Arun Bansal (44)
President Region Southeast Asia and Oceania at Ericsson
1. How often do you travel to Dhaka and who do you fly with?
I lived in Dhaka for three years from 2006 to 2008 and now, as regional head, I travel there at least once every quarter, often more.
I fly with Singapore Airlines for the three-and-a-half hour flight. Dhaka is two hours behind so flying there from Singapore is convenient as the flight leaves in the evening. The return flight is a nightmare because the flight leaves Dhaka in the night and you arrive in Singapore at 4am or so.
2. One thing everyone ought to know about Dhaka:
Dhaka is a megacity and is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. There can also be a lot of strikes and the city shuts down.
3. How quickly can you get a visa?
Almost all nationalities require a visa – some nationalities can get visa-on-arrival but most prior to going there.
I have a six-month multiple-entry business visa that allows me to travel to and fro as much as I want. For this visa, you have to apply from the Bangladeshi Embassy. You can apply with an invitation letter from the company you’re visiting in Bangladesh and it takes about two days to process.
4. Fastest way into the city?
The fastest and safest way is by car. I recommend arranging for a car and driver for the duration of your stay through your hotel. Unlike airport and hotel staff who speak reasonable English, you may encounter a language barrier with taxi drivers and they only accept local currency. Taxis are also not as well maintained as hotel cars.
Gulshan is the main expat area where all the hotels are located. Another business area is the Old Dhaka where the government offices and ministries are. They’re close in distance but because traffic is a challenge, travelling between them can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour.
5. When are the good and bad times to visit Dhaka?
From the weather perspective, spring from February to April and winter from November to January are good. It’s either extremely hot or raining and flooding from May to July. If it rains continuously for three days or more, 50 to 60 per cent of the city goes underwater because it’s a very flat land; but that doesn’t happen every day. If it’s a flash flood situation, just wait an hour or two for the flood to subside.
The majority of people living in Dhaka are Muslims so there are plenty of Muslim festivals such as the Eid al-Fitr, which is a three-day celebration after their Ramadan fasting month. The Bangladesh Independence Day on 26 March is also a big and joyous event.
6. Hotels you recommend?
The Westin (+880 2989 1988) is a good luxury five-star hotel located within the Gulshan circle near to all the big offices. Another good hotel, and close to the airport, is the Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel (+880 2875 4555). Both hotels are usually almost fully booked so you have to make bookings in advance. It’s easier to get rooms at the older five-star Pan Pacific Sonargaon Dhaka (+880 2 811 3324) in Old Dhaka.
7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
Depends on your business but generally smart casual. You don’t need a tie except for formal events.
8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
You have to be aware of the different communication style between cultures. Western direct communication style may be considered rude. Business is generally very formal. In meetings, proper behavior is expected, meaning that men will greet each other with a handshake. If you’re greeting a woman, unless she first extends her hand, you’re not expected to. In this case just give a nod of acknowledgement, as not all women want to do a handshake.
The locals are very proud of their nation so avoid conversations about the poor or the challenges their country is facing.
9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
The Westin has a fantastic upscale Italian restaurant called Prego (+880 2989 1988). If you have money to spend, a good but very expensive Italian restaurant to entertain clients at is the Bellagio (+880 2882 6656). Flambe (+880 2985 3835) has a good selection of local and international food at reasonable prices but no alcohol is allowed.
For places where you can bring your own alcohol and pay a small corkage fee, try Spitfire barbecue and grill (+880 2989 0135) or Spaghatti Jazz (+880 2882 2062). All these restaurants are very well known in Gulshan so you can ask your hotel to make reservations.
10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
As Bangladesh is a Muslim nation, local Muslims are not allowed to buy or consume alcohol. There are liquor stores but only expats are allowed to buy from them.
As such, the expat community tends to hang out in one of the many clubs such as the American Club, British Club, Dutch Club, Nordic Club and Australian Club, where alcohol is sold. If you’re a member of one club, you have access to all the other clubs. If you have a guest, whether local or foreigner, you’d normally take them there as well. However, do note that very few locals drink and hardly any women drink at all.
11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
While there are poor people begging on the streets, they are generally not aggressive towards foreigners though I would advise against giving them money. Avoid shopping in Old Dhaka because the streets are pretty narrow and petty crimes like pickpocketing are quite frequent.
12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
Sadarghat, the riverfront in Old Dhaka, has passenger boat rides and is always bustling with activities, as it’s also an active trade port. Lalbagh Fort, the National Museum and the Star Mosque, Bangladesh’s national mosque, are a couple of interesting places to see.
Outside Dhaka, I recommend the Cox’s Bazar - the world’s longest unbroken beach. The beach itself is extremely good and relaxing but don’t expect to stay in fancy hotels or resorts. For the adventurous, try the Chittagong Hill Tracks in the mountains or Sundarbans mangrove forest. If you’re lucky, you may spot a Bengal tiger.
13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
Bangladesh is known for its shipbreaking industry and almost all ships go there to be broken down. The locals salvage lots of brass items and handicrafts from broken ships, clean them and sell them in markets. You can get anything from ship bells to old lamps. There may be replicas but if you look around, you can get original items straight off a 100-year-old ship. I’ve collected many items over the years.
For the ladies, the local Jamdani sarees are very popular. Porcelain dining and tea sets are cheap and usually of high quality. Because of the proximity to the sea, you can get good quality pearls too. You can get everything at Gulshan 1 and 2 markets.
While the shops in the new megamall Bashundhara City are targeted at locals, it is good for food and movies.
14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport?
One hour for business class and an hour and half to two hours for economy class. Immigration queues are reasonably fast. Bangladesh is known for sending foreign labour overseas so families come to see them off at the airport causing a huge crowd outside but once you go into the departure hall it’s not crowded because visitors are not allowed.
There are about seven to eight shops in the airport and there isn’t much to do so I usually head straight to the lounge.