Dirt cheap fares and endless stares: to Dhaka by river

A story meets photo essay of a struggle to reach Dhaka by river. Head to the end of the post for a guide on how to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat launch ghat.

Traveling to Bangladesh? Boats are the best—and most beautiful—way to get around the country. Taking a boat from Khulna to Dhaka can be the highlight of any trip to Bangladesh... but it can also go wrong if planned poorly (like I did). Click through for my tale of failed boat adventures, plus a guide on how to get a Rocket Steamer or launch boat to Dhaka from the Khulna area.

“Today Rocket not go.”

After two days of seeking out information, three different vehicles, and three hours of travel to reach the middle of nowhere dock for the Rocket Steamer to Dhaka, those were the last words I wanted to hear. I slumped in my seat inside a shack-cum-restaurant near the dock, locally known as a “ghat”.

Rocket Steamers are iconic in Bangladesh. Once the fastest passenger ships on the country’s 700+ rivers, these days the boats are floating relics, far from evoking any mental images of rocketry… or their speeds. Nevertheless, they still ply the country’s waterways for locals and tourists alike.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Rocket Steamer pulling into Dhaka River Port - Lost With Purpose travel blog

One of the Rocket Steamers pulling into a port in Dhaka

My original goal was to take the Rocket from Khulna to Dhaka. Despite my efforts to do so, life had other plans.

“No Rocket today. But it go tomorrow?” I asked the purveyor of bad news, a grizzly older man in a stained gray t-shirt.

“Yes yes,” he responds too quickly, which could either mean Yes, you are correct or I have no idea what you’re saying.

I looked bleakly across the table at James, my English traveling companion at the time, whose look mirrored my own. If we didn’t find an alternative, that meant staying in Hularhat, a small village on the banks of the Kaliganga river, for more than 24 hours.

No. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

Launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Hularhat town near the launch ghat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Hip ‘n happenin’ Hularhat

Damned meridiems

We spent the next hour asking every person who spoke a modicum of English about the Rocket Steamer, and eventually clarified our situation. Coincidentally, we’d showed up on Sunday, the one day it doesn’t run to Dhaka. Yay.

(The water transport company headquarters in Khulna told us Friday was the day it doesn’t go; welcome to typical frustrations of backpacking in Bangladesh.)

Switching tactics, I began asking about “launches”, a ferry type of boat used to travel long distances. Several launches of varying sizes had already come and gone; I figured some must be heading to Dhaka. Deciphering when and where was another story:

“Today no more launch Dhaka.”

“Launch two! 2 AM! 3 AM!”

“Launch not available.”

“Yes! Launch 7:30 AM!”

“No Rocket.” “No, I want launch.” “Rocket no.”

After asking dozens of passersby and the apathetic ticket collectors, a promising trend emerged. Several people said there were two launches, one at two and one at three. The key was figuring out if they meant AM or PM, as it was already 1:30 in the afternoon.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Launch boat arriving - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Launch coming! But does it go to Dhaka?

“So… launch coming at 3?” I said slowly and deliberately to a young ticket collector idling at a card table/desk.

“Yes.”

“AM or PM?”

“PM.”

“So boat comes one hour?”

“No, AM.”

“Launch comes night?”

“Yes.”

“Not day?”

“Yes.”

“Yes launch at day?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“3 AM.”

Damn whoever invented AM and PM.

I repeated this exchange with a variety of people, using everything from clocks and calendars on my phone to a hand drawn picture of a sun and moon to attempt to clarify whether or not we’d have to come in the middle of the night for the launch. No success.

At 2:15, a waiting passenger spoke enough English to confirm that a launch to Dhaka was coming at 3… but the only tickets left were for general floor seating, not cabins. Delighted that I’d found us a way to Dhaka, I was unconcerned, and bought two floor tickets for 200 Tk—around USD$2.50—apiece.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Approaching launch behind a fishing boat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

A launch approaches! But where does it go?

All hands on deck eyes on foreigners

Starkly white and already laden with people, the launch pulled in around 2:30. Carried along by a mass of people clambering to get on, I pulled myself on board as James hauled up his bicycle. Boat workers tried to usher us to the upper decks—“Cabins! Cabins!”—looking at us in bewilderment when we insisted we had floor tickets.

“Floor” turned out to be two levels of bodies splayed about on picnic blankets. Families chatted and shared snacks over the slumbering bodies of others. New passengers took off shoes to gingerly step around plates of food and sleeping people. The buzz of conversation never stopped, but all eyes turned to us as we walked in.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Floor area of launch - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Pick a spot, any spot!

