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Is Pakistan Safe to Travel to?Wazir Khan Masjid Mosque Shahi Royal Hammaam Bathhouse Lahore Pakistan Oct 2015 047 photo by Wasif Malik (https://flic.kr/p/Bzmoms).

Is Pakistan Safe to Travel to?

What do you first think when you hear the word Pakistan? For me, living in New Zealand and India, since 9/11 it’s been synonymous with terrorism. News reports, the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and Mark Owen’s book No Easy Day were, like most, all I knew about Pakistan.

Zero Dark Thirty Movie Poster

I had similar worries about India from my conditioning from the Western media before I travelled there. That’s why I ended up writing the India Survival Guide, to help put traveller’s minds at rest by quickly teaching them the ropes to make their trip to India a success.

I’ve consistently throughout my life found media stereotypes to be scaremongering and far from the reality on the ground.

Access all available safety information

Government travel advisories for Pakistan weren’t very encouraging either. They rated Pakistan as an extreme and high-risk travel destination. Those same Government advisories had also rated Ladakh and Kashmir in India, where I’d just been, as an extreme risk too (and all of India as ‘some risk’).

So far I hadn’t found much positive info on travelling to Pakistan.

Next, I started searching for blogs about others experiences in Pakistan. This search came back very positively with many travellers raving about Pakistan, and it’s beauty.

After that, I went and got opinions from my friends. Unsurprisingly, my Hindu Indian and Kiwi friends all said something along the lines of, “You’re going to get kidnapped or blown up.” My Muslim Indian and the very few Pakistani acquaintances I had were far more positive.

My Pakistani friends, including a woman who works at a local shop I frequent, all immediately offered me hospitality in their cities. As I talked to them and read Pakistan travel experiences online, the worries I had started to fade.

Advice from a British traveller I met in Pakistan

Pakistanis are incredibly hospitable and very friendly. Walk through any city and you will be met by a barrage of people wanting to introduce themselves or offer you a cup of tea.

There are barely any tourists here, so people are often excited to see you. Sometimes your rickshaw driver will refuse payment, declaring that you are his guest. Outside the city, people become even more friendly.

However, the government and in particular the Military and Intelligence services appears to be getting increasingly paranoid around the activities of foreigners.

Be prepared to be stopped again and again by the authorities and have your passport at the ready.

Some of this official attention is for your own safety, there are, of course, very dangerous areas in Pakistan and the government of Pakistan will stop you going there, or for the slightly less dangerous areas, issue you with a police bodyguard.

The fact that the government issues foreigners with police protection shows that at some level there is still a very welcome commitment to opening as much of the county up as possible to tourists.

Regarding danger from terrorism, there is only one incident to my knowledge where Westerners were specifically targeted, the 2013 massacre of climbers at Naga Parbat.

Whilst terrorist attacks continue to plague parts of Pakistan, they are rare in Lahore and especially in Islamabad. The targets are not foreign tourists (there are barely any to target).

Foreign government websites offering travel advice are important to consult, but usually extremely risk-averse. You might find yourself, for example, staring at an overpriced box of Ferrero Roche in a fancy service station on the flawless motorway to Peshawar and realise, that you have strayed into a zone in which the British FCO advises against all travel.

In seven trips to Pakistan over the past twelve years I have never once felt threatened.

Know where to be extra careful or not go

That being said, there’s no denying that some regions of Pakistan are high risk due to terrorist organisations operating. This map shows you the troubled areas.

Safety in Pakistan: Areas of crime and terrorism activities

Safety in Pakistan: Areas of crime and terrorist activities. Green is safe, the rest have various issues. Updated in early 2018.

My decision

After weighing up all the opinions, I decided to go to Pakistan and even enter the zones of extreme risk. My risk tolerance is quite high compared to others so I can understand others deciding against it. If you want to go but are still a bit worried then just stick to the highway going from Islamabad in the north to Hyderabad in the south.

I was also lucky that I had a friend in Peshawar who I’d be staying with there. He informed the local Police the dates I’d be arriving and they requested a copy of my VISA and Passport. The Police there will work to ensure your safety. If you have friends back home that can introduce you to trusted people in these areas, then you can travel there much more confidently with a local.

I already had a wealth of experience from visiting and living in India, so the worry that I’d struggle with language, customs, bargaining, scams, and the daily life weren’t there. I was already a confident traveller.

UPDATE: After visiting – A warning

Pakistan was a great country to travel, but I did face one issue that I didn’t expect. Everyone online warns you about terrorists, but the problem I encountered was with the Government.

