What to expect as a traveller in Pakistan
As a traveller in Pakistan, you will be treated with remarkable hospitality and certain expectations. Traditional ideas about hospitality mean you will most likely be subject to overwhelming kindness and generosity. Invitations for tea, invitations for dinner, enquiries about your family and offers to exchange email and Facebook IDs are commonplace. Some people are even lucky/unlucky “kidnapped” by overbearingly nice locals, who urge them to simply abandon their holiday plans and see out the weeks in their family home!!
Surprised? They will be!
For many Pakistanis the first question is an incredulous “why are you here?!”. The sharp decline in tourist numbers in recent years has lead many Pakistanis to privately believe that their country is a very undesirable place. Coupled with a widespread perception that life in Western nations is completely rosy (so why would you leave?), your travelling to Pakistan will be met with surprise, excitement and astonishment. Expect to be asked about the immigration process for your country – and don’t sugar-coat your answer if you simply aren’t able to help, which includes most of us.
Many Pakistanis stare at foreigners, although this is rarely a rude gesture, but usually a naive curiosity. As a result, you ought to keep your cool and try to get used to it – to deflect attention some travellers recommend wearing dark sunglasses, dressing to blend in, and trying not to look aimless or lost.
If you’ve been to India before, Pakistan will be both confronting and comforting. Weapons are much more visible in public than in India, a legacy of the geopolitics of the 1980s. Far fewer women are on the streets, and the level of development is overall lower. However many travellers from India appreciate the significantly lower population and the positives it brings; less crowds, less herd mentality, less pollution and less filth. Don’t expect all your cares to disappear though – this is still very much the subcontinent. If you’ve never been to the subcontinent, or anywhere else in Asia, get ready to be bowled over by the sights, the sounds and the smells. Terrifying and exhilarating, horrifying and stunning, very little can prepare you for your Pakistan experience.
As you walk around the streets in Pakistan, you’ll notice that, within the strong religious and cultural social code, almost anything goes. Men lying around on charpoys (string beds) sipping chai and watching the world go by, overloaded animals dragging carts through the heat, children of wealthy families taking selfies on their smartphones, palmreaders trying to predict the future, security guards casually toting AK47s, workers walking to their office jobs, a pair of burka-clad women lugging their groceries with children in tow. Nothing and anything is possible at the same time – the confounding contradictions of Pakistani life makes people-watching a favourite pastime of many. Be prepared for anything and everything – including the downright bizarre.
Practicalities and realities
Toilets are often wet places without toilet paper – if you require it, then you should carry your own rolls. Meals are often eaten sitting on the floor – get used to crossing your legs for long periods of time. Use your right hand when taking food or drink to the mouth. Smoking is not as widely accepted as you might think, but the smoking restrictions of western public spaces don’t really exist in Pakistan either. Time is a fluid concept in Pakistan – things don’t happen on time, they happen in sha Allah – if (and when) God wills it. If this is a foreign concept to you, it’s easier to embrace this rather than try to resist it.
More than in most countries, be prepared for some very different ideas about the way life works. You will be asked questions about your religion, salary and marital status which would be considered very personal in the west. Food and health raises a whole bunch of new issues; food and drink is considered to be divided into ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ categories. The concept states that too much of one type of food can upset a bodily balance – too much mango (considered ‘hot’) will heat the body and cause digestive problems, while ‘cold’ yogurt should not be consumed by anyone with a respiratory ailment. Bureaucracy will drive you crazy – everything seems to have a fee, and don’t be surprised if you are asked for a bribe at some point of your trip. Don’t be afraid to haggle unless prices are clearly fixed. And be prepared for the electricity to switch off from time to time – it happens with monotonous regularity, especially in the summer.
Security and social sensibilities
Security is tight and visible, and for some visitors, that is a bit concerning. Many buildings, including hotels, shopping centres, banks and restaurants, have soldiers stationed out the front with seriously big weapons. Cars are routinely pulled over and searched, and documents inspected, even when driving within a city. Try not to let this distract you from the good that Pakistan has to offer – thankfully these soldiers’ services are rarely utilised. However if such a visible security presence would rattle your nerves too much, you might reconsider whether Pakistan is the right destination for you – it’s an important question to ask yourself before booking a trip here.
Religion is a serious matter, and joking about it is not appreciated and often not tolerated. Ramadan is taken seriously in Pakistan, and at this time eating, drinking or smoking in public during daylight hours is poor form. Travellers are exempt, and your hotel will be able to provide advice on which restaurants will stay open through the day. However if you do fast – and you might find yourself drawn into it anyway, because many eateries are closed during Ramadan – then the evening feasts and festivities will be a highlight of your holiday!
Men, women and society
Pakistan is an overall conservative society, and it is sensible to dress appropriately. Being a conservative society, public displays of affection between the genders is not acceptable (including holding or shaking hands, or kissing on the cheeks – even as a greeting). Pakistani men may, in the company of a married couple, speak exclusively to the husband; he is not ignoring the wife, but rather observing a culture in which unnecessary social contact between men and women is avoided. Unmarried couples are not common nor accepted in much of Pakistan.
Foreign women are often treated as something of an oddity, especially if they are travelling alone – many people know that the gender dynamics are different in the West, but aren’t really sure how to react. Women are rather absent from many Pakistani streets, so a foreign female traveller will inevitably attract some attention. Many women report being given special treatment, while others report being completely ignored by men and spend more time with Pakistani women (usually a sign of respect, a bit like the personal space boundaries which people observe in the West). Harassment of foreign female travellers is not common, partly thanks to Islamic social values, but not unheard of.
Before travelling to Pakistan, it is essential that you make yourself aware of current events, preferably from as many sources as possible. For safety advice, it is recommended that you read the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller Travel Advisory for Pakistan, the British Foreign Office’s Pakistan Travel Advice, or your government’s relevant department.