Asia: A starring role in your own holiday

In Bangladesh, writes Paul Smith, you'll find yourself the centre of attention
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The Independent Online
Walking out on to the verandah of the Pink Palace in Dhaka is like stepping on to a stage, with crowds pointing and giggling. Tourists are always objects of entertainment in Bangladesh. This is no place for the shy, but while the endless staring and questions (often about how much you earn and how much your camera is worth) can be annoying, the vast majority of people are genuinely curious and interested in you.

The Pink Palace, or Ahsan Manzil, with its turn-of-the-century grandeur, is as good a place as any to start a tour of Dhaka. The interior has been delightfully restored to its former glory using pictures taken in 1904 to create exact replicas of the period. Incredible attention to detail has been taken right down to the last teaspoon in the elaborate dining hall - and the decor and furniture ooze money.

From the first-floor verandah you look down on the Buriganga river which runs through Dhaka. A boat trip on its murky waters gives a great insight into the bustling life of the city's waterways. From Sadarghat nearby it is possible to hire a small boat for about 50p an hour and watch the families of 12 being ferried across the river by a boat driver armed with a single oar. Meanwhile, the big passenger ferries preparing to head down river sound their horns and belch out black smoke as they warm up their engines - adding to the city's polluted atmosphere - and boat boys haul up buckets of black water to wash themselves and their clothes, though you wonder if they might be cleaner if they didn't bother.

These sights and sounds mean you are never in any doubt that you are in the Indian sub-continent. Yet the streets are cleaner and less pot- holed than in many Indian cities, and the absence of bullock carts and roaming cows (being a Muslim country, they have no sacred status in Bangladesh) makes walking around less a case of running the gauntlet.

Of the city's mosques, the 17th-century seven-domed Sat Gumbad is among the most impressive. The modern National Mosque, while hardly rivalling the Taj Mahal in beauty stakes, is worth a look simply for its sheer size and brash, functional architecture. Bangladeshi hospitality is prevalent even in the mosques and you may well find yourself invited in by worshippers and given a friendly quizzing on your own religious beliefs.

Another good place to meet English-speaking Bangladeshis is at Sonargaon, a hectic hour-long bus ride from Dhaka, and the most popular tourist spot for the city's residents. The former imperial capital of the country now houses the national Folk Arts and Crafts Museum and, more interestingly perhaps, is next door to Painam Nagar village.

Effectively just one long street of crumbling, ornate houses, the village was deserted by Hindu landowners who left after Partition, and their former homes are now used by villagers squatting in the once glorious buildings. Painam Nagar has the feel of a ghost town and for a bit of loose change small boys roaming the streets are happy to show visitors inside some of the former homes of the rich.

Back in Dhaka itself, the National Museum helps fill in some of the details on the creation of East Pakistan - which became Bangladesh after the war of liberation in 1971. But visitors will be disappointed in the Bengal tiger display - the fact that it is currently empty could be interpreted as a comment on the animal's fate in the country.

If Dhaka has a problem as a tourist destination, it is that once the day's sight-seeing is over there is very little to do. Being Islamic, the country is virtually dry and even eating out offers little pleasure: a repetitive diet of mutton or chicken with rice and dahl. Escape to the upmarket Gulshan district and the city's five-star hotels. This is about the only place where your foreign features don't excite any interest from the people around you, allowing you a break from the attentions which can make you feel like a visiting head of state.

The national airline, Bangladesh Biman Airlines (0171-629 0252) flies from Heathrow to Dhaka every day apart from Wednesday and Friday. The lowest fares are likely to be found through the airline's consolidator, AETT (0171-377 9505), which is quoting pounds 435 return for travel in June. British citizens need a visa to enter Bangladesh. These are available at a cost of pounds 40 from the High Commission at 28 Queen's Gate, London SW7 (0171-584 0081), or consulates in Manchester and Birmingham, or - easiest of all - on arrival at Dhaka.

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