The short story is, coming to Pakistan on foot from India and visiting Peshawar (red area on the map) I raised some flags amongst Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Firstly, as I crossed the border, they called my Pakistani friend who’d invited me and began questioning him about me and telling him where not to take me (even though I’d included all his details in my VISA applications months before).

Then they called him a second time a week later asking him more questions about where I’d been and where I was currently.

Whoever was on the phone wouldn’t say what agency they were from. It was weird and made me extremely paranoid wondering why the hell they were keeping an eye on me. I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in the world.

The thing is, I’m not sure you can avoid being monitored in Pakistan unless you’re on an organised group tour. Pakistan’s relationship with the West is strained, they are wary of foreigners, and have a strong dislike of Americans. Until that changes, it won’t be as welcoming to tourists as most countries are.

My privacy is something that’s important to me and it resulted in me leaving Pakistan early.

Knowing all that now, I still would have gone to Paksitan, because it isn’t until you’re being watched that you realise how much your privacy means to you.

UPDATE: Another tourists experience

YouTube comment from another tourist about being spied on in Pakistan.

YouTube comment from another tourist about being spied on in Pakistan.

Foreign Woman Beheaded in India

Liga Skromane Missing Poster

Kerala Police have finally caught the two men who drugged, raped and beheaded a tourist – Liga Skromane from Latvia.

Liga had been missing since February when she went to visit a beach in Kovalam. She had come to India in search of ancient Indian Ayurvedic (natural Indian healing) treatment for depression.

The suspects are drug sellers, and one has previously abused both men and women in the same remote area in the post.

What went wrong?

Simply put, Liga trusted the wrong people. In tourist areas in India, it’s hard to know who you can trust. Most of the time, if someone is approaching you and starting a conversation, there’s something they want from you. It might just be a selfie or to sell you something, but it could be something else too.

As a man in India the risk is less, but as a lone woman being approached and going anywhere with local men is risky. They might come up to you and start with innocent questions like, “Where are you from?” Then once they’ve built a quick friendship with you, they’ll say, “Let me show you somewhere special that tourists never go.” Who wants to miss out on seeing a local sight off the beaten track?

Another thought I had which is pure hypothetical is that she may have been buying drugs. In places like Goa and Kerala, I was offered drugs from men on the street as I walked down the road or near a beach. I don’t do drugs or drink, so I never experienced what that process is like. But I imagine they’d have their lines to lure you to a quiet place to take drugs. Just like back home, you can’t trust drug dealers (but that should go without saying right?)

A final problem in India is that foreign women are seen as “easy” and thought to be more open to having sex than Indian women. So if you come across a man who has this mentality, he’ll take advantage of you all the while thinking to himself, “She asked for it, she’s out here talking to men!”

How to stay safe with strangers

Before trusting and going anywhere with people in India, there are a few things you can do to help protect yourself:

  1. As a lone female, never go places with strangers. But if you are going to then follow the next to steps.
  2. Verify their identity. Before going somewhere, add them as a friend on Facebook or take their phone number and call their phone so you know it’s the right number. If they don’t give you any personal information, then they don’t want to be identified, and that’s a big red flag.
  3. Then send their identity to whoever you’re travelling with and tell them where you’re going with these strangers.
  4. Use the share your location feature on your phone with someone, so your movements can be tracked.
How to Keep Your Belongings Safe in Your Room in India. Photo by vkpriyesh (https://instagram.com/vkpriyesh)

How to Keep Your Belongings Safe in Your Room in India

The only time I’ve ever had things stolen from my hotel room was when I was in New York. I was sharing a bunk bed with a German tourist. I remember thinking when I met him that he wasn’t very friendly. That should’ve been a sign.

There were no lockers for luggage in the tiny room, but when you’re just sharing the room with one other person, the last thing you expect is for them to steal from you. Lesson learnt!

I came back after an afternoon exploring NYC to find the German had checked-out and my backpack open and missing my iPad charger. He’d also tried to smash the lock on my strong solid plastic suitcase. If it hadn’t have been for that sturdy suitcase he would’ve found my iPad inside.

I got lucky. I should’ve lost a lot more that day! Since then I’ve followed the below rules to keep my bags and belongings safe while travelling.

Securing your possessions (hotels & hostels)

Example of a portable travel safe.

Example of a portable travel safe.

