TOP 15 important things you should know before visiting Pakistan
Pakistan is a spectacular country. Even if at the start you might find it overwhelming because of that attention, because of lack of communication possibilities, because of the crazy traffic, you will soon understand you have entered a country that has so much to offer! If you`re a nature-lover you will be stunned by Pakistan`s mountain scenery. If you`re a history-freak you will enjoy getting lost in the ancient ruins of the most ancient civilizations. If you`re a foodie your tongue will be so thankful for all those spice varieties! If you`re looking for new interesting meetings, you`ll soon discover that Pakistanis are amazing people and conversations might continue endlessly. Pakistan is a real gem. And just recently it has started to open for the world. Be the one who gets that authentic experience before it gets too crowded!
The cool thing is that recently Pakistan has opened the visa application process online. So now this exciting country is so much more reachable! How to apply? You will need quite a lot of information. We – two Latvian citizens – besides passport data were asked to submit the job contract. Then we had to name all the countries we had visited for the last three years stating how much time we spent in each of them. It was a hard one and we went out of space to describe all our journeys. Letter of invitation – the most difficult part. But as we went to visit a Pakistani friend, he wrote us the letter. Besides that we had to submit his passport photo, his ID card, a letter of the reason why he`s welcoming us stating the address where he`ll host us and also a separate letter telling of how do we know each other.
The price for the visa still depends on your nationality and the length of your trip, but it is around 35USD. Not that bad, right? The application process takes up to 7 days. This visa can be used to enter through any port of entry, both airport and land borders.
If you wish to extend your visa, use the regular e-visa portal, as long as you are already in Pakistan and already with an e-visa. If you traveled to Pakistan with a regular visa, you can only extend it at the passport office of any major city.
2. The land
Officially, Pakistan is called “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” With more than 200 million people, it’s the 6th most populous country in the world! And it is quite a new country as it was founded only in 1947 when the British left vast India, separating it into the modern states of India, East Pakistan (nowadays Bangladesh), and West Pakistan (nowadays Pakistan). Of course, these events have left a huge impact on the local`s lives as well as tensed the relationships between the neighbors.
Although Pakistan as a country was created quite recently, this land was inhabited long before that, and there can be found ruins of some of the oldest civilizations in the world!
When we were traveling in Pakistan, we heard that in the 60s and 70s this country was a popular destination but when the political and social situation worsened due to terrorism the tourism industry died, and only recently Pakistan is starting a comeback. Only a year ago Pakistan made visa applications available online, and with this ease comes more tourists! But remember that this is a vast country and each region is very different from the other. Therefore, it is best to choose a specific location for your visit as you won`t be able to cover the whole country at once! And when it`s done, check out what`s the weather like and what you need to prepare to travel around that specific area! It will be snowing in mountains during the winter and heat can be unbearable in cities during the summer. By the way, when traveling, remember to carry photocopies of all your documents, because it`s often required to register at a number of checkpoints around the country.
Again, Pakistan is huge and therefore the weather in those different regions varies. From the sea-level, flat deserts to 8,000-meter peaks – you can imagine that amplitude! Winter here is from November to February and it is the best time to visit the South. Summer is from June to September and this time is the best for visiting the North. Spring and autumn vary in temperatures, so depending on which area you`re planning to visit, you should do a bit more research here!
There are many people groups living in Pakistan and each group has its own language, customs, food, and traditions. Pakistani people are well-known for their hospitality, and we also were lucky to experience it. Though keep in mind it won`t be that easy to communicate with Pakistani as English is not that common, plus a large part of the population is still undereducated, and poverty is a huge issue. But people are generally very nice and very curious as well. Some of them will just follow you to know how does the tourist “works”, the bravest ones will ask for photos and that can turn into a large gathering of people wanting the same photos for them.
But keep in mind that the country is conservative and religiously homogenous with around 97% of the population being Muslim. For most of them, it would be weird to hear if you do not consider yourself a member of any religious group. Sometimes it can be quite hard for Pakistanis to understand different lifestyles. Of course, always think before you touch various topics, especially politics and religion. It is always best to avoid those. And remember that people are proud of their country (so do not say anything bad about Pakistan), and many of them won`t be happy to talk about their neighbors.
