Cruising on Dhaka’s Buriganga River

Cruising on Dhaka’s Buriganga River

If you happen to be visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh’s huge, densely-crowded capital, a river cruise is a chance to get away from all the clamour. A trip on the city’s main river, the Buriganga, is an exciting way to spend some time.

The river is often described as Dhaka’s lifeblood. It runs southeast from the city, joins other major rivers and ends in the Ganges Delta, which covers a vast portion of southern Bangladesh. In all, the country has more than 8,000 rivers.

The Buriganga once formed a channel of the Ganges but as the course of the river changed, it lost this link and became known as the Buriganga – ‘Old Ganges’ in Bengali.

Today it’s heavily polluted with industrial and household waste. But don’t be put off by this. It remains an important transport route for huge numbers of people every day and makes a fascinating cruise.

Big ships and small rowboats ply the river.  Image: © David Astley

I recently spent a day on the river in a big cruise boat. You can arrange this independently but it’s far easier to use a tour company. There are many companies and boats to choose from, and you can opt for anything from a day trip to a three or four-day journey.

For senior travellers, the best advice I can offer is to book a first-class cabin. It’s worth every taka of the higher fare.

My cabin was simple but had a bed, air-conditioner, fan, wash basin and porthole through which to watch the ever-changing river scenes outside. The toilets were down the corridor outside the cabins.

Passengers at the busy Sadarghat terminal.  Image: © Alan Williams

Part of the fun is boarding the boat at Sadarghat terminal. It’s noisy and hectic. Scores of passenger river boats disgorge and collect masses of passengers throughout the day.

Once your journey begins, you can spend time on the deck with other passengers watching the world go by, and when you’ve had enough of the heat you can retire to your cabin.

And if the rhythm of the boat on the water lulls you into drowsiness, as it did me, you can always take a rest on the bed. But not for long: the scenes outside are too good to miss. They’re not always beautiful but always interesting.

Shipbuilding yards along the river banks.  Image: © Alan Willliams

At times the channel is a few hundred metres wide, at other times far narrower. Clumps of water hyacinth float in the wider parts. 

Small open ferries – water taxis – cross the river, usually crowded with passengers. You see a curious-looking dredging boat with pipes coiling above the engine on its deck.

Long, narrow cargo boats steam slowly by. You pass boatyards on the banks with several large vessels under construction. Occasionally a police launch passes, keeping a watchful eye on things.

Unloading sand and gravel barges.   Image: © Alan Williams

Lines of colourfully dressed workers, both men and women, load and unload sand and gravel barges by hand, carrying their loads in baskets on their heads.

At times, clusters of brick factories fill up the whole panorama, their tall chimneys belching smoke into the gloomy air like a scene from the 19th century.

A day cruise usually lasts up to eight hours, with lunch included. Some offer one or two stops along the way.

Brick factories spewing smoke along the Buriganga.  Image: © Alan Williams

For a longer trip, one option is take a journey in a Rocket, one of a fleet of old paddle steamers that have been plying the rivers since the early 20th century.

The Rockets were so named because they were once the fastest thing on the rivers. Today they chug along at a sedate pace compared to newer river boats. They too have first-class cabins.

If you want to go to the end of the line, it will take around 20 hours to reach Morrelganj, the final stop on the Rocket’s route. From here you can use other transport to travel on to Sundarbans National Park, a large wildlife reserve of mangrove swamps, islands and waterways.

   Rocket paddle steamers moored in Dhaka.   Image:  © David Astley

Rocket paddle steamers moored in Dhaka.   Image: © David Astley

For the adventurous, a short, hair-raising river trip is to cross the Buriganga in the heart of Dhaka itself in a wooden rowing boat, bobbing among the larger vessels in the polluted waters.

This won’t be every senior traveller’s cup of tea, however. Most will prefer the longer voyage on one of the river’s larger, more comfortable cruise boats.

Header image: © David Astley

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