  1. Prefer to stay at hostels with lockable luggage storage. Invest in your own lock to secure it too.
  2. Hotel room safes offer better protection than leaving valuables in your locked luggage, use them. If you want to be extra secure, there are locks available that add additional security to hotel room safes.
  3. If you have no safe, lockable luggage or storage, buy a portable travel safe and secure it somewhere such as the metal pipes under the wash basin.
  4. If you’re carrying something worth thousands of dollars, have it stored in the hotel’s own safe.
  5. Out of sight, out of mind: always have your bags out of sight in a cupboard to help staff resist the temptation to tamper with them.
  6. If you can’t secure your valuables in any of the above ways, carry them in your backpack with you.

Securing your room

  1. Hotels with electronics door entry are best because the codes are usually changed often, if not daily.
  2. Don’t stay on the ground floor; these rooms have windows open to the outside street. One level up offers security from that.
  3. Consider buying a portable door stop to secure your room door while inside the room.
  4. Hang the DND sign on your door, so no one enters while you’re out. Request the maid make up your room when you’re there.
  5. Double check your door is locked before leaving.
  6. Always use the peephole or door chain to check who’s knocking at your door before letting them in. If you’re not sure, call the reception and ask to verify the person.
How a portable door stop works.

How a portable door stop works.

Gangs of Wasseypur Poster

The Time I Was Nearly Kidnapped in India & How to Avoid Stalking

Stalking. It’s only ever happened to me once in India, that I know of. Once is enough to give you that sickening feeling in your stomach and ask yourself, “What could have happened?”

The sun was setting in Ranchi, the capital of one of the poorest states in India, Jharkhand. I’d just left my hotel at 4:30 pm to pick up some cough losengers from the nearby market.

As I searched the busy Upper Bazaar for a medicine shop a man wearing dark sunglasses that hid his eyes, dark blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a brown leather jacket walked past me singing to himself.

He looked like a typical Bollywood gangster with his hair slicked back. And after all, I was in the state of gangsters as depicted in the bleak crime film Gangs of Wasseypur.

Gangs of Wasseypur movie poster.

Gangs of Wasseypur movie poster.

He looked strange with the glasses on (often criminals try to hide their eyes, just like how we fail to keep eye contact when lying). He stared at me as he walked past, I knew something wasn’t right there and then. I kept walking, keeping an eye on him from the corner of my eye.

That’s when I saw him turn and begin to follow a few meters behind me. My instincts kicked in. Just with that small interaction, I knew there wasn’t something right about him. The way he was conspicuously dressed and his turning immediately after seeing me confirmed it.

Always trust your gut

As I reached the end of the market, I turned around, and he began pretending to look at a clothing stall.

I stared at him, so he knew I was watching him. I took a right turn and began circling the market. I turned around again, to find him still behind me. I stood there staring blankly at him. He knew I was watching him. He passed me and then began pretending to look at another clothing stall.

Mimicking my movements

I quickly made my way out of the small market lanes and onto the nearby main road. I turned around as I walked and there he was, following.

While I was in the busy market with people around I was safe.

While I was on the main road, I was safer as Police often have posts on the main roads. I found some kind of enforcement vehicle that wasn’t Police, so I stood there for a minute, and my stalker disappeared.

A Bazaar in India. Photo by Debajyoti Das.

A Bazaar in India. Photo by Debajyoti Das.

At this point, I knew without a doubt that he was following me. I was creeped out. It reminded me of another traveler’s story where in Amritsar she was followed and ran into a public toilet thinking he wouldn’t enter, but he did. He told her he wouldn’t leave until she paid him.

I’d lost sight of my stalker. But he hadn’t lost sight of me.

I finally found a medicine store and bought what I needed. The store was raised off the road. I looked out from my vantage point over the market for him. Then I looked to my left. It felt like a scene from a horror movie. There he was, two shops away, staring at me.

I kept staring back at him. I thought about taking a photo of him. But I didn’t, I couldn’t see any Police nearby, and I didn’t want to annoy him without them nearby – after all this state is famous for gangsters and violent far-left radical communist terrorists called Naxalites.

Find the police

A second later, as I kept looking across the market for Police, I saw two paramilitary officers patrolling with AK-47s slung across their backs.

I walked slowly down the stairs and ducked through the food stalls in my way and jumped a small fence to get closer to them.

I turned to watch my stalker; he stood there watching me cross the market. He hadn’t put two and two together yet. As soon as he saw me greet the army officers, I watched him casually and methodically escape into the crowd. He didn’t want to be pointed out.

After explaining to the officer I was being followed, he, of course, asked me, “Which man is following you?” But it was too late. He told me to come back to him if he bothers me again.