The ground floor was coated with people, save for an enclave next to a pile of coconuts, and some spaces between mounds of bananas in the back. Rather than attempt to cross the sea of bodies, we made for the coconut corner.

As we set up our space, a crowd appeared. Boys young and old surrounded us, staring openly, saying nothing. I excused myself to find some water, only to return to a larger crowd around James. Assuming I was Bengali, they focused on him… until it emerged that I am American. The crowd rotated to fixate eyes on me, too.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Bangladeshi people staring - Lost With Purpose travel blog

All eyes on me

Some small talk was made, but after the obligatory “Your country?” and “Where going?” the language barrier fell back into place. Rather than sit and let eyes bore holes into our souls, we perched on a windowsill, savoring the magic of riverside Bangladesh, trying to disregard the hundreds of eyes on our backs.

After what seemed like an eternity, a low growl sounded, and the boat began drifting away from the launch ghat. Finally, off to Dhaka!

Launch life: the boat from Hularhat to Dhaka

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Passing launch on the Kaliganga river - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Once the launch departed, the frenetic atmosphere settled to a calm hum. People still surrounded us, but it didn’t matter as much once we were moving.

How to get a launch boat from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Man looking out over the Kaliganga river - Lost With Purpose travel blog

As I learned in Assam, India, there’s something undeniably serene about traveling by river.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Boats passing by on the river in Bangladesh - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Well, relatively serene, anyway. Despite sailing through the center of the river, there was still plenty of activity around.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - People loading cargo onto the launch in Bangladesh - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Boats regularly approached the launch to load cargo. Early on in the journey, James and I were evicted from the coconut corner by men climbing through the window to dump yet more coconuts in our spot. Can’t say I’ve ever been ousted from my seat by produce before!

Men loading coconuts onto a launch ferry boat on the Kaliganga river in Bangladesh.
A mat salesman taking a little break between work on a launch boat to Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Several boats of men loading bananas and coconuts onto a launch boat in Bangladesh.
How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat - Snack salesmen at a dock - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Snack salesmen jumped on and off the launch at each dock, selling puffed rice, peanuts, paan, and everything in between. It was reminiscent of riding trains in Pakistan and India, but this time, everything happened on the water!

How to take a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat, Bangladesh - Boats sailing through a lumber yard - Lost With Purpose travel blog

The amount of life and activity on the river banks never ceased to amaze. Every few minutes, we passed new landscapes, new industries, new towns.

How to take a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat, Bangladesh -

… and, of course, yet more boats!

How to take a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat, Bangladesh - Busy launch terminal on the river - Lost With Purpose travel blog

All evening, more and more people boarded the launch. Some climbed aboard from crowded docks…

How to take a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat, Bangladesh - People boating to the launch to climb aboard - Lost With Purpose travel blog

… while others boated up to the launch to climb on!

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Women in burqa looking out from the boat deck - Lost With Purpose travel blog

As the sun began to set, the launch buzzed with new passengers. Our new spot on the roof deck of the boat began to fill with other passengers who couldn’t find space down below.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - People staring at a foreigner on the launch - Lost With Purpose travel blog

The downside: more people = more staring.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Baby pigeons being fed on the boat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

The bright side: the creepers meant well, and were simply curious. Gradually, a handful of people who spoke some English emerged. A lone man camping on the floor next to me began chatting with us. In between conversations, he brought out a chirping basket of baby pigeons to feed.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Men praying on the boat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

After the sun went down, things settled, and everyone began going about their own business. Families shared home cooked dinners, boys clustered on the rails to sneakily smoke and take selfies, and men gathered to pray.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Roof deck filled with people - Lost With Purpose travel blog

By nightfall, the roof filled with other passengers. It was like camping at a festival; everyone in close quarters, chatting with each other, sharing food and making space despite the cramped conditions.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Young woman on the roof deck - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Nadia was another neighbor on the roof deck. Only 17, she was riding the launch with her husband of one year. Despite not speaking much English, she was super sweet, offering us biscuits and crackers as the boat sailed down the river.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Below deck of boat filled with people at night - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Every once in a while, James and I ventured to the bottom deck for tea and snacks from the makeshift snack vendors. Though it was quite a sight, I must say I preferred the openness of sitting on the roof!

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Boys posing at night on the launch boat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Around 9 or 10 in the evening, everyone began drifting off to sleep. I moved to do the same… but I was coerced into snapping a few more photos of people before I could do so! Nothing like a goodnight ‘selfie’ to help you off to sleep, eh eh?

