Dhaka, Bangladesh Report of what it's like to live there - 10/30/09

Personal Experiences from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh 10/30/09

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is my first longer-term expat experience.

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2. How long have you lived here?

I have lived in Dhaka for 15 months (out of a two-year assignment).

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3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

The most direct routes to the U.S. involve 17-19 hours of flying time. Routes through Hong Kong, Dubai, and other Gulf cities work best--flying through New Delhi is perhaps most direct in terms of flying time, but involves a long layover.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

U.S. Embassy housing is generally large and very nice (the situation for most expats seems similar).It is all located in the diplomatic enclave (which sounds more like a walled fortress than it really is); commutes are 2-15 minutes driving (though this is unpredictable given the traffic).

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Fresh products and staples bought on the local economy (produce, meat, eggs, sugar, flour, etc.) are much cheaper than in the U.S.There are a few supermarkets that carry imported products at very high prices. Thankfully, the U.S. Commissary is amazingly good, well-stocked, and not outrageous (prices are similar to or a bit less than in D.C. - alcohol is very cheap).

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

With the pouch/DPO and a good commissary, there are few things that I can't get (though I use drugstore.com frequently).Larger items that don't fit through the pouch are important to buy before packing out--artificial Christmas trees come to mind. Don't expect to buy a TV here as they are pricey; however, many people buy TVs on vacation in Bangkok or Hong Kong and bring them back as checked luggage.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W, and Nando's (plus lots of local knock-offs).There are many restaurants but few good ones. Dinner at the most expensive restaurants (other than the ones at international hotels) runs about $15/person--no alcohol, but you can bring your own.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are a constant problem, especially since they can carry nasty diseases like dengue fever (on the upswing in Dhaka) and Japanese encephalitis (thankfully rare).

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Pouch/DPO.Local mail is very unreliable; for anything important, use courier services, DHL, or Fedex.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Very available and inexpensive--about $110-175/person each month for full-time work. Many expats have drivers, housekeepers/cooks, nannies, and gardeners/guards.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, and inexpensive--there is a decent gym at the American Club, as well as one at the American School that is open to the official American community.

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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?

Some stores in the diplomatic area take credit cards, but people rarely use them--this is mainly a cash economy. ATMs are widely available in Dhaka, including name-brand ones like HSBC and Standard Chartered.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are Catholic and Protestant services in English--not sure about others.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Yes, there are several English newspapers (home delivery is inexpensive), plus one online news site (www.bdnews24.com).The cable package (only about $5/month) includes several English channels, none local.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Many expats get by with none, and certainly many people here think they speak English. But learning Bangla can be very helpful in certain situations, and it certainly opens doors and builds goodwill.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Well, no one with any money here (local or foreign) walks on the street, so the spotty sidewalks and open sewers probably don't matter. Buildings are generally not accessible, however, but at least full-time help is very cheap.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Embassy personnel are not allowed to use local buses, taxis, or auto-rickshaws (CNGs).They are affordable, however. Intercity buses and trains vary--they can be dirty and dangerous (bus accidents are very, very common on intercity roads), and expats rarely use them. Bicycle rickshaws are allowed, though you can't get that far on one. A car is definitely needed.

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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 buy at post since cars here are right-hand drive. Cars older than a certain limit (six years, I believe?) cannot be imported. Toyotas are very popular. It's good to have something used and not too valuable since it will get beaten up. A small SUV is nice to have, especially when the streets flood, but many people have sedans as well. Note that traffic here is insane and a major impediment to getting out and doing things. It is literally beyond description.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet fast enough for Skype (but too slow to watch video online) costs about $37/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Embassy personnel get them; it is very important to have a cell phone with you at all times. Grameen Phone seems to have the best coverage.

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Pets:

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?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

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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?

Decent, yes, though finding paid work can be a challenge. There are many NGOs and international organizations, international businesses, and international schools--and jobs at those don't always require Bangla.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Generally, business casual at work. Dress for women tends to be more conservative; some expat women feel uncomfortable in knee-length skirts. Western dress on local women is very, very rare.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Unhealthy. The air doesn't feel that dirty, but there is lead in it.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

Besides the standard ones, we were told to get rabies and Japanese encephalitis vaccines.

