Dos and Don’ts of Travelling in Afghanistan – Our Personal Experience and Tips
Despite being a war zone for 40 years and still a dangerous country, travelling to Afghanistan is a dream for many. The long history, the rich culture, the charm of a troublesome society all contribute to making Afghanistan a fascinating destination. Fascinating but by no means easy.
Planning a trip to Afghanistan is hard and involves plenty of risks, personal safety being the main one. This is why there are several dos and don’ts to keep in mind when you are in Afghanistan and when you are planning your trip.
READ MORE: If you are planning your trip, don’t miss our complete and detailed Afghanistan travel guide.
Tips and tricks for a trip to Afghanistan – Our Personal Experience and Tips
When travelling to Afghanistan, DO:
Get a trustworthy local tour guide
I wouldn’t stress this for other countries as much as for Afghanistan. Here, a local tour guide acquires all another meaning. It’s not just a guide who takes you sightseeing to the historical sites. Spending your day with a local is important for so many reasons.
First of all, for you it’s much safer. The local guide will know where you can and cannot go, he will speak Farsi/Pashto so you can better blend in and camouflage, there are fewer chances street crime will target you, you will feel more confident and this will show.
It’s as important that the local guide is reliable and trustworthy, otherwise you will still be at risk.
If you are travelling to Afghanistan and don’t have any contact of your own, we can introduce you to a local guide in each of the cities that are relatively safe for foreigners, meaning Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyian.
Tipping is not mandatory nor expected. However, it’s always very much appreciated. In restaurants, for example, they won’t charge you for the service, so a small tip is welcome. Deciding how much depends on how much you spend, but here are some suggestions:
- 20 Afghani after a meal at the restaurant
- 10-20 USD to a tour guide
- 30 Afghani to guards and keepers of historical places
- 30 Afghani to the hotel staff who takes your luggage up the stairs
- 100 Afghani after your stay to the hotel staff who cleaned your room
- For taxi drivers tipping is not common at all
It’s easy for Afghans to identify non-Afghans and give them crazy prices. Use your bargaining skills for everything, including taxi fares and hotel prices. In touristy areas such as Chicken Street, you can bargain more when buying local jewellery and handicraft, while in non-touristy areas you don’t need to bargain as much.
READ MORE: Check out our article on how to bargain in Persian.
Rent the same hotel room
Couples of foreigners can rent and stay in the same hotel room without proof of marriage. Locals can’t and need to provide the proof of marriage to share the same room.
Take off your shoes
If you are visiting Afghans in their homes or going to a mosque, take off your shoes on the rugs. You are not supposed to walk with shoes where they pray. Quite often I had to take off my shoes in government offices as well as religious centres/offices.
As a general rule, if you see a carpet, it’s likely you need to take your shoes off. Before entering a place, take a look at the entrance and on the sides and just watch what locals do.
READ MORE: Check out my article on travelling to Afghanistan as a Western woman.
Don’ts of travelling in Afghanistan:
Don’t get sick in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has one of the worst health systems. Locals go to Pakistan, Iran, and India for medical cares. Medicines and drugs are very low quality and diagnosis is the worst. If you have to visit Afghan doctors, be ready to be prescribed lots of medicines (mostly antibiotics) for all the possible diseases because they can’t diagnose the exact sickness.
Your health insurance won’t be useful in most parts of Afghanistan, they all accept only cash. Eat healthy, drink bottled water and avoid street foods. Also, if you are aware of any weakness you might have, don’t forget to carry your own medicines with you, be it for flu or food poisoning.
Don’t wear revealing clothes
While this is pretty straightforward for women, who have to wear a headscarf, trousers and a long tunic/manteau on top, this rule applies also to men. What? That’s right, our male travel companions won’t escape the strict guidelines of the Afghan Islamic Republic either, not even in summer.
It can be as hot as it gets, men in Afghanistan must NOT wear shorts, not even knee-length, just go for long trousers, nor sleeveless t-shirts. But they can wear short sleeves, unlike their female counterparts.
