The Truth on Traveling as a mixed race couple in Pakistan

If you read this blog, you should know that myself and Kit are a biracial couple. Yep, one of those “Asian girl marrying white guy” success stories, if I may say. We had our interracial marriage in Italy, and then re-registered our wedding under Malaysian law. We totally got hitched. If you haven’t grasped that simple concept yet, you are like the several Pakistani nationals who, while I and Kit visited their country, asked us if “we were brother and sister”.

I am still scratching my head, trying to figure out what kind of thing my mother should have slept with to come up with a mixed-race couple of siblings. Regardless, this post is about our experience traveling in Pakistan as a mixed-race couple – and Asian European couple, to be precise.

We want to demystify a few misconceptions and put the minds of couples who think of traveling to Pakistan together at ease.

First of all: How safe is traveling to Pakistan in 2019?

Travel Pakistan as a Couple
Surrounded by “terrorists” in Mingora, Swat Valley. There’s no more trace of the Taliban who occupied this city until a few years ago (image by Kit Yeng Chan).

There seems to be an increasing consensus in the online travel community that Pakistan is poised to be the “next big thing” in travel. From adventure-type blogs, to Instagram-superstar solo female travelers who strike off on motorbikes across the length of Pakistan, and Facebook groups that bestow information on all aspects of traveling to Pakistan, the country is now ready to be ruined by tourism. Oh yeah, really.

Let’s not forget that the Pakistani government has just launched a visa on arrival scheme for 5 countries, 45 more will be added soon, and all the others will be able to apply for eVisas. Spend some time browsing Facebook groups on travel in Pakistan, and you will quickly realize that their thousands of users strongly believe that social media will forever change foreigners’ perceptions about their country. Pakistan is all about receiving tourists, and again, will definitely be the next big thing in Asia.

So, with all this hype, is Pakistan safe to travel? After going, we understand that the media exaggerate things, and we think that wherever we have been in Pakistan was really safe — and also pretty easy to travel independently.
The people are friendly. Transport is readily available and pretty cheap, with luxury Daewoo buses plying the routes between major cities. Food is good. Very few people are there to scam you — even if I must tell you about the motorbike snatch-thief motherf@#$r who tried to grab my mobile phone outside of Lahore’s Daewoo bus station… and miserably failed.

All the above, to us, made traveling to Pakistan quite easy. It’s still not like a trip to Thailand or Malaysia of course (well, the transport is quite good, but there are of course much lesser travelers around), but we think that there’s really nothing dangerous about most of Pakistan, and in particular, Gilgit-Baltistan and the Karakoram Highway.

The catch is simple: if there is a troubled hot-spot in Pakistan, you are simply not allowed to go there, or you will be escorted by armed police. If you decide to go alone, and end up getting shot/kidnapped/raped/eaten alive by macaques, don’t complain, for they have warned you.

Do we have to be married to travel as a couple in Pakistan?

Travel Pakistan as a Couple
My police escort at Fairy Meadows kept hugging me and passing me his rifle, even knowing that my wife Kit was around (image by Kit Yeng Chan).

I and Kit are married and therefore technically “free of shame”, but in general, we found Pakistan to be the most relaxed among the Islamic nations we visited. Kit never had to wear a scarf, unlike when we traveled to Iran, where it’s compulsory. We did stay in some Pakistani hotels, and no questions were asked. For a view on how it is to travel Pakistan as a solo female traveler, check out this article by Alex at Lost with Purpose.

One thing that’s quite common for us when traveling in Southeast Asia or India is to receive the typical hotel staff’s innuendo that I am bringing a Chinese prostitute into my room. To me, this is more amusing than a problem. In Pakistan, on the contrary, we never had this issue, and we were also never asked if we were married before checking in.

I suppose that if I had been traveling with a local Pakistani woman, however, I would have probably gotten plenty of questions. But being with a Malaysian Chinese woman — who in Pakistan is always mistaken for one of the many Chinese nationals working in the country on Belt and Road’s projects — absolutely posed no issues.

