5 million working hours wasted every day to traffic according to a World Bank study.
Nowhere else does the word traffic jam ring truer than in Dhaka and it will horrify anyone visiting.
The world’s least livable city
Dhaka’s size, pollution, traffic and population density make visitors feel like it is an assault to every sense. You are constantly overstimulated with loud sounds, bright colors and strong smells. When you step out of the car, traffic fumes will hit you in the face.
The locals feel it too.
Unsurprisingly, this is because of poverty, unemployment, dire infrastructure, constant traffic and high levels of pollution. Dhaka is the 17th most polluted city in the world.
Dhaka has a street with more people than a village
Life in rural Bangladesh is really tough and job opportunities minimal so people are forced to live on subsistence agriculture. Those who can, flee to the cities.
There, they find traffic is terrible and public transportation nonexistent, so they are forced to pile up in the center of the city so they can live close to their work. This has caused the city to grow up and people to squat in small spaces, several to a small room.
At the heart of Old Dhaka is Shankhani Bazaar, a 200m long lane with almost 10,000 people living in it, that is more than most towns and villages in the West.
Walking in the city center is an obstacle race where one needs to look out for rickshaws, dogs, rubbish, motorbikes, bicycles, pull carts and people coming from everywhere.
It was once East Pakistan
Modern day Bangladesh was part of the Mughal Empire until the arrival of the British Raj. When the Raj ended and Britain left, it divided the colony into two parts based on religion: the Hindu part of India and the Muslim parts of Bangladesh and Pakistan, both under the same country of Pakistan.
This was devastating for Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, who was separated from West Pakistan by India and by a distinct heritage. From 1948 until 1971 Bangladeshi culture was oppressed and this culminated in the War of Liberation that brought independence in 1971.
Longest female-led government
You might be surprised to read that, for all the talk about Islamic terrorism in the country, Bangladesh has a female Prime Minister, Sheikha Hasina, since 2009 and she is in office for the third consecutive term. No doubt this is the most unexpected Bangladesh fact.
But Hasina was not the first female president of Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia was president between 1991 and 1996 and was the second head of state or government appointed in a Muslim country after Pakistan’s Benazir Butto. For reference, the first ever female head of state was Mongolian.
Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been led by female leaders for 25 years (and still is), or about 50% of the time, not bad considering the country has been through several internal wars and coups in that same period.
Most importantly, the most interesting fact about Bangladesh is that this makes it the country with the longest female leader in office in the world.
Poverty is high, but drastically improving
The Bangladeshi economy has grown significantly in the last decades at a rate well above the annual 5% helping to lift a significant percentage of the population from poverty.
As a result, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line (i.e. on less than $1.90 a day) decreased dramatically from close to 50% in 2000 to a quarter of the population in 2018.
Bangladeshis are very slim
Probably linked to all of the Bangladesh facts above, it should be expected that the country has the second lowest obesity rates in the world after Vietnam with less than 5% of the population suffering from obesity.
This is despite the fact that Bangladeshi food is carbohydrate heavy and includes lots of fried foods like deep-fried fish, snacks like samosa or biryani. Locals stay healthy by walking a lot and almost 65% of the population live in the rural areas living an agriculture-based lifestyle and requires a lot of physical work.
The longest beach in Asia, but no bikinis
You will be surprised by this fact about Bangladesh: the country has the world’s longest beach and you are likely to find some stretches of sand empty.
Cox Bazar is a beach in the Bay of Bengal, in the southwestern part of Bangladesh, and it is the longest in Asia, the third in the world and the longest uninterrupted beach, 120km long.
It is not your typical Southeast Asian beach, with white powder sand and backpacker tourists, but you will still find plenty of tourism development, sun loungers and umbrellas for rent and lots of hotels.
The country’s muslim population is very conservative and frown upon bathing in swimming clothing so you should expect to go in the water fully clothed.
A huge mangrove and delta
You may have heard of Bangladesh on the news every summer when the monsoons flood the country. This is a common and annual occurrence since the country is practically at sea level and covered in rivers that end in a massive delta.
When the summer rains arrive, the country is flooded and this causes annual tragedies, with loss of lives and damage to infrastructure, this is one of the saddest facts about Bangladesh.
The silverlining is the river deposits have created some of the most fertile soil in the world and a rich mangrove ecosystem that is the world’s largest, UNESCO listed and where lots of species thrive.
Among the animals living in Bangladesh’s mangroves is the country’s national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger, a majestic creature that lives in the Sundarban on the border with India.
You can also see tigers in India, specifically in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, another great safari destination in Asia, but in Bangladesh they live in a wet environment instead of the dry lands of central India.
Very unique food
I bet you wanted a good culinary Bangladesh fact. I made sure to try as many local foods as I could while there and never ate at any place that was not 100% Bangladeshi, but after a while I realised that the food was tasty, yet there was not a lot variety in the local diet.
Bangladeshi food is rather mushy and made of a lot of mashed and curried green and root vegetables and, since the country is filled with rivers and the sea, fish is the staple and takes center stage.
The main dish you will find in every menu is the hilsa fish, a rather bony white fish that is eaten in curry or, most commonly, fried. It is tasty, but it requires a lot of work because the bones are everywhere and hard to remove.
The reason for UNESCO’s Intl. Mother Language Day
If you read my article on things to do in Dhaka you will know that one of the most interesting places to visit is the university’s Curzon Hall and this is the center of our next historical fact about Bangladesh.
The building is not only famous because of its Indo-Saracenic style (very similar to the architecture of Chennai) but also because it was the site of a student massacre that culminated in the country’s War of Liberation.
The students protested against Pakistan’s decision to rule Bangla out as an official language and were attacked by the Pakistani forces. That day, the 21st of February, was named by UNESCO as the International Mother Language Day at the suggestion of Bangladesh.
The birthplace of microcredit
After so many grey Bangladesh facts, we need some hopefully and positive ones, what about a Nobel Prize?
When I was a telecoms management consultant, we used to read about Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and Mobile operator as the inventor of the microcredit.
Mohammed Yunus, its founder, started the “village bank” by giving microcredits to women in rural areas out of his own pocket in the 1970s and then expanded his work into a full fledged bank. For his work, the bank and himself were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
When we were walking around a small island village in the River Meghna, near Sonargaon, we came across one of the Grameen Bank employees who were visiting the local women and collecting payments. It was all done manually, on paper notebooks, yet his notes indicated that the default rate was practically zero.
Grameen’s loans are very small in nature, sometimes less than $100, and given only to women. The community created around it means that the women help each other in times of need so the default rate is low. This is a prerequisite to be a recipient of its loans, and one of the most important factors to the program’s success.
Grameen’s efforts have expanded across the world and today there are many microfinancing institutions elsewhere, but the principles in which it was founded still show the best returns. Microloans continue to be given to women (82% of the borrowers were women in 2017) living in rural areas.