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3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

There have been terrorist attacks in Bangladesh in the past. Mob violence is common (for example, mobs often form at the scene of car accidents and have been known to injure or kill the driver perceived to be at fault).Muggings are fairly common. That being said, most expats (including all those with embassies) live in the safest area of town, and many have cars (making them less likely to be out and about and mugged).

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4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Lead in the air, bacteria in the water, improperly prepared food. Many people get hit by stomach problems frequently. More exotic diseases such as dengue fever are not uncommon. The Embassy Med Unit is very good, and local hospitals are rapidly improving. However, serious health issues still require a medevac.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot and humid most of the year; June to September is rainy. The most pleasant time is winter (December and January), when there is no rain and temperatures during the day are in the low 70s (F).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don't have personal experience, but from all I've heard, the American International School of Dhaka (which almost all embassy families use) is quite good through the high school level. It is a major draw for families at this post.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

The French school's preschool seems popular, as it is less expensive than other international options. Ayahs are inexpensive and generally very good.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Not sure of the numbers, but much larger than I expected--besides embassies, there is a huge community of aid workers and those staffing international organizations, plus some in international business, especially the apparel sector.

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2. Morale among expats:

It varies, but generally pretty high, including among the U.S. Embassy community. Dhaka can be tough, but people make the most of it.

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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?

People tend to get together at restaurants or in homes. The only bars are in private clubs (such as diplomatic/expat clubs) or hotels. Groups throw large parties in hotel ballrooms frequently.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is probably best for families with young children--they enjoy the American Club and the school, help is inexpensive, etc. Older kids seem to like the school but may get bored. It's not a great scene for singles or couples--there just isn't that much to do. For singles, there is a decent-sized expat community; dating Bangladeshis is rare, however, as local social/family networks are very insular, and many marriages are still arranged. That being said, people all try to make the most of it.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

No--this is a very conservative society. The scene is small and very underground.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

By and large, Bangladeshis are pretty tolerant, but there is certainly a long and tumultuous history of conflict between Hindus and Muslims throughout the region. Bangladesh has made strides toward greater gender equality, but huge problems still remain. However, expat women are usually treated more like aliens from Mars than like women.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

This is the big challenge. People spend a lot of time at the expat/diplomatic clubs, where alcohol is available and cheap. There are pools and tennis and squash courts (lessons are so cheap they're practically free).There are restaurants, though very few are good enough that they would be popular in the U.S. (there is very good Bengali/Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food available).Some expats (but not most) get into the local cultural scene--art galleries and dance performances. People entertain at home. Balls (often charity fundraisers) held at the large hotels are very popular, both among expats and well-off Bangladeshis. People do city tours in Old Dhaka and boat trips on the many rivers. Some people travel to the Sundarbans (World Heritage site mangrove forest), Sri Mongol (tea estates), and Cox's Bazaar (beach resort popular with locals).The problem is that few of these activities are enjoyable/high-quality enough to want to do over and over again.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Pearls, silk, and custom-tailored clothing are my favorites. There is also nice pottery, art, custom-made furniture, and china (many top international brands have factories here, and you can buy the overruns at dirt-cheap prices).Custom framing is a steal.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, definitely. The biggest expense is regional travel. It would be very hard to live here without getting away every few months.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but one tour is enough.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Cold weather clothing. Anything precious that would be damaged by high humidity. Your nice new car.

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3. But don't forget your:

OTC meds that you favor; any toiletries or specialty food products you like if you don't have pouch/DPO access.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam; Brick Lane by Monica Ali is partially set in Dhaka.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam; Brick Lane by Monica Ali is partially set in Dhaka.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Clay Bird (Matir Moyna)

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Sometimes stating the objective facts about Dhaka sounds like negativity, but by and large I am very happy to be here. I would say the traffic is the biggest problem I face--when going a mile takes a half-hour, leaving home starts to get less appealing.

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