One of the most memorable parts of my trip to Thailand was in the mountains of Northern Thailand at a place called, Chai Lai Orchid Nature Bungalows. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the listing on airbnb while looking for a place to stay in Chaing Mai. This nature retreat is actually an hour away from town in the middle of nowhere, but it is a hidden gem I tell you! The Chai Lai has a very inspiring mission to help rescue the elephants that work at a camp just across the swinging rope bridge. It was also founded through a non profit organization, Daughters Rising. I will give more details on both, but first I think it’s important to understand why these missions and programs are needed.
Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth and a symbol of power, strength, & good luck. They’ve proven that they have the capability to experience empathy and that they grieve over death even going so far as to return to bones and ‘mourn’. There are 41,000- 52,000 Asian elephants in the wild placing them on the endangered species list. In Thailand alone, in 2010, there are 1688 captive elephants that are used for tourism purposes. In the wild they’re known to walk 30 miles in a day and the females form bonds and live together. A mother is pregnant for 22 months before giving birth and then the baby needs the mothers milk for up to 2 years. The intrigue about elephants is understandable and really undeniable, the big lovable goofy looking animals. It’s also easy to understand that a life doing shows or chair rides and remaining chained or contained is no life to live for the 70 years (on average) an elephants is alive. If they make it that long. It doesn’t take much research to find out about the many deaths of elephants from fatigue and neglect all throughout Asia. Deaths of an endangered species for sheer entertainment purposes.
I spent time with an elephant for the first time at Chai Lai and just fell in love looking into the soulful eyes of the 11 elephants that the mission intends to rescue. Currently Alexa and the staff raise enough money to rent the 11 elephants for half of the day everyday from the elephant camp across the river. What this means is that the elephants are given a break from doing chair rides (which unfortunately we witnessed every morning). They need $9000/mo to rent all 11 elephants, which is why they only rent them for half of the day. (if you’re interested in helping, http://chailaiorchid.com/dollars-for-deedee-and-friends/)
If you have questions about why this is a bad practice, this is what the Chai Lai website states and the different tourism method they use:
“Tour companies prefer elephants to wear chairs because they can make more money by putting four paying customers on the poor animal. Tourists like chairs because they can get cheaper rides. We believe guests will find a gentle encounter with an elephant infinitely more rewarding and fun.
When a chair is mounted onto an elephant’s back, dirt and rocks are pushed deep into their skin, causing discomfort and pain. The ropes that hold the chairs in place dig in under both their belly and tail, and the constant movement of humans in the chair further drives debris into their skin. The Chai Lai Orchid model will end the use of chairs. A small foot chain or rope will only be used during feeding times, to keep the elephants from wandering into the road. Additionally, only short, single person bareback riding will be offered when bathing DeeDee and her friends in the river or going on walks through the jungle.”
That is exactly what we did. Day 1 of our stay we walked over to the camp where the elephants were wearing short chains and fed them and got to interact for a while. We also took DeeDee to the river and gave her a bath. It’s quite obvious she is a trained elephant, and I don’t deny that we took advantage of this fact by being entertained by the mahout having her blow water into the air, give us kisses, and pick us up on her trunk. However, I think it has to be a large improvement from chair rides and being chained. This opportunity was also an educational experience and an insight into why awareness about the elephant tourism industry needs to be raised.
Day 2 they had the elephants over on our side and we were able to sit on top of them, right behind the head and go for a walk through the jungle behind the lodge. This was maybe a 30 minute trip, and then we walked back and gave the elephants time to roam and rest in the hillside. I was lucky enough to be riding a 37 year old mother. Baby, who is 1 and a half years old, was with us and roamed around between all of the elephants. If baby was wondering too far I would feel and hear a low grumble/hum from the elephant underneath me and baby would turn around and squeak something back. Basically, momma said get your butt back here! It was such an amazing experience riding through the jungle with no chains, chairs, or any added devices. I was just simply riding an elephant and watching her interact with her baby and eat (a lot) along the way.
I understand completely that people will still say this is not ok. It is a definite improvement and I am happy to know that my money is going towards eventually freeing the elephants for good. In fact, 3 have already been retired. Alexa, the founder of Chai Lai, was with us and proved to be a great photographer to which we are very thankful for! Once I realized who he was I immediately started digging about the mission, the elephants, and also the non profit. I was intrigued before the trip, but after staying and realizing how special the lodge is, I had a ton of questions!
Despite the language barrier I learned enough know I wanted to write about it and started digging online (the website had great info- http://chailaiorchid.com/why-chai-lai-orchid/ ) and discovered that he came from Burma I believe he said 11 years ago. This leads into the non profit organization, Daughters Rising, that Alexa works for and is why Chai Lai Orchid is here for us to enjoy. It’s also how it is run. The employees are the women that are high risk for sex trafficking that the non profit was formed to help. A little info from their website:
“As many as 2 million children are forced into prostitution every year and more than half of them live in Asia. Unlike a lot of problems in developing countries, this is one that is actually getting worse. At the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, 80,000 slaves were transported from Africa to the new world. Today, more than 10 times as many women are being forced into brothels or other forms of slavery.”
As for what they do, you can check out the site for all of the specifics. The women are taken in, fed, given shelter, educated on a number of different things, and given vocational opportunity to create a work skill and to never be high risk or potentially back in that situation again. Basically they are taken in and taken care of. I think it’s great that they are educated on women’s rights and basic women’s health, things that coming from the scenario of being sold into sex trafficking at young ages they clearly were never taught.
I think it’s a beautiful beautiful thing to empower these women, and being able to see it first hand at the lodge was wonderful. They have a shop set up with items made by the women, and also by employing them they are practicing english and a great skill set in hospitality. If you do not plan on making it to Northern Thailand anytime soon and helping by staying at the Chai Lai Orchid, here’s a list from their website of what a donation would provide:
For $10 you provide soy milk and a healthy meal for the RISE Workshop
For $15 you provide a quality book for our library so an at-risk girl can learn at home
For $25 you provide a mosquito net for a family in need and a clean birth kit for an at-risk mother
For $50 you can save lives by covering the cost of HIV testing and transportation to the clinic
For $100 you provide school supplies and uniforms to a girl for a year so she can keep up with her class
For $250 you provide a scholarship to keep a girl in school for a year; includes tuition, uniform, supplies
or if shopping is more of your thing, go to http://riseupshop.com for some handcrafted products.
Obviously I had a terrrrrrible time and was completely underwhelmed by the 2 night nature retreat haha. But seriously, I can’t say enough good things about the lodge, the elephant mission, or what little I witnessed of the non profit in person. I know there are many non profits and elephant activist groups out there, but I can say that I support this one and would love to help out any way that I possibly can. Hence, my decision to bust out the green dress and #DontletDeeDeeDown.
Go stay at Chai Lai Orchid, eat the amazing pai thai and curry, ride the elephants and fall in love with them, and take in the fresh mountain air and sounds of nature outside of your very comfortable lodging. Just sayin’.