Don’t spend small foreign notes
If you buy something for 60 Afghani but instead give them a one-dollar note, they won’t accept it. Even if they do accept it, because it’s a small note, they will take it very cheap, for some 30-40 Afghani and not the full worth. So easily you will end up with wrong or no change at all.
Don’t use extra-urban buses
Local buses travel to all the provinces and cities but long drives are not safe due to both bad roads and Taliban checkpoints. The risks are many. If your bus gets stopped at a Taliban checkpoint, they ask for everyone’s documents so you are too easy to spot as a foreign and 100% certain they will kidnap you.
Another easy risk is an accident due to the bad road conditions, bad buses conditions and drivers who are too tired as they often drive for 16-20 hours stopping merely once for 15 minutes. In case of an accident, you will have to wait in the middle of nowhere for another bus to come and pick everyone up. Again with the risk of stumbling on rebel groups.
Last but not least, road explosives are still common in Afghanistan, adding even more danger to the journey. Inside the country always prefer travelling by plane.
READ MORE: Check out our detailed guide to the top things to do in Herat.
Don’t give your passport to anyone
We recommend you keep your passport safe and always close to you. Make some copies both black and white and color to give to the hotels and airports when needed.
Don’t shake hand with the opposite sex
Afghanistan is a very conservative country and it’s not common to shake hands even among relatives and families with the opposite sex. To greet someone put your right hand on your heart and say “As-Salaam-Alaikum”.
Don’t look for alcohol and ham
Don’t look for pork-based foods nor tell Afghans what they are missing by not eating pork. They hate it and depending on where you are it wouldn’t be safe. Alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan and if you are caught with it, you can end up paying a huge bribe or in an Afghan jail (some of the worst jails in the world, you don’t want to experience it).
Don’t talk about Taliban
Some Afghans (mainly Pashtun) sympathize with them and you don’t want to strike up this type of conversation. This is a very sensitive issue as the Taliban are still very active and the local government hasn’t been able to stop them. You will risk to end up in a stalemate or in the middle of a fight between Taliban sympathizers and government supporters. Not recommended.
Don’t show off your expensive photography gears
The economy is bad in the country and there are people who would do anything for a $500 camera. If you need to use your phone in public, don’t stand close to the street because criminals using motorcycle can steal it from you.
In general, we suggest being careful pulling out all your precious belongings in the street or even wearing expensive clothes and jewellery. The country and its people are under incredible pressure and street crime, as well as organised local criminality, are soaring.
READ MORE: Check out our article on photographing Afghanistan and staying safe.
Don’t buy electronics in Afghanistan
It’s cheap and not good quality, don’t be fooled by the price. It’s even common to find fake chargers and earphones with used refurbished and partially broken electronic devices in sealed boxes. I bought a “sealed” Galaxy S6 but the full battery lasted an hour.
When I took it back to the guy he said I needed to pay extra to get a Galaxy S7, but we had to change it twice before getting a decent one. And yet even the last one had a fake charger. All this is definitely not worth the trouble, especially if you are short in time and can’t go back to the shop in the following days.
DO NOT go Couch-surfing in Afghanistan
It’s strongly recommended NOT to do it because the armed terrorist groups and criminals can use the program to kidnap for money or do a prisoner exchange. While you should avoid couchsurfing in the areas where Taliban are stronger such as Kandahar, Kunduz or Logar provinces, we strongly discourage from arranging a makeshift online couchsurfing anywhere in Afghanistan.
You might end up with the most honest and genuine host in the world, but you can also find who will have no problem selling you to rebels for money, especially due to the current grim economic situation. Not sure you want to take that chance.
Don’t photograph military bases and security forces
Afghan soldiers and their bases are constantly under terrorist attack, so it’s never recommended to stop for taking pictures anywhere close to them. Taking pictures of their checkpoints and posts is also not allowed.
READ MORE: Check out our my article on the mistakes I made while travelling in Afghanistan.