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Our man in Dhaka takes time out from England's soggy build-up to explore life beyond the bus window
October 12, 2003
Big, pink and gimmicky. Dhaka's Fantasy Kingdom
Through no fault of their own, the England players' time in Bangladesh is beginning to resemble one of those de luxe coach tours of Britain that are so beloved of American tourists. ("Today, honey, we're going to do the Heritage Tour: we'll start at the Tower of London, we'll pop over to Bath - via Stonehenge of course - and then we'll drop in on Loch Ness for tea and a scone.")
The major drawback to this analogy, of course, is that Bangladesh doesn't have much in the way of a globally renowned heritage. But, in the course of the hour-and-plenty hike from England's hotel, there is certainly much to see and do - if you look hard enough. So, when the day's batting practice was over and England were setting off to play football on the nearby Astroturf (see, I bet you didn't expect that!), I took it upon myself to discover just what it is that lies beyond the bus window.
The BKSP lies in the district of Savar, some 20 kilometres to the north-west of Dhaka. The complex also includes a running track, an outdoor swimming pool and several muddy football pitches, which are nonetheless deemed good enough for regular use by the Bangladesh national squad.
It has the feel of an English public school - albeit a slightly rundown one - in that it is dotted with boarding houses and classrooms, and littered with grubby schoolchildren in games kit, many of them carrying hockey sticks and other such weapons. These are the nation's elite sportsmen; selected at an early age and groomed for success - or not, as the case may be.
Just opposite the entrance, however, is a very different picture altogether. The road that leads to the BKSP is arrow-straight and stretches for several miles in both directions. Here, optimistic salesmen congregate in wooden shacks, hoping to flog their wares to some of the many motorists that pass by every second. Each has what might loosely be termed a pond on their front lawn, but there is not a gnome in sight - just a fetid gathering of rubbish, and an inevitable onset of mud and odour as the sun sets about its work.
A short distance along the verge, and set back 20 yards down a potholed drive, is one of the many factories that have sprung up in this no-man's land. As I stepped gingerly through the puddles, an invitation to visit was only ever a short introduction away. Sure enough, an inquisitive line manager got chatting to me as he returned from his break, and into the building we went - after all but stepping on a tiny black goat feasting on a pile of banana skins.
Red-brick and four storeys square, the building turned out to be a clothing factory - one of Bangladesh's major industries, but also one of its most precarious, because of its over-reliance on imported fabrics. As I sat in the office, waiting (in vain) for security clearance, I was told that 2200 people were employed in the building, of which no more than 100 were visible at ground level. No wonder that bloke in the top-floor window had looked ready to jump. The factory itself was one of a fleet of contrasting enterprises run under the same name. It is a common trend - the proprietor of my own hotel has dealings in the soap, poultry and polythene businesses, to name but a few, and claims (rather improbably) to be in talks with Jaguar.
The rest of the road was a similar blend of industry and poverty. The A-One sweater company was sat next to a row of fishermen dabbling their bamboo rods in the floodwaters; an open-air butchery - complete with intestine-chewing mongrel - was located next to the Biman poultry factory (this was a particularly alarming find, as I had been all set to fly on their battery-farm of an airline). But the most incongruous sight of the lot, and the greatest must-see, was yet to come. It was time to hop on a rickshaw and head for Fantasy Kingdom, Dhaka's world-famous ... theme park.
Fantasy Kingdom lies in the town of Ashulia, where the roads are lined with scrap-metal sheeting and the streets are dry and dusty: it is what the gatekeeper generously termed a "good" slum. Like the England team, I had passed its entrance on several occasions with jaw-dropped incredulity, but this time I had the time and the inclination to visit. The first impressions were not good. Beyond the yellow-and-purple drivethrough entrance, there was parking space for roughly 100 cars - and precisely two had turned up. To make matters worse, Celine Dion was warbling out of the tannoy as I wandered through an array of very shut boutiques.
The main gates were a troubling sight: pink, imposing and gimmicky, as if the Badshahi Mosque had been flogged to Mickey Mouse. At least there were some people queuing at the ticket booth, although they were hardly your everyday punters - a Korean tourist and a line of seven locals, who turned out to be the boss and management of the nearby Hyundai car factory. But the interior was utterly vacant, except for a family of Russians who were apparently involved in the oil business.
A 200-taka ticket (roughly £2.15) bought me entry and three or more rides, depending on their intensity. The Korean contingent had made their way to the bumper cars just inside the main gate, so I tagged along, though for what reason I do not know - a everyday tuk-tuk ride provides just as many thrills at a fraction of the price. Still, it was enlightening to discover perhaps the only place in the country where seat-belts were obligatory.
The rest of the park was eerie - giant plastic dinosaurs seem so much more scary when there's no-one else watching your back. There was a boating lake populated by inflatable Donald Duck imitations, a choo-choo train that didn't run around the edge of the park, and a handful of whirligigs that would occasionally (and mercifully) silence Celine with a burst of thumping techno, if one of the Russians chose to take a ride.
The main event, though, had to be the rollercoaster. Big and blue, it had been clearly visible from the roadside, and was no doubt the envy of scores of Ashulia's less-fortunate citizens. And so, purely in the interests of research, I felt obliged to give it a whirl. It was tame, to be honest - although in the circumstances, that was probably not a bad thing at all. It dipped violently at first, and provided a fine view of an empty park and its very full surrounds. But it rarely threatened to come off its moorings, except when it braked violently on re-entry, and the entire trip was over within 30 seconds.
As I wandered back to the road, I got chatting once again with the friendly gateman. Ever the optimist, he reckoned that the park would get up to 1000 visitors a day, and perhaps eight times as many on a public holiday. But, he added - not without a hint of professional jealousy - it had already been usurped by a newer, cheaper venue. This version was not more than a mile beyond the BKSP, in fact, and offered rides and entry for as little as a tenth of the price. I have to admit, I was rather pleased. Although that particular rollercoaster will probably have to wait for another day.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be accompanying England throughout their travels in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
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