Stepping back in time: Panam/Sonargaon

A few weekends ago we went to Sonargaon, home to the old city of Panam. The historic capital of Bengal, Panam was first the seat of the Hindu Diva Dynasty and in the late 13th century became the Muslim Mughal invaders’ buzzing centre of power: emperors and administrators ruled from here, and boats came from all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa, up the kilometers-wide Meghna river from the Bay of Bengal to trade.

Centuries later, the city saw a revival as the centre of trade in the Bengal region of British-ruled India. Building their stately homes and impressive commercial buildings in a neo-classical imitation of European buildings, 19th century colonials established a main street lined with columns, curlicues, orchards and mosaics.

The town remained occupied until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 saw the mostly Hindu population flee to India. It’s now an empty, mossy, crumbling museum of successive histories, jumbled together and loosely protected by the Bangladeshi government.

Hiring a driver and minibus from Dhaka, a group of us explored the abandoned beauty of roofless palaces and rusted locks.

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52 Portraits: Mutual curiosity

Supercool rickshaw guy

A couple of weekends ago we stopped in traffic on our way to Sonargaon, just outside Dhaka. Just as I looked out the car window and through my camera lens I saw this rickshaw driver peering in at me. Curiosity is often mutual between bideshis and locals, and I love how gently he seemed to acknowledge this as he held up his hand to wave for my photo.

Get out every 3 months: top tips for escaping Dhaka

It’s pretty crazy here in Dhaka, and after a while it can all start to fray your nerves a bit: the constant beeping, the relentless traffic jams, the daily shock of poverty, haggling for everything, trying not to fall down holes in the street that lead to ominously murky drains, making complicated but daily ethical decisions about whether or not to give money to beggar kids… Ultimately, it amounts to just the stress of constantly being ‘on’ – of having to think differently, adjust yourself, adapt, be flexible. When you’re in a culture that’s so different to your own, your safety net of normal is stripped away.

Culture shock comes in many different forms, and here in Dhaka it’s often not what I’d call ‘shock’, but something quieter and more insidious – maybe erosion, or attrition. You think you’re fine, moving along from one day to the next, taking it in your stride and enjoying the constant stimulation of being somewhere new and different. And then one day, that’s it, you snap, you’re done. You lose your cool and suddenly you’re yelling at a rickshaw driver for trying to overcharge you, or you’re in a puddle of tears because someone at work didn’t say ‘thankyou’. The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is always insignificant and ridiculous – it’s something you deal with every day but suddenly you can’t handle it any more. And that’s when you know you need a break.

It’s a bit of a rule of thumb in the local expat community that to try to avoid these silly and often public meltdowns, you should get out of the city every three months. This doesn’t mean leaving the country (although a getaway to Kathmandu, Kolkata or even Thailand is pretty easy and affordable) – there are a few great places to head to for a couple of days in Bangladesh. Top of the list are:

  • Srimongal, the peaceful, green and hilly tea district in the north-east
  • The Sundarbans, the world heritage-listed wetland forests on the Bay of Bengal that house the famous Bengal tigers as well as the fascinating otter-fisherman
  • The Rocket, a colonial-era paddleboat that offers comfortable overnight trips down through the country’s huge river system
  • Cox’s Bazar, for a bit of beach time and some great seafood
  • Sonargaon (Panam), the medieval capital of Bengal and 19th Century colonial centre, just south of Dhaka

In the lead-up to Eid Ul Adha I had one of the famous Dhaka meltdowns, but luckily Ollie and I had some beautiful people from Australia coming to visit us, so we already had a few getaways planned. We ended up going to Nepal for 5 days and Srimongal for another 3 days, then coming back to Dhaka for Eid – posts to come!