I thought long and hard before choosing whether or not to go experience elephants in Thailand. It's one of the largest tourism industries and one of the most corrupt, with widespread unethical treatment of the elephants. Overworked days, bar hooks, and heavy metal chairs overloaded with 2-3 people is a commonly accepted treatment of these beautiful animals.
The decision to indulge in my childhood dream of being with elephants cringed on my conscience — could it be done ethically?
We came across Chai Lai Orchid by way of social media & friends — it's an Airbnb jungle bungalow collection that sits across from an elephant camp. When I read and did more research on this lovely place, my hopes to be able to enjoy elephants in an ethical way seemed to be bright. The owner Alexa has set out to rescue these elephants that she's watched every day be overworked. With raising enough money, she's been able to convince the owner of 11 elephants that they would be more happy if guests interacted with them through ethical treatment. With the raised money, they've been able to rent the elephants each day from 11 am - 4 pm, where the elephants get to be ridden bareback (no different then horseback riding & the same weight ratio of a human carrying a light backpack), played with in the water, and cared for.
Chai Lai orchid is one of the only elephant camps in the Chiang Mai region doing this – what the owner Alexa is doing is special. Not only is she saving elephants from unethical treatment, she is also empowering local Burmese refugee women who have been trafficked in the past and little or no opportunity for a positive environment. Everyday the girls at Chai Lai Orchid are taught English, healthcare, and are educated by volunteer doctors and teachers. She packed up her NYC flat and came out to Thailand by herself to open this place, something ever so brave.
Our time at Chai Lai Orchid was so inspiring, and helped us realize that the decisions we make in travel can affect people in immeasurable ways. Spending one night staying up late with Alexa, we had an opportunity to learn more about her story and passion behind supporting the women through her nonprofit Daughter Rising. The work she is doing is moving.
My only regret: I should of stayed longer. The morning after our night in the bungalow, we woke up to the mist pouring in over the river, the sounds of elephants in the background, and a peaceful serenity I have never experienced before. We played with the elephants, ate a delicious meal along the river and soaked in the atmosphere.
I remember the drive back to Chiang Mai like it was yesterday. Cruising through the jungles, the open wind whipping through the back of the truck we sat in, the tears were dripping down my face. It was one of those bittersweet moments — happy I had the opportunity to experience such a sanctuary, yet ever so devastated I couldn't stay longer.
You can read more on Chai Lai & donate to help keeping the elephants in proper treatment by visiting this link: http://chailaiorchid.com/