Cheap Fares And Lots Of Stares: Getting A Launch Boat From Khulna To Dhaka
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“So… launch coming at 3?” I said slowly and deliberately to a young ticket collector idling at a card table/desk.
“AM or PM?”
“So boat comes one hour?”
“Launch comes night?”
“Yes launch at day?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
In the name of helping out future travelers, here’s all the information I could gather about getting a boat from Khulna to Dhaka.
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.
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 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.