“Do you have any long trousers? We are going to my private members’ club this evening, but there is a dress code and they do not allow shorts.” I don’t know what exactly I was expecting from my week-long sojourn in Bangladesh, but it didn’t involve boujee nightclubs, and certainly not during Ramadan. It was as I mulled this unanticipated question from my Couchsurfing host that I realised how little I knew about this, the world’s 8th most populous country. Precious little, in fact, beyond the names of its two largest cities, its relatively recent emergence as a test cricket playing nation, and a very loose grasp of its turbulent post-colonial history.

Of the country’s total population of almost 170 million inhabitants, a conservatively estimated 30 million live in the capital city, Dhaka, and it feels as though every single one of them is where I am, wherever I am, and at all times. Never in all my travels and all the megacities I have explored have I experienced the apocalyptic traffic chaos and manic population density of Old Dhaka, as every form of transport imaginable attempts to steal an inch of space in any direction possible. Pedestrians wage constant battle against their combined mechanical foes, dodging rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, and motorbikes in an almost unwinnable game of Frogger.

Standard Old Dhaka free-for-all intersection

The concentration required to keep moving forward is further complicated by the intensely humid 40c summer heat, incessant impatient nudges from other pedestrians intolerant of this rare tourist’s navigational hesitation, and the absolute cacophony of bells, horns, and klaxons assaulting my eardrums from all directions. I am determined to succeed, however, to get to the pace and rhythm of this city and not let the sensorial insanity overwhelm me. Everywhere I go, I am stopped by market stall holders and shop owners asking for selfies; children follow me down multiple streets, pinching my hand whenever they feel bold enough; people smile, wave and greet me with friendly words of welcome. This is a wonderfully refreshing change from touristy South East Asia.

Rickshaw cortège

Somewhat to my surprise, there are some sights very much worth seeing in amongst this inner city pandemonium: an ancient Mughal fort proves to be a welcome oasis of tranquility; a mosque recently renovated with private money and featuring Japanese ceramic tiles depicting Mount Fuji, bizarrely; the quite fabulous Ahsan Manzil Museum, a 19th century Nawab palace redecorated in the most garish of pink paints. All are visited on foot, with a growing confidence that culminates in a snap decision to walk the 7km home. I return exhausted, dirty, sweaty, and sunburnt, but also elated as I bask in the glow of the most intense day of urban exploration I have ever experienced.

Ahsan Manzil Museum – the Pink Palace

As it happens, I do not have long trousers, I tell Shammy with more than a touch of backpacker hobo shame. Not to worry, she replies, as a couple of phone calls are made and an Uber ordered. Within 45 minutes, I am sitting in the 4th floor office boardroom of the private members’ club: not wanting to turn away a group of very regular clients, the CEO has kindly provided us with his company conference room, with full waiter service. Thus it is that I spend my first evening in Dhaka in the company of a group of Bangladeshi salsa dance instructors, drinking local beers surrounded by company accounts folders and balance sheets. How glorious travelling off the beaten track can be, how very glorious.

Board meeting with beers

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