I never thought we would have the opportunity to visit Thailand, but when moving to China made it possible, I didn’t expected we would have the opportunity to stay in an elephant sanctuary during our travels. After three flights, an hour ride in the back of a truck and almost 24 hours of travel, we finally made it to Chai Lai Orchid. At the resort we were not only surrounded by elephants and a six day old baby calf, but the camp laid on wonderful grounds right on a river with wooden and bamboo huts, a cafe where all of the guests gathered in the evening and a lovely burmese refugee staff. Chai Lai partnered with DaughtersRising to provide local underprivileged tribal women, who are at risk for trafficking, paid hospitality jobs and housing within the sanctuary. Alexa, an American and the founder of Chai Lai Orchid, started the resort as an opportunity to provide shelter and train young local women. What she began as an exercise for the surrounding Burmese refugees to imagine a better life for them and their families, transformed into an eco-friendly lodging experience that provided reputable job training for these young women.
The morning after we arrived, we started our day at six o’clock with a sunrise bare back trek around the grounds with a mother and grandmother elephant duo. The trainers guided us up to the second story of one of the huts to climb onto our new pals, handed us each a bushel of bananas and we were off! While on our ride through the camp, the trainer would yell กล้วย , which is Thai for banana, and our elephants would reach their trunks behind their heads and wait for their treats, peel and all. But once they knew you had snacks for them, they were not going to stop until they had eaten them all, and even come back to double and triple check to make sure you weren’t stashing any for yourself. At the end of our trek, we were carried into the river and received an ice cold morning bath with our companions.
Once we freshened up and had breakfast, we headed out of the camp for an eight mile hike to explore waterfalls and have lunch with our guide’s family. Our guide Sing grew up in one of the Karen Hill Tribes and learned his english as a young boy through his interactions with travelers on tours through his village. This experience allowed him to become a guide himself and provide for his new family. Throughout our hike, Sing would pull us to the side when he would find leafs that could blow bubbles, unique beetles and spiders and quiz us on farmer’s crops we passed by. We took a dip in the waterfall before making our way to Sing’s home. We were greeted by his sister and mother and a couple of young boys they were watching while their families worked the fields. We cooled off in the shade of their bamboo hut while lunch was prepared. We spent time with one of the young boys, Paula (pronounce Paul-AH), who was beyond excited to see my iPhone and crawled right into my lap to take photos and watch videos of the elephants. After our visit ended Sing took us through the village’s primary school and lead us to the truck that would take us back down the mountain to visit the Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe refugees and float back to Chai Lai on a bamboo rafter before finishing our day by bathing and playing with their five year old elephant, DeeDee.