April 16, 2017

A ticket on a rocket. Dhaka.

You don't need to wait for Virgin Galactic to get their act together. You can buy tickets for a rocket today, down at the port of Sadarghat in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Of course this will not take you into space but down along the rivers of Bangladesh, and for a bargain price too.

A first class ticket from Dhaka to Hularhat in the west, close to the Indian border, will set you back US$20. That includes a comfortable cabin with air con and clean white sheets, unlimited tea and tasty vegetarian curries for meals. And you get to watch the world go by from the promenade deck at the front of the boat. 

Of course you can travel on the sixteen hour journey in third class, that gets you a space on the deck floor, if you can find one, for a little over a US$1. Second class, with smaller cabins and fans is an alternative for those favouring a more economical experience, US$12 gets you a perfectly comfortable bed at the back of the boat. But I rarely travel anywhere in first class, so this was a chance to splurge.

The ship, built by the British in 1937, is one of four original rockets operating on the waterways of Bangladesh. The paddle steamers are known by their pre-war nickname ‘Rocket’, so called because they were believed to be the fastest ferryboats in the world at that time. 

They now have intense competition from more modern catamarans and ferries twice their size, but these modern craft have one major drawback, they lack the style and class of the Rocket, which is still firmly rooted in colonial times. 

The view from the first class promenade deck
Undoubtedly the best part of the first class experience was the promenade deck. Located at the very front of the boat, this wooden planked area had comfortable seats and an uninterrupted view of the river as we left Dhaka. Boats laden with sand and coal, small punts crossing from side to side of the river, and other larger ferries vied for space. The ship's horn was working overtime.

A bell rang from behind me. Dinner was being served. White jacketed crew members were laying out plates and a great selection of both fish and vegetarian curries, chapattis and samosas, all cooked fresh in the little galley, on a large white, spotlessly clean, table cloth.  After a last look at the totally dark countryside at night I made my way to my cabin, turned on the fan and was almost instantly asleep, rocked gently by the motion of the ship and sinking into the comfortable mattress beneath me.

The next morning I awoke early. I looked out of the cabin window and saw nothing. To be precise it was just a mass of fog, a grey blanket had  covered everything making the riverbank invisible. It wasn’t until I got out on deck that I realised that the horn was being blown every minute. Even at this early hour small craft were out fishing or ferrying people from bank to bank. 

The mist began to clear revealing village life, small fruit and vegetable markets, kilns with chimneys belching smoke, while schoolchildren were already playing cricket in their school playgrounds by the riverbank. 

Early morning fishing on the Ganges

A breakfast of fresh Bangladeshi tea, more chapattis, and a dhal curry helped wake me up. I tried to shower but the dribble that came out of the faucet made me rethink my plans. The Armitage Shanks toilets, a British institution, had also clearly seen better days, but they were clean although completely lacking in the flush department. I spent the rest of the morning watching the life on the river, before all too soon, Hularhat came into view.

Bangladeshi ferries do have a somewhat bad reputation, more than one guide book lists taking a ferry in the country as a risk, as Bangladeshi rivers are some of the most dangerous to travel on in the world. This is due more to the large modern ships, rushing from destination to destination with less care and attention than is needed, which can result in them sinking.

But the Rocket is a different beast. Government owned, travelling slowly from port to port, little has changed in its eighty years of service. Rumours of its demise regularly crop up in the local newspapers, but it keeps on going, and offers the opportunity for the rare tourist to Bangladesh to really experience a journey from the past.

A little more crowded in third class

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