Dhaka, Bangladesh Report of what it's like to live there - 02/08/11
Personal Experiences from Dhaka, Bangladesh
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've lived in India, France, Russia, and Mauritania.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
From the US to Dhaka, you'll either stop in the mideast (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Bahrain), or in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Bangkok. There's also a brand new flight from the US to Dhaka via Istanbul on Turkish airways. Plan on 30 hours, one way. That said, flights around the region tend to be inconveniently timed, often don't offer daily service, and are unbelievably expensive for the short flights. In particular, it's almost impossible to get to India for a weekend, due to flight timings.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I work at the US Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Every Embassy employee lives within 10 minutes of the Embassy, in the diplomatic enclave (Baridhara and Gulshan). Single family homes are being quickly demolished in favor of large apartment complexes, but the apartments for Embassy employees almost all require size waivers (in favor of larger ones).Most other expats I know live in seriously large apartments, either in the enclave or in nearby Banani, which has more shops and restaurants.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Almost everything is available either on the local market or through the Commissary (or Amazon grocers).A variety of cheeses and fresh herbs, though, are difficult to find. The Commissary carries cheese, but all have been frozen in transit, which leaves them all crumbly. Fresh basil is non-existent. Specialty stuff is available at some local Korean and Chinese markets, and a few higher end grocery stores with imports.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
On the contrary, I brought tons of food from Trader Joe's, which I still haven't eaten.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a handful of decent restaurants which have just opened in the last year and a half:Soi 71 (Thai), Mainland China, the 8 (fusion Euro-Asian), Roll Express (local), Khazana (Indian), Izumi (Japanese), Wasabi (pan-Asian), Fourchetta (Pizza), as well as a few more Japanese and Korean places. Generally, if you're looking for good tasting food that won't make you sit, not at plastic tables underneath flourescent lights, you're going to pay dearly for the privilege: $25-$50 per person is not uncommon, which is truly an outrageous sum in any other context in Bangladesh.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
If locally grown veg are organic, they're not labeled as such. The Embassy and American club always have vegetarian options, although eating out locally (even at nicer places) you're essentially limited to fried rice or fried noodles. Tofu is widely available (in markets, not at restaurants), but things like wheat gluten/seitan you'd have to order from the states.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are omnipresent and ravenous, particularly in the dry season. Some people end up with (enormous) cockroach problems. My house is constantly infested with ants, although I hardly ever eat at home.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch and DPO.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very, very inexpensive.$80-$150/month for just about anything, full time. Alternatively, maybe $1-$1.50 an hour for part time.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Local gyms are available, but most Embassy employees use either the American club gym or the really, really nice gym at the American school.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
There have been reports of people having their bank accounts hacked after using local ATMs - the Embassy has a safe one, but very, very few places take credit - happily, usually the places that expats tend to shop.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
If you bring an AFN decoder, that seems to give the best options (not available locally). There's a local English language daily, but it's not that good - people depend mostly on the internet and magazine subscriptions. Most people have cable, but there's just a handful of English-language stations.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
There's a large enough community of house staff who speak English (to some extent) that you probably wouldn't need any Bangla at all - just send your housekeeper to do the local shopping. If you leave Dhaka or the diplomatic zone, though, you may experience difficulties.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be impossible to live here if you weren't independently mobile.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We're not allowed to use city buses (but who would want to?), and the train doesn't go anywhere you'd want to. You really can't survive here without a car, but the Embassy has a readily available and inexpensive motorpool service that acts as a local taxi service, at least within the diplomatic zone.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Most people have station wagons, but doing it again, I'd get a small SUV - the roads here are truly abominable - huge potholes and speedbumps, etc. It's the law of the sea on the road, so people tend to make way more for larger cars. Parts are available for Japanese and Korean cars, but not necessarily for American and European cars.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes - prices (and customer service) vary widely from about $25/month-$100/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The embassy gives you one, but you might want to get your own for personal use. They're essentially the same price as in the states, though minutes are cheaper.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Non-existent, though your domestic staff can be asked to walk/feed/clean your pets.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
No. If you're not with an embassy, Bangladesh will literally annotate spouse visas with "No right to work or perform volunteer activities."