Titanic of Bangladesh: arriving in Dhaka

I slept rather well despite the metal floor—my body is used to sleeping on hard surfaces after two years of backpacking—until I was jarred to consciousness around 4 AM.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Sleeping on the launch floor - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Passed out on the floor ever so charmingly, as captured by one of my newfound friends on the boat.

As the launch approached Dhaka, the waterway crowded with dozens of other launches, ferries, and cargo ships. Every few minutes, the launch smashed against another boat with a metallic groan. Each time, I jolted awake, visions of aqueous catastrophe running through my groggy mind.

There were already dozens of people loitering on deck despite the ungodly hour, but no one seemed particularly bothered by the constant crashing. They were, however, very interested to see the foreigners stirring, and quickly surrounded me each time I popped up. Most of the time, I simply pulled my sleeping bag over my head and went back to sleep… but eventually I snapped.

I do not have patience for much of anything at 4:30 AM, especially not groups of boys staring down at sleeping me from less than a meter away as the ship captain attempts to reenact the Titanic.

“KEE?! KEE?!” What?! What?! “What are you staring at?! There is nothing to see!” I snapped with exasperation.

Another passenger heard my shouting and came to the rescue, shooing the boys away. They regrouped further along the deck to continue staring.

Fine. At least there’s some distance between us.

I sat up and saw most passengers had vacated the deck. The only remaining evidence of life were loitering boys along the railings, and piles of trash blowing in the wind. As I shook my sleeping bag to clear the trash that gathered in the night, lightning flashed. Ah, that’s why everyone left.

A light drizzle started as James rejoined the living. The launch began to approach Dhaka’s main port, so we migrated downstairs to retrieve James’ bike and brace ourselves for the inevitable surge of people fighting to disembark at the same time. A perfectly timed decision; a torrential downpour began just as we made it down below.

Launches from Hularhat to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Pulling into Dhaka port - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Pulling into the port at Dhaka. Excuse the phone photo—it was far too early (and chaotic) for real cameras.

With a thud, the launch careened into Sadarghat, its final destination, and people began to stream onto the dock. Still half asleep, laden with backpacks and a bike, James and I joined the crowd flowing off the boat and into the rain. Headlights blinded us and horns blared at us as we squelched through muddy roads outside the boat terminal, entering the dark void of Dhaka at 5:30 in the morning.

But, on the bright side, no one was staring at us any more.

How to take a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka - Sadarghat launch ghat crowds in the evening - Lost With Purpose travel blog

The crowds of Sadarghat later on in the day

Dhaka by river: how to get a boat from Khulna to Dhaka via Hularhat launch ghat

In the name of helping out future travelers, here’s all the information I could gather about getting a boat from Khulna to Dhaka.

How to get a launch boat from Khulna to Dhaka, Bangladesh - Rocket Steamer sailing into Dhaka - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Rocket Steamer from Khulna to Dhaka

Rocket Steamer dates and times

The iconic Rocket Steamer leaves from Khulna only once a week, on Thursdays.

If you want to leave on another day, you’ll have to head to Hularhat (more on that below), or further south to Morrelganj, where the Rocket service from Dhaka ends.

The Rocket Steamer leaves from Morrelganj/Hularhat every day except Sunday at 13:00 or 14:00. Try to arrive early, you never know what might come up. The Rocket will drop you at Sadarghat in Dhaka.

Buying Rocket Steamer tickets

You can buy tickets for the Rocket either at the launch ghat in Khulna, through a travel agent, or by calling the BIWTC (Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation) office directly at +88-02-9559779.

Note: First class cabin tickets often sell out early, so if you want a berth, attempt to book as far in advance as possible. One month ahead is recommended.

Rocket Steamer ticket prices (Hularhat – Dhaka)

At the time of writing, Rocket Steamer ticket prices from Hularhat to Dhaka are as follows:

  • First class: 3,124 Tk for a double cabin (half for single occupancy). Includes sheets, tea, and food.
  • Second class: 1,710 Tk for a double cabin. Doesn’t include sheets or food.
  • Third class: 230 Tk for a spot on the floor. BYO everything.

For more on the Rocket Steamer in Bangladesh, check out Kathmandu and Beyond’s post on their Rocket experience.

 

How to get a launch from Hularhat to Dhaka - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Launch from Hularhat to Dhaka

If cheap and convenient is what you’re after, launches are the way to go. In case the story wasn’t clear, you’ll still have quite the experience despite not being on a “famous” ship.

