Bhutan: It’s Worth it!

Amber shares with us how she overcame her anxiety of traveling abroad for the first time. She captures how she was able to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn it into a reality.

Author: Amber McLernon

Bhutan Ain’t Cheap

Bhutan is not a cheap country to visit. The government REQUIRES all tourists to get a visa, they must have a tour guide and also requires a $300 per day fee for all tourists. Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world which actually requires a guide (the other is North Korea.) Although that sounds expensive, the $300 a day fees actually include the cost of your driver, hotels and home-stays, 3 meals a day, your guide, entry fees into all museums, temples and sites, the government tax fees, and your vehicle for the trip. The government uses the “tourist tax fees” for providing the Bhutanese citizens with free medical care and free education. Now that is responsible tourism in its purest form!

A view at the Punakha Dzong in Bhutan
The stunning Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

When I Win the Lottery…

Traveling abroad was always one of those dream goals. When I won the lottery, some long-lost rich relative would leave me a fortune, or I would find a rare collectable worth millions. Eventually, I had a passport, but actually using it was intimidating. Much easier to tell myself I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know anyone who would go with me. I couldn’t take the time off work etc. So many reasons to just look at the pictures other people posted and keep telling myself “eventually.” I would just follow my friend Krystal’s adventures. She was my vicarious window into the world from my comfortable little place in it.  

When she posted looking for a few people to join her on a horseback trail riding tour to Bhutan I was immediately interested. I hadn’t even heard of Bhutan and thought that would be a cool place to go! I emailed her out of curiosity half hoping it would be too expensive so I could talk myself out of wanting to go. It was. That made it easy enough to set it aside and say oh well, there is nothing I could do to make that happen. I’ll just wait for the pictures.

A group riders on Bhutanese ponies in front of a monastry build on a cliff
The whole group of Adventuresses enjoying the amazing landscape of Bhutan!

Call it Destiny

Two weeks after I had set it aside as just ‘that would be nice’ I did receive a small inheritance from my grandfather. It wasn’t much, certainly no long lost rich relative, but it was something. I could have done the responsible thing and used it towards student loans, or bills, or put it in savings, but it just didn’t feel right.

My grandfather was a man who loved his hobbies. He liked to camp, shoot black powder, and collected more electronics than anyone had a use for. He liked new things. It didn’t sit well just putting that money towards bills, so before I could talk myself out of it, I emailed Krystal and put it towards the trip to Bhutan. I had to do some hasty calculations and see how I could possibly scrape together the second half of the money for the trip but I was committed now. I was terrified. 

A handwritten schedule for the first time international travel to Bhutan for horseback trail riding
My schedule, to remind myself that my upcoming adventure was real.
Photo Credits: Amber McLernon

I put in overtime at work, calling in for any open shifts every day I possibly could. I did work for my parents on the days I couldn’t get shifts at work. I budgeted out every penny. What would I have left after I paid my bills? Could I make enough in time to pay for the rest of my trip? I had some major anxiety about how short I was leaving myself. If anything went wrong, I wouldn’t have enough. But there was also this new excitement.

Reality Kicking In

It started small, that moment of disbelief that I had impulsively thrown in on something I wasn’t even sure I could actually afford slowly grew into anticipation. This realization that I was doing something so entirely new. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea how to travel internationally, what did I need for this trip? What should I expect? Sure, I had a passport, but what about visas? I needed one for Bhutan itself, luckily that was arranged with the trip, but I also needed one for Nepal. How do I do that? How much does it actually cost in USD? I might have possibly had a few panic moments over converting money.

The last couple of weeks leading up to the departure were horrible. I was nearly physically sick with the worry that I had gotten myself in so far over my head I couldn’t even begin to understand it. The day I went to LAX was a blur. It was too late to turn back, I was going and a sort of calm finally settled in. It was what it was. I was just along for the ride now. I told myself to keep that calm for the entire trip. Just absorb things as they came and take it one day at a time. 

Amber in front of a temple in Bhutan, smiling and happy to have chosen this country for her first time international travel
Happy in the happiest country of the world, Bhutan.