If you’re a couple and traveling together, better to pretend to be married. If you`re married, prepare to deal with constant questions about children. If you`re homosexual, it is best not to mention that at all. Still, in Pakistan, you will see Hijras – men dressed as women (similarly like in India) who traditionally beg on the streets and at weddings. Also, remember that Pakistani men might try to seduce foreign women in the hopes of marrying and getting a visa to another country. And, if you`re a guy, be careful with flirting with girls as in Pakistan reputation is everything they have!
5. Communication and culture
Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, but there are many other local languages like Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi, etc. Most educated people will speak English, but be ready for some struggle in restaurants or in bus or train stations. It also might be quite hard to find direction signs or menus in English.
Religion influences Pakistani culture at almost every level. So be very respectful, always think about your outfit and your behavior! Before we visited Pakistan it was hard to decide what to wear, but in the end, we discovered that even Western clothing is quite common (at least in the biggest cities). Ladies also wear jeans and some of them do not cover their heads, so it is not a necessity for you! (At least in the biggest cities and tourist areas.) Yeah, it was weird to see no man wearing shorts in that heat, but nobody said anything if a foreigner was wearing those. Of course, ladies should wear long pants and modest shirts that cover shoulders and do not expose the chest. When entering a religious site, always cover knees and shoulders, ladies – also head.
Be respectful when talking about religion, Pakistan as a country, and the Pakistani army. Do not take photos close to military places and always ask permission if taking a photo of someone even if some locals themselves won`t do that.
If you have been welcomed in any house, it is nice to bring something along even it is not a necessity. Bring something from your country or buy sweets or nuts or other snacks in the local market. People will appreciate that!
Remember that in villages it will be different than in the cities. There you will see a male dominating and a woman as a housewife whose main task is to make babies and clean and cook. Public displays of affection – kissing, holding hands, touching in public – are taboo. Some hotels won`t allow couples to stay in one room if they won`t get a marriage certificate!!! Yes, you might notice that it is not common to shake a woman`s hand, and even looking in the eyes will be something men won`t do. There are separate queues for women, there are places women cannot enter. Well, some Pakistanis translate this division as “we just respect women very much”. Of course, people will be willing to show you the good part of Pakistan, so your travel will most likely be trouble-free until you treat everything and everyone with respect. And, yeah, as a foreigner, especially if you have light skin, prepare for some attention!
6. Religion in Pakistan
The vast majority of Pakistanis are Muslim, there are only some Christian and Hindu communities. Islam is the official state religion, and it influences everyday life in Pakistan. You probably already know that Pakistan was made on the basis of religion! Because Pakistan is the Islamic Republic, its laws are based on Sharia law. In Arabic, the term “sharīʿah” refers to “God’s immutable divine law”. Some of the laws include: theft is punishable by amputation of the hands, criticizing or denying any part of the Quran is punishable by death, criticizing Muhammad or denying that he is a prophet is punishable by death, criticizing or denying Allah is punishable by death, a Muslim who becomes a non-Muslim is punishable by death, a woman cannot speak alone to a man who is not her husband or relative… And this continues… Well, at least now you have a clue how harsh are these laws and why people are afraid to talk or listen to anything that confronts this. Therefore, it is best to avoid any topics related to religion and just immerse in this culture with respect even if you do not agree with all of this.
Food is like a religion here (though never say this out loud in Pakistan) and locals are really proud of their food. Yeah, of course, you will find that locals love oily and sweet a lot. And then comes meat and bread. Vegetarians and vegans might face some difficulties as this concept is still not understood in Pakistan. Do not be surprised if after saying you`re vegetarian, a local will give you a chicken dish – it`s like separating beer and alcohol: “If you don`t use alcohol, you probably drink beer.” No, it doesn`t work like that! And usually, you will find that your dish will anyways be cooked in meat broth, just the meat will be removed. Some of the traditional Pakistani foods (that you will find in India, too) include kebabs, naan, and paratha (special bread) – if you`re vegetarian, ask aloo paratha (it will be bread with potatoes), biryani (rice), raita (yogurt), dhal (lentil stew), etc…
Yes, food poisoning is a quite common thing here as well, just like in India. So it is best to follow these basic rules: first, try to be vegetarian for this trip. Meat and water are two main reasons why travelers get the disease, and you will see for yourself that meat is not refrigerated, there are flies partying on the steak before it is being prepared. Try to avoid milk products, also ice-cream. Check if hot drinks like tea are properly boiled not just heated up. Avoid sauces, choose fruits and veggies that you can peel yourself, do not eat grapes and berries you cannot peel. Never drink water from the tap, check if the cutlery and your water cup are clean before using them. Also, consider if your stomach will bear all those spices!
