Living with Elephants: Chai Lai Orchid, Chiang Mai

written by Hanie Hidayah December 15, 2015

The Chai Lai Orchid is a nature retreat nestled in the mountains of Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are a social business working to promote sustainable tourism and kindness to elephants while helping at-risk women take the first step to get out of poverty and see a future of hope. The Chai Lai Orchid was founded by Alexa Pham of DaughtersRising. Alexa started the resort as a means to house and train local minority girls at risk of human trafficking. What began as a brainstorming exercise for Burmese refugees to imagine their dream jobs, turned into an eco-lodge with hospitality training.

“The Chai Lai Orchid is an ecolodge that shares property with an elephant camp. CLO has zero ownership over elephants, and consequently, CLO has zero control over what type of tourism the elephants are/can be subjected to. Elephants in Thailand unfortunately are owned by people and the government. Even more unfortunate, they are domesticated animals, just like cattle, horses, dogs, etc. They are not free roaming animals, neither will they have the opportunity to be free again in the near future, not least because there is very little suitable habitat left in Thailand for them to occupy.

The current king of Thailand made using elephants for logging illegal quite a while ago, which is great because the logging industry was rife with mistreatment and abuse for elephants. When this happened, the elephants were put up for sale for Thai citizens to purchase and the elephant tourism industry was born. The older elephants at the elephant camp next door to CLO come from this type of background and all the elephants are owned by a Thai man. Due to tourist demand, he has hosted countless tourists that pay for cheap chair rides on the elephants. The animals carry the heavy chair, the elephant caretaker and up to three guests on the chair – simultaneously.

He has done this for years, and this is something that we desperately want to change. As the people who have had to watch it every day, trust me, there are no people who want to change the lives of these elephants more than the CLO family. But in order to create real change, baby steps have to happen. CLO is a small organization doing the best it can to try to implement real change with limited resources.

You see elephants are big money in Thailand as they represent an opportunity to make money off of tours for a lifetime. Tourism in and of itself can be relatively positive: ethical tourism can afford and fund elephants wellbeing, such as healthcare, large and safe place to live and roam (owners have to buy land for them) a healthy diet for an animal that eats non-stop, pay a salary to their caretakers (they are cared for and protected by indigenous people 24/7), and many more things that are required to take care of a 5 ton+ animal. But the money involved makes owners very unwilling to change and improve their practices.

It’s been a delicate dance and difficult conversation to even get to a point where the owner of the 12 creatures we know and love will let us “rent” the elephants on a half-day basis so that we can control what type of tourism they are subjected to for even just part of the day– more gentle experiences where guest can feed, swim and ride elephants bareback. Eventually we’d like to get to a point where rides aren’t offered. But in Thai culture, nothing will happen unless both parties are respectful – and to cause a person to lose face is to alienate them permanently – so it’s taken 2 years of conversation and negotiation to get to this point. We are starting to rent them now, and although this may seem to be a small move forward, it is a triumph for us.

This transition must be sustainable and show the elephant owner that his investment is secure in order to make the next baby step, which would be renting the elephants on a full-day basis. He said we can talk about this idea again in 6 months after he sees that guests will actually pay for gentle experiences with the elephants. Funds generated from the experiences will directly support our ultimate mission to create a sanctuary. Every step in this process must prove sustainable in order to continue moving in a positive direction.” – taken from The Chai Lai Orchid Facebook page.

Although Chai Lai is trying to run as an ethical and eco-friendly place, they can’t ensure that other places (the elephant camp next door especially) to do the same but they are working hard to educate the locals and business owners and make changes one step at a time. For now you can refuse to ride the elephants although they are being offered by the camp next door – Chai Lai Orchid is against chair-riding, but you will see by noon buses and buses of tourists (mostly from China) paying to ride them, and have them stand on hind legs for photo opportunities. As painful and sad as it sounds and to see such ignorance, at least it opened up our eyes and made us more interested to find out and read more about elephants in Asia. Best is to request for time to feed or bathe them (and pay money for that instead of riding), andunderstand the current nature as these elephant have nowhere else to go as their habitats are almost zero to none left.


Chai Lai Orchid are currently raising money to rescue elephants from across the river. You can help by volunteering, or donating to their cause here –

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