Culture Shock

My first foreign layover was in Doha. As the plane prepared for landing after twelve hours in the air there was an announcement in several languages reminding us that it was still Ramadan and to please be respectful and refrain from eating or drinking during the day if we could. That announcement was when it really sunk in. I was going to these places that had an entirely different way of life from anything I had ever seen. Here were people that have the same basic human needs as me but their entire life was a profoundly different experience. I now had this opportunity to touch that in a small way. I got to see a small slice of this world that we all share but so rarely ever take the time to explore outside of our own lives. 

The first stamp in the passport on the first time international travel
Proudly presenting my first passport stamp from Nepal for my transit to Bhutan. Photo Credits: Amber McLernon

My First Stamp in My Passport

Flying into Nepal I was glued to the window, I had completely forgotten about being worried or nervous. Sure, I still had to figure out getting a visa, catching a cab to the correct hotel, and meeting up with my roommate for the night who I had never actually met and had no idea what she looked like, but all those things were just fun now. Now it was really an adventure. 

From Dressage Arenas to Mountainous Trails

When we got into Bhutan itself and started riding, I had a small moment of pure self-conscious doubt. I was probably the worst rider there. Most of the other women on this trip were either equestrian professionals, very serious riders, or at least had much more relevant riding experience than I did. I’m a dressage rider. I ride in nice flat arenas in controlled circumstances, as controlled as anything with horses ever actually is, and here I was getting on this scrappy mountain pony named Tashi (Glorious) and about to spend six days riding around the Himalayas. Again, I realized I was in over my head, but that odd acceptance I had found was there. I couldn’t walk away so just roll with it.

The view through the ears of a pony while horseback trail riding in Bhutan
The view through Tashi’s ears on my first trail riding adventure abroad. Photo Credits: Amber McLernon

So maybe I wasn’t the most graceful one on the horses as we scrambled up mountains and rode down insanely steep “steps” that I’m pretty sure we were actually supposed to get off and send the horses down first. There were small communication issues, but I was there. In those moments I completely forgot my worry about bills or how I was going to pay back the people that had helped me go on this trip. I wasn’t worried about catching my flights back home, I wasn’t worried about the summer full of work ahead of me.

Finding Peace in Bhutan

By the end of those six days of riding I had found a new place within myself where it was just me and Tashi, in the moment, cantering through ferns taller than us both, clinging to a steep mountain side, and waiting on our guide to holler ahead into the woods to scare off yeti. That place is something I will always hold inside of me. That stillness, that moment of being centered within myself.

Amber and her Bhutanese mountain pony successfully climbed the Febila pass at 3597m height
Not just the morale was high on my first trip abroad …

Letting Go of My Anxiety

Traveling is scary. It can be expensive and for people like me that have issues with depression and anxiety making that decision to go so far out of your comfort zone is absolutely terrifying. Knowing that, I know how easy it is to convince yourself not to go. I also know that it was the best thing I have ever done in my life. There is this new confidence, this new sense of perspective that I won’t ever forget. Sure, making phone calls still gives me a moment of panic, but it’s not nearly as bad as staring straight down a rocky cliff while my head is nearly touching Tashi’s tail because I’m laying so far back to balance while we skitter down a mountainside. 

During horseback trail riding in Bhutan the ferns are taller than the Bhutanese mountain ponies
The Bhutanese mountain ponies make their way through ferns taller than themselves. Photo Credits: Amber McLernon

Taking My Own Pictures

Maybe I didn’t have to take such a big trip as my first, but it was something that big that finally got me to break the habit of saying “eventually”. I probably won’t be able to afford trips like that very often in my life, but I know even the smallest trip is worth it. There won’t always be an “eventually” and the world changes every day. Once you’ve made that first trip no matter how big or small, there will always be that piece of you that knows there is so much more out there than we can ever know without seeing it firsthand. Do something scary and take the trip. Don’t wait for someone else’s pictures.  

Read Krystal’s Story here: Bhutan: Land of the Wind Horse and Thunder Dragon

Pinterest photo of Amber in front of a temple in Bhutan.
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