Tipping is not mandatory and some places won`t understand it. But some extra money will always be appreciated.
8. Ramadan in Pakistan
Ramadan is a holy month of worship, the study of the Quran, prayer, and fasting. Ramadan occurs during the month in which Muslims believe the Quran began to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, therefore this is a huge thing in Pakistan.
Both Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Ramadan, and this is the time when it’s illegal to eat and drink in public. Of course, it is different for tourists, and locals are very understanding about foreigners not fasting. But it would be best for you not to go around drinking or eating while others are fasting. Actually, there is a number of people who don’t fast during Ramadan, they just do not show it openly! Also children under 12, elderly, and sick people do not have to fast.
And even if some will tell you that it is not the best time to visit Pakistan, why not?! You will be part of one of the most important events in the country! Of course, remember that you will need to hide to sip some water when cruising around all day, it will be a bit more difficult to find the food during the day, so you need to prepare. But while restaurants and street stalls will be closed, most convenience stores and some markets are open during the day. And during Ramadan, you`ll get lower prices on accommodation and less crowded places overall. Remember that Ramadan falls on a different date each year, and it`s best to arrive closer to the end of it as it concludes with Eid – a huge three-day party!
9. Drinks and drugs in Pakistan
Officially, drinks and drugs are illegal, but, of course, that doesn`t mean you can`t find them. Even if you will not find any alcohol in the stores, locals (even those who consider themselves Muslims) will offer you to get drinks and even join in. It is allowed for foreigners and non-Muslims to purchase alcohol in special stores (not that easy to find) and high-end hotels. And drinking won`t be that cheap either. But, as the locals explained, they also have their own “ends” and alcohol can be delivered discreetly. It is allowed for you to drink, but Muslims go to jail in this case. And, of course – do not drink on the street!
And then you will find hashish everywhere, much more easily than alcohol. And even heroin is widespread as it comes from Pakistan’s neighbors, Afghanistan. And not only that. But we advise you to be super-careful taking substances. This country is best to be enjoyed sober! Instead try Sattu (barley drink), Chay (tea), fresh juices, or Lassi (yogurt drink). And remember to be careful with water – always use a purifier or buy bottled water.
10. Transportation in Pakistan
Pakistan is not that touristy yet, so don`t expect developed infrastructure. Flights to and outside Pakistan are still expensive. The biggest airport is in Lahore, so there you will find the most options. The plane is quite a common way to move around the country, though remember that flights can be canceled due to weather conditions, especially in North.
If you travel up North, get used to the mountain roads that are extremely narrow and built on high cliffs. The drivers are not the most careful either. And buses tend to break down. But generally, buses can bring you anywhere. Daewoo and Faisal Movers are some of the most popular companies. But, if you look for the cheapest options, use minivans and local buses.
There are public buses and minivans going everywhere, even the most remote areas are covered. Of course, these vehicles will be packed and won`t offer you any comfort. To find them just ask locals or flag down one on the roadside. Yes, they will also try to trick you by asking for some extra money from you as a foreigner, so remember that minivans usually do not cost more than 200 PKR for the 5-hour-long ride. And check how much other passengers are paying!
It`s super comfy to use the Careem app – it is like Uber, just cheaper. And you can even order tuk-tuk from there!
There`s an option to use the train as well and it is quite comfy. And people there aren`t that curious about foreigners like in India! It is easy to purchase the tickets – foreigners will always get the first hand in the station. There are several classes from the cheapest fan ones to AC and first class. But it is fun to take the lowest class and go with general Pakistani society!
And, yeah, hitchhiking works well in Pakistan! Though always remember to ask about the price before getting in the car, as there can be some that will try to earn from you!
11. Safety in Pakistan
The situation has changed over the past few years. Now Pakistan is considered to be a safe country. But keep in mind that changes cannot happen that fast. Always be cautious!
Of course, keep in mind that natural disasters can occur. Pakistan is in a major earthquake zone and remains at risk from further earthquakes, aftershocks, landslides, and flooding. There`s a risk of Dengue fever. Avoid large public gatherings, especially during holy periods or political rallies as those might end up violent. Be careful when moving around urban areas at night, and generally it`s best to avoid travel during the night at all.