Launch dates and times

Two launches run daily from Hularhat to Dhaka. One comes at 2:00, another at 15:00. The journey takes about 15 hours, and the launch will drop you at Sadarghat in Dhaka.

Buying launch tickets

Launch tickets can be purchased on the spot from one of the ticketing men sitting on the ghat, or through a travel agent. If you want a cabin, it’s a good idea to book in advance, as cabins can sell out.

Of course, if you’re a very obvious foreigner, you can probably talk your way into a cabin even if the launch is fully booked. Just know that this will be at the expense of another passenger(s), so consider that before wielding your privilege.

Note: Keep hold of your ticket throughout the whole ride. You’ll need it to get off the boat in Dhaka.

Launch ticket prices (Hularhat – Dhaka)

At the time of writing, launch ticket prices were as follows:

  • Double cabin: 1,800 Tk for a cramped cabin with two beds including sheets
  • Single cabin: 1,000 Tk for a single bed with sheets
  • Floor: 200 Tk, read the above story to get the picture

How to reach Hularhat from Khulna - Rickshaw to Hularhat launch ghat - Lost With Purpose travel blog

How to get to Hularhat launch ghat from Khulna by public transport

I opted to depart from Hularhat because the village is easily accessible from Khulna, and sees more regular boat traffic than the latter. Most launch and steamer services to Khulna have been cancelled due to low water levels and changing channels.

To reach Hularhat from Khulna, take a bus to Pirojpur from Sonadonga Bus Terminal, the city’s main bus station. There are buses to Pirojpur both inside the station and on the corner of Sonadonga Bypass Road and M A Bari Street.

Tickets to Pirojpur are 100 Tk per person, and the bus ride takes a little less than two hours. Ride the bus all the way to the end; there are a couple of stops in Pirojpur town.

From the Pirojpur bus stand, you can get a rickshaw or auto to Hularhat launch ghat. Make sure to specify that you want to go to Hularhat; there are two ghats, one for ferries and one for launches and Rockets. My rickshaw driver thought I wanted the ferry ghat, and took me to the wrong place. The rickshaw cost me 50 Tk for a 20-minute ride. You can probably find shared autos to Hularhat waiting just outside the bus station.

Once you’re in Hularhat, just ask for the Rocket or launch ghat; they’re next to each other, so don’t worry if you’re at the wrong one. Locals will know what you’re looking for and point you in the right direction.

Want more aquatic adventures? Don’t miss my tales from the Brahmaputra river, which runs through both India and Bangladesh.

 

Traveling to Bangladesh? Boats are the best—and most beautiful—way to get around the country. Taking a boat from Khulna to Dhaka can be the highlight of any trip to Bangladesh... but it can also go wrong if planned poorly (like I did). Click through for my tale of failed boat adventures, plus a guide on how to get a Rocket Steamer or launch boat to Dhaka from the Khulna area.

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

9 thoughts on “Dirt cheap fares and endless stares: to Dhaka by river

    Peder Bisbjerg says:

    I came across this looking for day or weekend launch trips out of Dhaka. Great story, I especially love these kind of conversations:
    “3 am?”
    “Yes, yes”
    “3 pm?”
    “Yes, yes!”
    “So there is no boat?”
    “Yes, yes!”
    Your pictures are wonderful!

    Alex says:

    Bahaha, all too familiar with that kind of exchange. It’s happened several times since this story was written… yeesh. Never again using AM and PM. Anyway, thanks!

    Zoie says:

    I completely understand you when you write about the stares — they’re unavoidable and definitely exacerbated if you are 1) a clear foreigner, and 2) a woman. It’s inspiring to read about you traveling and dealing with issues such as excessive staring, no matter how small that problem may be compared to others. Will you write a post about how you deal with staring from strangers when it gets too uncomfortable? I would love to learn from your experiences & maybe use your advice when I go traveling. 😊 Wonderful post & best of luck on your travels!

    June Arber says:

    Excellent, fascinating, inspiring and factual. I miss the good old days of no selfies!

    Jameel says:

    in a word, JOSS

    Amin says:

    Excellent 🙂

    Arif Ahmed says:

    Awesome writing. In a word joss. Thanks a lot. You have written all the necessary points.

    Tawhidur Rahman Rehan. says:

    THANK YOU,AND YOU WON MY HEART WITH THAT ARTICLE IN DETAIL ,YOU HAVE VISUALISED ALL SIDE OF RIVERTRANSPORT OF BANGLADESH,I WANT TO JOIN WITH YOU VAI ANY SOCIAL MEDIA OR e mail,

    Thanks for posting a rich article.

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