First impressions of Sylhet

I’ve been here three weeks now, and am beginning to feel a little bit more like Sylhet is my home.

I haven’t actually seen very much of the city yet, because I only get one day off and haven’t yet had one where I’ve had the bike and nothing to do. But I’ve seen a bit, and am getting a sense of the area. Essentially, Sylhet’s got the greatest contrast of extreme wealth and poverty you could ever imagine – because people build on their land whatever they can afford, you can get a mansion on steroids right next to a pathetic shack with ten people living in it. I go to work past 4x4s and Lexuses and people walking along in rags carrying their day’s goods on their head to market. If you’ve got family in the UK, and a lot of Sylhettis do, then you’re filthy rich, but if you haven’t then you’re as poor as anyone else in Bangladesh, and that’s pretty damn poor.

My landlord has a brother in Zurich, New York, and London, and owns four huge houses as well as my bit. He’s retired himself and doesn’t seem to do anything except watch tv and wander around his land wearing just his lungee, which is the Western equivalent of spending all day in just your pants. But the land next to his has five huts on an area the same size as my yard, and they certainly don’t get to choose which colour Calvins to don. It’s almost like a feudal society, in the sense of the rich minority surrounded by peasants, but I don’t quite know where I fit in to it.

Sylhet’s not big, only a few hundred thousand people, and in terms of character sort of reminds me of
Liverpool. It’s the city of a thousand Boycies and Triggers, but the area that I work is definitely the Trigger end. It takes me about twenty minutes to walk in, and I go along a main road pumping with traders and rickshaw vans, people flogging everything from picture frames to groceries to steel cable. I also have to pass about 15 butchers, which is unpleasant because they are totally open to the street and slaughter everything there and then. I must go past about fifty carcasses of cattle or goat hanging up on hooks in the sun every morning, which absolutely reeks. You also get on average five-ten goats tethered up right by their former friends, bleating and looking worried; all I need is to see a pair of goats having it away next to them to complete the trinity. The cows are the worst though, because they get slaughtered before I pass by, but the heads are left lying on the pavement, complete with the skin of the whole animal still attached, so it looks like a blood-stained pantomime costume. I haven’t been tempted for steak yet.

There’s lots of construction going on, but still lots of little open areas where you can see kids playing cricket or cows lolloping around eating rubbish. And lots of men just hanging around, watching the day go by. I think the unemployment rate in Bangladesh is about 25% but I’ve never been anywhere with more people ‘at work’ but doing absolutely nothing, and I’ve done a work experience in the French public sector. It’s ironic, because the millions of people who are labourers or rickshaw drivers or something work their arses off in the hot sun all day, sometimes just cracking bricks to make cement or trying to bend steel with their bare hands. But for those who manage to wear a pair of trousers (manual workers wear lunghees, office/shop workers wear trousers) its completely different; I’ve never been in a shop or office or anywhere that hasn’t been ridiculously over-staffed, and therefore just full of guys doing sweet FA.

Except when I pass by, and then everyone has a good stare. As far as I know, I’m the only white person in Sylhet city so it’s fair enough in a way, but does get a bit unnerving. Being white in Bangladesh has pros and cons – on the plus side, in ‘posh’ places we get taken to the front of the queue, and once in Dhaka me and Tom ran out of cash, were stuck in the middle of the city and were covered in sweat and grime and felt we were really in trouble. Until we found this huge five star hotel, walked straight in, and a cup of tea and a cash machine later all was fine again – but it was only because they must have assumed we were staying there because we were white. In London we wouldn’t have even been allowed on the pavement outside we were such a state.

On the other hand, in everyday situations people constantly try and rip you off, and you’re always the focus of attention. If you stand still anywhere in a public place, within one minute max a crowd of people will have formed to look at you, by two minutes they’ll be taking pictures of you on their mobiles, by three minutes beggars will have arrived, and by the fourth minute an argument will have started between people trying to get rid of the beggars and other people defending them. Don’t even think about getting a map out and asking for directions. I’m not exaggerating. So it’s stressful to feel like you’ve got to keep moving when you’re in a public place, and can’t ever stop and take things in unless you want to share the experience with twenty others.


There are also lots of indigenous people living in the Sylhet region (an area about half the size of Wales) and I will be doing a lot of research trips, as part of my work, to their villages. However, some also live in Sylhet city, and it’s remarkable, because you can be walking down a busy main street full of the shops and traders and cars and rickshaws and cows and spitting and shouting, every yard of the way, and turn two quick corners and suddenly be standing in a little yard surrounded by small wooden/mud houses, with straw or corregated tin roofs, and be in a comletely different world. It’s like stepping back in time and a hundred miles away simultaneously, because the peace and tranquility compared to the commotion of normal Sylhet is quite something. And the people have tvs, electricity (when it’s on), motorbikes, they’re not underdeveloped in any way. They just live in a very different environment. But smack in the middle of urban Bangladesh.


Nothing should suprise you in this country. Nothing.


5 Responses to “First impressions of Sylhet”

  1. 1 Arifur Rahman March 6, 2007 at 6:25 am

    A remarkable and honest view of Sylheti life, I had to read the whole article!

    I don’t know about the only white guy in Sylhet though? I think you should visit a gas field or a large tea estate to see if there are anyone out there in Sylhet.

    Keep on writing though. It’s 6.29 am in London and I assume it’s a good first read of the day.

  2. 2 Juned Shah July 22, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    You may not aware that the poor people and the poverty do not belong to Sylhet. I spent all my life in Sylhet and never seen a single rickshaw puller or a servent who belong to this sophisticated region.

  3. 3 Irma December 29, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I read your story with a smile. I have spent several weeks in the Sylhetti region and what you wrote is also true for me. I am white myself and recognise everything 🙂

  4. 4 Budget Hotels December 27, 2013 at 5:06 am

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  5. 5 Melissa Brosnan March 1, 2018 at 6:13 pm

    I am writing an essay on Sylhet and found this essay particularly interesting! I haven’t been but I am half bengali but also half white so what you said about your experience really came through for me. Thank you!

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