Always be careful with traveling in border areas and do that only if really needed. There is a region Pakistanis do not travel themselves – it is Balochistan by the border with Iran where occasionally locals revolt to get their independent state and therefore it is an unstable region.
To travel in some areas you will need A No Objection Certificate, which is basically a permit required for certain restricted areas. Any local can help you to get it, or also your embassy. But it will take time to proceed. You might find it necessary when traveling to Kashmir or that same Balochistan. There are many tricky places around the country like e.g. Multan – foreigner is usually asked to leave just after being noticed, Bahawalpur where foreigners are not allowed into army-occupied places, Sukkur – where they will question you to know the reason of your visit, etc. That`s why for the first visit it is safest to choose popular destinations like Lahore, Islamabad (among the cities), Gilgit (for mountain exploration)… And after getting to know Pakistan a bit more, you can go crazy and experience that excitement that you will miss in developed countries.
You will see heavily armed policemen on the streets and many security checkpoints throughout the country, and it is normal. The cool thing is that you can feel safe with the police and army as they are there to protect you. Really! It is in their interests to keep foreign travelers out of trouble. If anything happens to a foreigner it will be all over the news and Pakistan’s image will be down again. And, yeah, that is why in some places you will need to have an escort or a guide that won`t cost you anything but will restrict you to do and visit a lot.
You will be asked to register yourself many times when traveling, but that is just for your own safety. That is why a copy of your passport and photos will always be useful. The Pakistani government is still following everyone just to be sure of safety and prevent possible terrorist activity. But, of course, like every developing country, here you will be able to do anything if you just know the “right people”. That is why Pakistan is super-interesting. It is totally different travel than in the developed world where you have to look for adventures. Here they find you!
13. SIM and internet
You shouldn`t have any problems with the internet in cities and in hotels, some struggle can be in the mountain regions. Though do not look for Wi-Fi on the street or in restaurants, they usually won`t have it. But you might wish to be connected all the time (even just to order transportation via Careem or Uber) and then you`ll need a SIM.
Locals say that ZONG and Telenor are the most popular ones. We got the first and it was working well. Though in mountains you will probably struggle with coverage. There it`s best to buy SCOM. When purchasing SIM you will be asked for your passport and also for your visa that should be printed out. You also have to go to the central office to get it, but generally, it is cheap – around 10 USD. It usually takes up to 12 hours for the card to get activated. And, yeah, your SIM will expire on the same date when your visa expires.
In Pakistan, you will find hostels, guesthouses, hotels, and high-end stays. But yeah, they won`t be as cheap as you might expect. In comparison with food or transportation costs, hotels are quite pricey. And they are in quite a bad condition. We were very disappointed here. Pictures of the place always lie and this time online reservation sites weren`t the best option. Generally, it is best to go around and ask for prices and see the rooms. Only then you can find something reasonable. And negotiate! As a foreigner, you will always be expected to pay more. But in this country, you can bargain and you can get the price down at least by 50%!
Couchsurfing is really worth mentioning. It is super popular and you can find so many great places and hosts!
15. Sightseeing and shopping
Pakistan is rich with cultural sites, ancient places, and natural beauty. It is so much worth visiting this country! Of course, maybe not the best for families for a relaxing week, but for adventure travelers and for those who enjoy untouched places and a true vibe! Again, remember that Pakistan is huge, so you should first decide on your destination and then explore it more to be prepared! By the way, if you chose the city, locals usually say, that Friday is not the best day to be in the center as then people from rural areas arrive to do their shopping. And yeah, the entrance fee in all the sites will be 10 times higher for foreigners!
In Pakistan, you will find many colorful markets. And, if you`re ok with that constant attention which you will definitely get, enjoy the shopping! Yes, English won`t be used widely, but a calculator is a great way to get the price. And don`t forget to bargain! We always try to get something from those men on the street-sides making their own handicrafts. A great thing to bring home would also be traditional clothes and shawls!
Pakistan is an exciting country and if you like to step outside tourist crowds and try something authentic, this is the perfect place to visit! We didn`t have a long stay even if intended as we had to leave the country because of the new world`s virus, but even that glimpse of what we got made us realize we will definitely return!