Traveling Pakistan as a mixed race couple: the experience of an Australian woman married to a Pakistani national

Travel Pakistan as a Couple
Liz and Shah at the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus Rivers near Gilgit (image by Kit Yeng Chan)

If it’s true that foreign couples are largely immune to local prejudice, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to couples including a foreigner and a local. We have asked a friend, Liz of Karakoram Bikers, to tell us about her experiences traveling around Pakistan with Shah, her local husband, before and after being married.

At first, when we were unmarried, Shah and I were turned away from a guesthouse in Lahore. He and his friend were also not permitted to even come to my room to visit… So we went somewhere else: but the place that accepted us was one of those dodgy hotels with ‘by the hour’ reservations… sad. From that moment on, I preferred to stay at a more expensive place in Lahore, that’s more global, and never bothered me.

While in Islamabad, we were not allowed to stay at a guesthouse we had used twice before. The day manager was happy to have us and loved to see us, and he knew we are good people. But when the owner found out about us, he complained that it was not appropriate for his family guesthouse… disappointing of the owner, as the other family travelers there were pretty happy to see Shah and I. They recognized us as they were fans of ‘Frothy Betty and the Karakoram Club’, the name we used for our first ride together in the north.

In the Northern Areas, we have never had any issues and are welcomed everywhere. Sometimes we get cheeky laughs from local guys who get excited and make disgusting comments about our relationship, otherwise, everyone is fine. Some people are genuinely confused about us being in a relationship, and don’t understand how it can be genuine.

After my first two trips, we just tell people that we are married. This is because, in general, Pakistanis don’t understand the possibility and idea of traveling together with a girlfriend, let alone a female platonic friend. The first assumption is always that Shah is my guide, and when we say “no, we are a couple”, usually people laugh and look surprised or get excited or confused. It’s interesting to watch how their brain process changes their facial expressions while they try to figure things out. I would say I definitely run into a lot of issues from being and traveling together with a Pakistani local. Two foreigners, even overseas Pakistani, would not encounter the same difficulties.

I’d like to conclude by saying that the expectations put upon the partner of a local male, and the way I am expected to behave, are very far from what I am used to, or even want. That said, I still do enjoy a lot of social opportunities that local Pakistani females would not be able to, unless they belong in highly educated, upper socio-economic circles, that are well above the average citizen’s possibilities. What’s most noticeable is that I can easily hang out with male friends in open market areas or homes due to my being a foreigner — which is considered a privilege. Foreigner couples can also do this easily: based on my experience with our many traveler clients, couples are well loved and beautifully welcomed everywhere they go in Pakistan”.

How’s Traveling with a woman in Pakistan?

Travel Pakistan as a Couple
Kit seats among men in a Skardu restaurant. Men were genuinely interested in being pictured together, more than ogling my wife (image by Marco Ferrarese)

Believe what you want about Pakistan and its current “touristic liberation” that, among other things, has recently seen foreign solo women Instagrammers scoot around the nation on bad-ass big bikes. But as Liz’s words above should clarify, the reality is that Pakistan is still a patriarchal society where men dominate. Women are obviously seen here and there, but they are not a majority in public view. Beyond cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar, where you can see the occasional tight jeans, the few women you’ll see are wearing an Afghani burqa when they walk down the street (we saw this in the Swat Valley, Besham, Chilas, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Region and so on).

Like it or not, you’ll be spending your time mostly around Pakistani men: and for this reason, it’s pretty normal that a foreign-looking woman paired to a foreigner of another race ends up sticking out like a sore thumb.

What I have to say though is, unlike India, where traveling as a mixed-race couple can become a stressful guessing game, in Pakistan we didn’t receive many silly questions or stares — except for being asked if Kit was my sister, of course.

