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Bangladesh's antique paddlewheel steamers take passengers on trips down memory lane

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With its steampunk design and yellow veneer, the early-19th-century vessel still catches the eyes of passersby from the chaotic wharves of the Sadarghat River Boat Terminal in Bangladesh's capital city of Dhaka.

PS Ostrich is one of only four remaining paddlewheel steamers that still operate on the long-distance route from Sadarghat.

Renovated and converted into diesel in 1996 at Bangladesh's Narayganj, a city known as the Dandy of the East, PS Ostrich still attracts passengers as the ramshackle ship provides passengers, through its unique designs, with peak into the history of the vessel, that was a century ago the fastest mode of water transport for the elite classes.

The steamer, nowadays, still has a distinctive style of operation, as well as a number of other reasons that attract modern-day PS Ostrich passengers.

The paddlewheel steamer cruises alongside banks of luscious green and gives passengers the chance to enjoy the serenity of the beautiful Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.

While there are no longer butlers wearing suits to attend to the first-class cabins and take orders from the elite passengers, the boats offer some modern facilities and some of the cabinet are air-conditioned.

Most importantly, the vessel still has its majestic whistle that blows as the steamer moves forward plying the water.

Josna Rani whose village home is in the Pirojpur district, 185 km southwest of Dhaka, said she has been using this steamer two or three times a year over the past decade or so.

"I like it because it's safe and not congested. These paddle steamers have not changed their character since 1929," she said.

Only one steamer runs a day while the others usually ply different routes during festivals.

Mohammad Alamgir Hossain, another passenger from the Bagerhat district, 178 km southwest of Dhaka, said he has been using this boat for a long time.

"This is my family's favorite boat," he said, while explaining the fare is cheaper compared with other transport services, including buses.

"The fare is reasonable and the journey is comfortable and safe, so we all travel on this boat. In fact, I've been taking this boat since my childhood," Hossain said, adding that there has never been any danger or troubles during his time talking the steamer.

BIWTC, the authority responsible for maintaining the paddle steamer service, reportedly incurs losses operating the vessel, but continue its operation due to the sentimental value given to their treasured passengers.

Mohammad Mozammel Haque has been working as Captain-in-Charge of the PS Ostrich since 2011.

He said the Ostrich is not only one of Bangladesh's heritages, but also the whole of Asia's. This is an antique vessel, he said and added that although it is very old it still offers a good service.

This vessel is a matter of pride for Bangladesh, said Haque.

"There are six such traditional ships in the world, four of them are in Bangladesh, and as far as I know there are two ships in India, which are not being used for commercial services," Haque explained, while pointing out that the boat's engine's used to run on steam, before coal.

In 1996, the boat's engines were converted using our local technology into ones that run on diesel fuel, Haque added.

PS Ostrich, which can normally run at nine nautical miles per hour depending on the tides, can accommodate around 800 passengers at night and 760 passengers for day trips, said Haque.

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