To Muslims, Ramadan is a holy month, a month for God. In Pakistan, people will tell you how Ramadan is their favorite month, how fasting is easy (lies), how much they love Ramadan. It’s a month where the Muslim community can come together and show self control for God. People are enthusiastic—earlier in the day, anyway—and are more than happy to teach non-Muslims about the holiday.
Despite their enthusiasm, Ramadan can be a difficult month for both Muslims and travelers in Muslim countries. This holds especially for Pakistan, an official Islamic Republic, where official rules regarding Ramadan are more strict than in many other countries.
Evening prayer at Badshahi mosque in Lahore
What it was like to travel in Pakistan during Ramadan
Before entering the country, we were definitely concerned about traveling in Pakistan during Ramadan—and during summer, no less!
We were under the impression that publicly violating fasting rules during Ramadan would result in being arrested and rotting away in a Pakistani jail cell, neck deep in our own excrement. If we didn’t land ourselves in jail, we’d definitely land ourselves in one of the readied mass graves for all of the dead-to-be from the hot holiday season.
Needless to say, we were slightly concerned.
Ultimately, it wasn’t so bad. As expected, it was the heat that did us in, but people were very understanding about us not fasting. In fact, a surprising number of people don’t actually fast during Ramadan. They’re just quiet about it due to social pressure.
We openly carried around water bottles around with us wherever we went, though we’d only drink while riding in rickshaws or taxis or behind closed doors. We bought snacks at convenience stores during the day, then retreated to hotel rooms or back alleys to feed.
Stealth mango juice from inside a minivan
There was only one instance in which a man in a small town resisted selling food and drinks to us during daylight hours. Luckily, Sebastiaan is tall, white, blond-ish, and most definitely not Muslim. The man eventually caved.
A sumptuous iftar spread with our friends from Let’s Go to Pakistan
The best part of travel in Pakistan during Ramadan
Being addicted to all things food, I actually enjoyed parts of travel during Ramadan, namely having iftar, the breaking of the day’s fast, with different people each day.
Pakistanis are very welcoming to all foreigners, and despite not being a Muslim, they were all too happy to invite us in at sunset to feast. You might dine with anyone from a family to the entire neighborhood on the street! It’s a pleasure, and, of course, I never say no to free food. /glutton
The Hunza Valley was gloriously devoid of tourists during Ramadan… then Eid happened.
Should I travel in Pakistan during Ramadan?
Tough question. If there’s no alternative option, just do it! Pakistan is incredible, and it’s fascinating to witness Ramadan in an Islamic country. Just be cautious about the timing: Ramadan falls on a different date each year, and Ramadan in summer will be much more difficult than Ramadan during cooler times. Alternatively, you can just hide in the mountains of northern Pakistan where it’s cooler and people are more relaxed about fasting rules.
If you have a bit more flexibility, consider avoiding Ramadan, or enter the country towards the end of the holiday so that you can witness a bit of what it’s like… then capitalize on the Eid feasts and parties at the end!
If you still can’t decide…
Pros and cons of traveling during Ramadan
- Must be sneaky about drinking despite walking around all day
- Not drinking publicly is hard when it’s a billion degrees outside
- Not much fresh street food available during the day
- Many stores are closed until evening
- No ice cream in the sunshine (sob)
- Low season for domestic tourism. Accommodations are cheaper, sights less busy
- Stronger community atmosphere
- Witness an important Islamic holiday in an Islamic country
- You’ll often be invited for iftar
- People will take extra special care of you out of concern
- Eid parties at the end of Ramadan!
Iftar on the streets of Lahore
What do I need to know about Ramadan before traveling in Pakistan?
- Sehri is the morning meal before the first prayer of the day. It must be done by about 2:30, and definitely before sunrise.
- Iftari is the meal at sunset, before evening prayer. You’ll often hear sirens to signify sunset time.
- Rosa means “fasting”. You can ask someone “Rosa?” to determine if they’re fasting.
How it works
- Both Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Ramadan. Pakistan is majority Sunni, with pockets of Shias in the northern areas.
- It’s technically illegal to eat and drink in public, but as a foreigner you’ll be given some leeway
- Ramadan lasts for one lunar cycle. It begins on a night of no moon, and ends at the first sighting of the new moon of the next cycle.
- Eid is the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan.
- Children under 12, elderly, and sick people do not have to fast
- Travelers do not have to fast, though many do. You’re safe!
Sneaky Ramadan luncheon on a bus ride to Skardu
Practicalities of Ramadan in Pakistan
What’s supposed to happen and what actually happens on the ground can be a bit disjointed. Here are some practical tips to keep you from stepping on any toes (or dying from hunger) during Ramadan:
- Most convenience stores and some markets are open during the day
- Most restaurants and street stalls are closed during the day (Western options might be secretly open for business), and will open one or two hours before sunset
- Bakeries are open all day, and offer savory and sweet options
- Mosques and people on the street will have iftar you can join in for free
- Don’t drink the beverages served during iftar on the street. They’re made with tap water, regardless of what people tell you
- You can eat and drink in public if you’re a clear foreigner, but it’s better not to out of respect for those fasting
- You’ll still see some people eating and drinking on the street in certain places. (Note the resentful stares they get from others.)
- On buses, if the bus will still be driving around iftar time, food will not be handed out until sunset. Otherwise, you might get a snack box at the normal time on Daewoo buses.
- Buses will sometimes stop at rest areas for food. Sometimes you’ll see people eating in public, other times people will vanish into back rooms to eat. If everyone on your bus suddenly disappears, there’s probably a small restaurant nearby.
Once, a boy in a train station saw that we were hungry while waiting. He went back to his home, had his mother cook us this food, and brought it to us so we could have something to eat on the train. It’s our favorite story to tell from Ramadan.
How to prepare for travel in Pakistan during Ramadan
- Figure out when Ramadan actually is! The date changes every year, based on the lunar cycle. You can find out the dates of the next Ramadan holiday here. In 2017, it begins on May 26th, and goes until June 24th (approximately).
- Bring a Camelbak or something similar. They’re great for subtly drinking in public.
- Buy hydration salts. They’re a lifesaver, and no one should travel in extreme heat without them!
- Bring a method of water purification, in the event that you can’t find any open stores selling decent bottled mineral water. Yes, there’s lots of bad bottled water in Pakistan.
- Stock up on hearty snacks like dates, and drink lassi if you wake up early enough to find them.