In our experience. traveling with a woman in Pakistan is as safe, if not safer, than in any other Asian country. I have noticed that most local men were very respectful of us when told about our union, and I never had anyone, unlike in India, blatantly try to hit on my wife even if I was right there. Pakistan is a land of men, yes; but gentle men who love foreigners and are extremely concerned about appearing friendly and caring in the eyes of such foreigners. Personally, after a few days I simply lowered my defenses, and just went with the flow.

Of course, we used common sense: Kit always dressed comfortably but modestly, with long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and nothing too revealing, albeit she never wore a headscarf.  If you want to be respected and have no issues in Pakistan, think like a normal human being, not a culture ignorant backpacker.

What if we stay at people’s homes in Pakistan?

Not only me and Kit are experienced Couchsurfers (read about our opinions on Couchsurfing India) but we also love to interact with locals, and always try to convince people into letting us camp nearby their homes/staying with them.
Pakistani people are very hospitable, and we had more than an invitation (per day) to stay with them. And when doing so, we never had a problem in terms of choosing our preferred sleeping arrangements.
This is very different from that one time while traveling in Tajikistan as an unmarried couple, when we were refused the right to sleep in the same room. In Pakistan, this was never an issue, and we were welcomed and treated as part of the family, and most often given floor space or rooms where we could just stay together without any nonsense.

Travel Pakistan as a Couple
Kit with young Kalash girls in Bumburet (image by Marco Ferrarese)

Conclusion: What do we think about traveling as a mixed race couple in Pakistan

As an Asian European biracial couple who include a Chinese-looking person, we were absolutely treated with respect and with no fuss anywhere we went in Pakistan.
I can’t claim that this is because Pakistan and China relations are pretty solid, or because the heavy Chinese presence in Pakistan has somehow skewed my perception. What I can say is that, upon seeing my wife taking off her motorbike helmet and showing her Chinese features, policemen at check-posts in the Hunza Valley came up to me and told me straight up that “you are so lucky, Chinese women are very beautiful”. And of course, they all let us go without a fuss.

This benevolent attitude also never turned into unsavory experiences or uncomfortable sexual questions (for those, go to Sumatra, and Medan in particular). Kit was never groped, approached, or touched by any men during the whole time we spent in Pakistan. She actually claims that on the contrary of Indians, Pakistani men are real gentlemen, who talk respectfully and don’t stare. This also happened on the street: Kit crossed male gazes, but curious ones, not the “lecherous gaze” India is so famous for. However, as Liz’s words have shown, things may be very different if one part of a couple is a Pakistani national.

The take home point? Mixed-race or not, couples will have a very good time traveling in Pakistan. So, couples, go forth and travel with no fear of Asia’s next Big Thing!

Resources for meeting people in Pakistan

If you have decided to go to Pakistan, the Internet has some very good resources to know Pakistani people and ask questions about traveling to their country. The following are some of the most updated and efficient online communities dedicated to traveling to Pakistan:

    1. The Karakoram Club– A large Facebook group run by local Pakistani travel and adventure enthusiasts. The focus is on Gilgit-Baltistan and discovering the mountains, but the users come from all over Pakistan. It’s a good place to find local help, friends, and even people interested in hosting travelers. Join here.
    2. Backpacking Pakistan– This Facebook group is managed by foreig travelers who have visited and explored Pakistan extensively. It’s a good place to get information on where to stay, what to see, and maybe find a travel companion in Pakistan. Join here.
    3. See You in Pakistan– Another local-managed Facebook group to ask all things related to traveling Pakistan. Join here.
    4. Couchsurfing– The worldwide famous hospitality network has a presence in Pakistan, where users reside particularly in major cities like Lahore and Islamabad. Always do a search as you’ll be able to find hosts also in more offbeat locations.
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About Marco Ferrarese

MARCO FERRARESE is a Penang-based travel writer and book author who has written more than 100 articles about travel, culture and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications that include the BBC, CNN, the Guardian and Travel + Leisure. He shares is decade-worth Penang experience on Penang Insider and dispenses useful knowledge on how to make a living and meaningful encounters with travel writing on Monkey Rock World.

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