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Largely informal. Shirt, pants, no tie, no jacket.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not particularly. It's a fairly moderate Muslim country, and those inclined to violence seem significantly more focused on domestic politics than global jihad. That said, security guards are completely inept, and are mostly paid to sleep in front of you home. Occasionally, people on rickshaws have had their bags snatched, and one hears about the occasional knife-mugging. It feels safer than most large European cities, at least on a human-violence level. The insane driving and traffic is probably the biggest source of danger.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
People are constantly ill: mostly respiratory and gastro-intestinal infections, though some come down with dengue and malaria. Medical care here is abysmal - Embassy employees get medevac'd to Singapore even for dental emergencies.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is horrific. Walking for ten minutes makes your lungs feel like you've smoked a pack of cigarettes. A thick, oily black dust descends on the city in the dry season, covering everything, and giving people frequent bronchial infections which it's difficult to shake off.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Horrifically hot and humid most of the year. The temperature finally gets to pleasant around December-February. Very, very grey skies for about 10 months out of the year.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American school (AISD) seems highly regarded by parents, and offers good after hours recreational classes for adults.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Ayahs (nannies) are ever present and inexpensive. Probably about $100-$150 a month.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Through the American school.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
A few thousand: embassy employees, NGO employees, oil company employees and garments executives.
2. Morale among expats:
High among families with young children - awful among everyone else. The U.S.Embassy - a "historically difficult to staff" post - tends to attract mid-level managers who are so terrible that they couldn't get a handshake anywhere else, and upper management, perhaps realizing this, doesn't do much to try to retrain them.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Nothing on the local economy. People throw elaborate house parties, expat communities throw lavish balls, and people drown their sorrows at expat clubs.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families are about the only people who seem genuinely happy here - if you're willing to have your life consist of going to work, after school activities, and the American club, it's not a terrible place to live. If you're not a family with young-ish children, though, life here is pretty miserable. There's really nothing at all to do, no social outlets, no restaurants and cafes with what one would call 'atmosphere,' no clubs, no bars, no book stores, no malls, no movie theaters, no sidewalks, no pedestrianized streets. People tend to go crazy after two months and leave the country for at least a weekend, every two months (or more).
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
If you're a gay man, it's surprisingly easy to find casual encounters - fairly typical in most Muslim majority nations, as the gender segregation tends to lead men to be more open to sexual experimentation than in the West. There's a very, very small openly gay community, and only one (small, ineffective, and poorly organized) gay rights organization - Boys of Bangladesh).Once or twice a year they put on a large dance party for the LGBT community, but mostly it comes down to wealthy, well educated and well travelled gay Bangladeshis inviting their larger circle of gay friends to their homes for private parties, or expats doing the same. Relationships between gay expats and gay Bangladeshis are virtually impossible, at least if you expect your partner to live with integrity and honesty - gay Bangladeshis, while they might be out within the gay community, are almost never, ever out to their wider circle of friends, and certainly not their families. On an odd level, it's actually sometimes easier here to be gay than in the West - the concept of gay identity doesn't exist, educated Bengalis may literally beleive that homosexuality is something that exists exclusively in the West, and so publicly intimate behavior (holding hands, stroking hair, sleeping every night in the same bed) that would immediately lead a Westerner to conclude that two men are gay don't even begin to raise an eyebrow here. The scene for lesbians is non-existent. One lesbian Australian was here for more than five yaers and met two Bangladeshi lesbians in her time here.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Bangladeshis have more class issues than anything else, but their is some discrimination toward ethnic minorities and Burmese. White people are put on a pedestal on some levels, and resented on other levels. African American colleagues don't seem to experience outright discrimination by Bangladeshis, but deshis are extremely open about the fact that, for them, the whiter the skin, the better. (They're also alarmingly willing to call you fat to your face.) It's an incredibly patriarchal society, with defined gender roles and serious social prohibitions against physical contact between men and women. That's also, however, class related: wealthier, well traveled families are much more likely to be more 'western' in gender outlook.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Probably the nicest parts of Bangladesh are in Sylhet (the tea gardens), Chittagong (the beaches near Cox's Bazaar and St. Martin's Island) and Khulna (the Sundarbans mangrove forests).
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Leave. Nepal, Bhutan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Dubai are all accessible via direct flights - generally $300-$500 round trip, which sounds expensive, but if you're an Embassy employee on differential, you'll quickly realize that the ability to pay to leave is the entire point of the differential. Other than that, people eat at a handful of restaurants, hang out at expat clubs, throw house parties, or occasionally (usually early on in a tour, before you're entirely jaded) take trips to see the identical villages in different corners of Bangladesh.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Pearls, hand-tailored suits, clothing, and shoes, and elaborate wooden furniture.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Bangladeshis are very warm, welcoming, and friendly people - sometimes oppressively so. It's fairly easy to save money, and some items - fabric, pearls, furniture - are very cheap.
11. Can you save money?
It mostly comes down to how well you can tolerate spending extended periods of time in Dhaka. The only thing to spend money on is leaving the country.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Not in a million years. I hope I will never, ever have to step foot in this godforsaken cesspool again.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Innocence. Lots of limbless beggars will be scratching against your window when you're stuck in traffic.
3. But don't forget your:
frequent flier card. You'll be leaving frequently to stay sane.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
The Dhaka episode of "Amazing Race."
6. Do you have any other comments?
Don't come. Seriously.