I wasn’t going to risk bumping into him again, not after dark, so I retired to my hotel for the night. Luckily my hotel was in the opposite direction the stalker went.

What did he want with me exactly?

Terrorists and guns in Jharkhand. From the Jharkhand Police's Twitter.

Terrorists and guns in Jharkhand. From the Jharkhand Police’s Twitter.

I had been warned not to go out after dark in Jharkhand because of the Naxalite tensions. But I didn’t know about the kidnappings there.

I thought this guy just wanted to rob me when I went into a quiet alleyway. But as my friend told me when I got back to Delhi, it was likely more sinister than that.

The Naxalites pay people to monitor the markets for kidnapping targets. Foreigners, politicians and their kin are the targets.

Luckily, following my own travel safety advice for this scenario paid off.

Here’s what to do if someone is following you in India

This advice below is taken from my quintessential India Survival Guide (Quick-Start Safety Guide), it’ll have you prepared and feeling confident about travelling in India as you enjoy reading it on the plane ride over.

  1. Keep calm and breathe.
  2. Verify you’re being followed by turning around multiple times to check if your turns are being mimicked. Stop and see if they pass you or not, then continue and look again.
  3. The moment you’ve verified it, begin making your way to a safe place like a bank, showroom, international brand’s store, or main road – anywhere with people. Do not isolate yourself or go into a place like a public toilet where there may be nobody.
  4. As soon as you’re somewhere safe, inform people you’re being followed.
  5. Call the Police on 100 or ask someone to take you to a nearby officer. The stalker should leave once they see the Police. Have the officer walk you to your hotel or assist you to your next destination.
How to Avoid the 3 Most Common Shopping Scams in India. Photo by David Baxendale (https://flic.kr/p/D6xJcN).

How to Avoid the 3 Most Common Shopping Scams in India

Being overcharged, given wrong change, and high-pressure sales tactics are the 3 most common shopping scams for tourists to India. The first two I still deal with every week being a foreigner living in India. Here’s how to avoid these scams.

Being Overcharged

When I first worked this scam out, I realised that two stores I frequented daily were overcharging me! One of them was a small shop at the end of a lane in Karol Bagh, New Delhi. I’d go there and buy a bunch of small food items and the cashier was scanning the products into the computer and then rounding up the bill by 20 or 30 rupees and never giving me a receipt, so I never saw the real amount.

I cottoned onto this scam when I only bought 2 items that I knew the prices of and realised he was adding more to the bill. You have to know the price of everything you’re buying and roughly add it up in your head, so you know roughly what the total will be. Luckily, that’s easy thanks to a consumer protection in India called Maximum Retail Price (MRP).

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) highlighted in red on a drink bottle and back box of sweets.

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) highlighted in red on a drink bottle and back box of sweets.

Every packaged product in India must, by law, have an MRP printed on it. It’s illegal for a shopkeeper to charge more than the MRP. Always check the MRP before paying to make sure they’re not overcharging you. If they are, point to the MRP – they all know the MRP laws. This law does not apply to items sold loosely, without packaging, such as fruit.

Wrong Change

A Mother Dairy store in New Delhi. Photo by Alan Morgan.

A Mother Dairy store in New Delhi. Photo by Alan Morgan.

The Mother Dairy store on that same street in Karol Bagh was also scamming me. I’d buy sweet lassi and milk from this little hole in the wall dairy and the cashier would never give me change. After I learnt about MRP, I realised he was only scamming me out of 10 or so rupees each time, but it’s the principle – he thought it was ok to shortchange foreigners.

Always know, at least roughly, how much change you should be receiving.

High-Pressure Sale Tactics

Certain stores, usually ones strangers and taxi drivers will take you to because they earn a fat commission, employ high-pressure sales tactics which can be very intimidating. The salesman will start bringing you lots of different products to look at and asking you constantly if you like them. Sometimes they’ll offer you chai and biscuits too. They make you seem very welcome until you decide not to buy something. Then they put the pressure on, “Madame, you must buy something.” They’ll even raise their voices and put a furious look on their faces.

Do not be threatened by these crooks and their high-pressure tactics. Tell them “No thank-you” and leave immediately, you are not obliged to buy anything – especially at the massively inflated prices these scam shops charge.

One skill you must have before shopping in India is bargaining, and it’s not as hard as you think. My India Survival Guide (Quick-Start Survival Guide) breaks it down into 3 simple steps, allowing you to surprise everyone and make massive savings.

Note: the ladies in this article’s feature image have nothing to do with scams, it’s just a beautiful photo of a local Sari store in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

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