Elephants have lived in Asia for centuries and play not only an important role in the continent’s religion & culture but also a role in maintaining the region’s forests. More than 100,000 elephants existed at the start of the 20th century, however, their habitat is shrinking and the Asian elephants are now endangered with less than 2000 wild elephants living in Thailand.
We put a lot of thought into whether or not we wanted to experience the Elephants during our short visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand. There’s no doubt that it is one of the largest tourism industries operating in this country and a lot of peoples ‘dreams’ to jump on the back of an elephant and get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures.
Unfortunately, the fact is, many places aren’t ethically run and the abuse of these animals is a widespread problem. Is there really a “right” way to experience this dream? Without the metal chairs and cages? After some research and recommendations, we realised there is and we did so at Chai Lai Orchid in the mountains of Chiang Mai.
Here’s our experience and why you should consider them too.
Chai Lai Orchid, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chai Lai Orchard is a nature retreat located 1 hour into the mountains of Chiang Mai. This place is beautiful, quiet and remote. The moment you arrive, everything feels relaxed and you’re immediately greeted with friendly faces, a freezing cold fresh coconut, a picturesque river running through the jungle, elephants calling & the sounds of the jungle surrounding you.
There’s not a lot around the resort but everything you need is there including an on-site restaurant (order the green curry!!). Pick up from the airport/bus station or hotel can be arranged prior to arrival.
The real appeal of this place is all of the work they’re doing. The owners and volunteers are not only providing personalised experiences for us tourists, they do so in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re just “another number”.
Why is Chai Lai Orchid Different?
Please note: The below information is based on our knowledge and our personal experiences with Chai Lai Orchid and we are not associated with them in any way. Whilst some will still agree that all interactions should be banned, the fact is they aren’t and likely won’t be but there are healthier ways to go about them.
There are so many elephant camps and so-called ‘sanctuaries’ in Thailand, it is ridiculous. Some will claim they are ethical, some don’t even hide it. Chai Lai Orchid is a new organisation that is in the process of trying to rescue elephants from a neighbouring camp. From 11am-4:00pm, the elephants are taken into Chai Lai and are free from the continuous hours of metal chair work. Eventually, Alexa (the owner) wants to have enough money to rescue them all entirely.
As of now, 3 elephants have been rescued completely and are living at Chai Lai Sisters in a beautiful ‘elephant retirement home’. They no longer have to work at all and they have their own waterfall, dedicated caretakers and food.
Although they do provide elephant rides at Chai Lai Orchid, they are completely barebacked. You sit on the front of their body as opposed to the middle of their back, there are no metal holders, the walks are considerably shorter, they walk through the muddy jungle and out of the heat & of course, are unchained.
Alexa’s goal is not only to remove all of the elephants from the neighbouring camp but also prove to other camps that tourists are still willing to pay to play with, bath, feed the elephants but on a more sustainable level. As the money comes into Chai Lai, the elephants are rescued, with the disabled and elderly elephants rescued first.
Between their social business and by donations, they have been able to raise about half of their target amount (600,000 baht) per month which means they currently rent the elephants for half of the day, during which they have ample time for resting, take plenty of baths in the river to cool off, and only give bareback rides (if any at all).
The 3 main reasons we choose Chai Lai Orchid:
- Compared to some of the other elephant sanctuaries, Chai Lai has a fraction of tourists coming through a day. The elephants get a chance to rest, eat, sleep and play alone.
- By spending your money at Chai Lai, you’re contributing to the funding needed to remove all elephants from the neighbouring camps.
- It is far less touristy, more private and much more authentic.
It wasn’t only the efforts to save the animals that drew us to Chai Lai Orchid, it was an organisation known as “Daughters Rising”. Founded in 2013, Daughters Rising works to prevent the sex trafficking of girls from Myanmar and Thailand.
Sadly, these poor women are immediately at the hands of their traffickers and are controlled entirely through fear. This organisation focuses on providing training programs for at risk and rescued girls to learn English and hospitality which in term gains them confidence, experience and economic independence.
By allowing some of these girls to work here, it’s giving them a chance in life, a chance to have a job and a successful future. Something every human deserves. We spoke to a few of them during our stay and it broke our heart to hear how they’ve been treated. Although we loved Myanmar, we didn’t share this with them as a lot of the girls have never even seen their own country before. They were the sweetest, most soft-spoken girls who would never put a foot out of line. It was both devastating and positive at the same time.
For more information on this organisation or if you want to contribute to the cause, you can do so here.
Our Elephant Interaction
Interacting up close with these elephants was nothing less than incredible. To feel the breath on your neck (I know it sounds bizarre), hear the trumpet in your ears and touch the skin of these animals really was something else. Who ever thought they had such hairy backs?
Throughout the day we talked with the volunteers, we learnt of the elephant’s behaviours, watched their trunks (which looked like giant pythons) look for food in our bags, we fed them with thick chunks of sugar cane, we walked bareback with them in the jungle and finished off with a much-needed bath in the river. This little elephant was rolling around in the muddy water, voluntarily squirting us in the face and even rolled over to change sides for us to scrub. We laughed, we scrubbed, we got wet and we had such a blast doing so.
The riding of elephants is an ongoing battle between animal rights activists and the need for companies to take money in from the tourists. It is an extremely complex topic and one of which we are not a part of. We will say, if you want to ride an elephant, please, please do so somewhere that DOES NOT use metal chairs. A 5000 lbs elephant barely feels a 70kg human on top of its back for short periods, but when you place an entire family plus a metal chair, for 10+ hours a day, we can guarantee, the animal feels discomfort, pain and in fact is being abused.
Why not stay at one of the Eco Lodges ?
Although the encounters can be done on a day trip from Chiang Mai, if you have the time, we recommend spending at least 1 night in one of their lodges. By staying at Chai Lai Orchid, you are contributing not only to the lodge and staff but also to many local outreach programs, health workshops, cooking classes & hospitality training.
The huts were basic yet comfortable and clean. They ranged from $29-$58 USD, depending on the room and view you have. We stayed in the basic lodge and had a view of the river below, a comfortable bed with a mosquito net and a private bathroom.
With the peace of the jungle. you could hear the elephants in the distance and the whole experience was relaxing and enjoyable. By night, the locals play music and everyone comes together. We only stayed one night but you could easily spend 2 relaxing in your lodge, hiking the surrounding forests or riding bamboo rafts down the river. All rooms are listed on Airbnb and can be booked or viewed here.
Before You Go… What to Expect
There are some important things to know before you arrive so you know what to expect when you’re there:
- There are no walls at this lodge. The elephants are still owned by neighbouring camps. This means when the elephants aren’t roaming in the jungle or being bathed, they are unfortunately attached by one foot to the ground. However, they do walk the grounds at least 3 times a day. Although this is not ideal, it is necessary for the welfare of both the elephants and the villagers based on their current location (why not donate & help bring them away from the road!)
- The baby does have a rope tied to its mum, to stop it from running away. It is not trained. Have you ever chased down a 500lbs toddler before? This keeps the baby and the mother together.
- The mahouts (elephant handlers) do carry a hook for safety purposes.
Would we recommend this place?
Yes, our time at Chai Lai was both incredible and inspiring. If you’re looking for an Eco-friendly elephant sanctuary that is putting all their efforts into removing elephants from the overworked, unethical camps and allowing vulnerable women to learn the skills needed in hospitality to have a successful future, then Chai Lai Orchid is the perfect place. To be honest, the whole topic is difficult and many people have so many different opinions. If something isn’t going to stop entirely, the least you can do is find the best possible way to do it.
Married days survived: 594