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Ethical Elephant Tourism in Chiang Mai, Thailand: My Night at Chai Lai Orchid

When I decided to visit Thailand, it may surprise most people to know that an elephant experience wasn't on my radar. I’ve always loved animals, and any opportunity to interact with one is something I would have jumped at in the past. But I think we all know at this point how horribly elephants in Thailand have been treated in order to entertain tourists. I had just thought the days of any kind of ethical experience with an elephant were over, and for good reason.

And then, while putting together my itinerary for my time in Chiang Mai, I discovered Chai Lai Orchid. I began to wonder if it was, in fact, possible, as they claim on their website, to still have a loving and caring encounter with an elephant in Thailand while still supporting responsible tourism.

So, I began to do my research. I wanted to ensure that if I decided to do something like this, my money was being given to a place that truly had the elephant’s best interests at heart, that they were being treated with kindness and love, and also, their care was first priority. After much debate, I decided to spend one night on the grounds of the Chai Lai Orchid.

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours


I debated this decision quite a bit - over the course of a few months, actually. When I first read all the information they posted on their website, I was immediately impressed with their mission statement and goals. Not only are they a safe place for these beautiful elephants, they’re also the founders of Daughter's Rising, which is a non-profit organization focused on empowering women who are at high risk of human trafficking. What I loved most about Daughter's Rising is that it's all about teaching women imperative skills to support themselves with the intention of preventing human trafficking, while also honoring the local cultures many of these women come from. Chai Lai Orchid, specifically, trains some of these women on-site in hospitality so they learn the skills they need to support and empower themselves. Chai Lai will pay them for their work, teach them English and also provide them with room and board. On a broader spectrum, the organization also facilitates workshops and scholarship programs geared at ending trafficking once and for all.

Feeling so positive about Chai Lai Orchid after reading about Daughter's Rising, of course, my next step was to read reviews and recaps from people who had visited to see if it really was too good to be true. Chai Lai has tons and tons of glowing reviews, all centered in having an enlightening experience focused on improving the lives of the elephants, and learning about local culture. But then, like a punch to the gut, I came across a few reports that the elephants seemed mistreated because they were kept in chains while on the grounds, and that their mahouts carried bull hooks.

I was shocked because everything I had read about Chai Lai’s mission statement, purpose and goals has been all about treating the elephants with respect. I was confused, and decided to dig in even further because it just didn't seem to make sense. 

The biggest takeaway I have from my time at Chai Lai, as well as doing quite a bit of research on this topic, is that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to elephant tourism. Prior to my decision to visit, I had really strong opinions that no one should support any kind of place that prevents elephants from being wild, and truly believed that all these organizations needed to be shut down. In short, my mind was changed. I certainly do wish that all elephants everywhere could be released into the wild, but what I came to find was, this isn't possible. So then, the big question is - what then?

I read about elephant tourism in Thailand and Southeast Asia in general. I read about what had been done in the past which made me sick to my stomach, and also, what the goals are currently for ethical elephant treatment, and what sanctuaries are doing now to support those efforts. My research showed me that not only is there a history of unethical elephant tourism, but also beyond that, there's an even longer history of elephants working with humans for thousands of years. Chai Lai likens this relationship to Westerners and their horses. Elephants were domesticated and used to help with farming and everyday life for years and years. Between these two pasts, Thailand is left with an elephant population that cannot survive on its own for one main reason: There isn't a habitat left where they can be wild. With growing human populations and civilizations, and farming being a main source of income for these populations, elephants no longer have enough terrain or food in the wild. As Chai Lai states on their website, palm oil is actually a bigger threat to elephants than tourism. 

I also researched what it means to be an actual elephant sanctuary, and then learn why the work Chai Lai is doing is so important to the well-being of these elephants. 

In doing elephant sanctuary research, I found that a true elephant sanctuary doesn’t really even exist as widely as I thought in Thailand. There is a very, very short list of organizations that fall into a true “sanctuary” category, where tourists are permitted to visit and come close to the elephants, but not allowed to touch them much, feedings are highly limited and bathing in the rivers is an observation-only activity. The goal behind these organizations is to recreate the most authentically natural habitat for these animals as possible, and human interaction is not part of a wild elephant’s daily routine.

Then there are places I found that fall into the extreme opposite category, which is what many of us want to avoid at all costs. Places solely focused on making a profit while not putting any thought into the safety or well-being of the elephants. These organizations will often allow back rides with chairs, make elephants do tricks and keep the elephants interacting with humans throughout all hours of the day without breaks and without enough exercise. And who knows how they’re treated once all the tourists leave for the day.

Lastly, I found a lot of places in between these two categories. Some, like Chai Lai Orchid, didn’t claim to be a sanctuary at all, and were making the best out of a seemingly impossible situation where elephants that had been abused by unethical tourism, or were completely domesticated, that didn’t have an option to be freed into the wild, were kept on the grounds and used to educate tourists while doing what they could to make a better life for the elephants, and ensure their care.

Chai Lai has a really great summary on their website all about what they consider themselves to be for the elephants, and also, what their goals are. They're very transparent about what they do, their mission statement and what they are not. I highly encourage you to read their statements here, and also, read about the importance of an elephants' mahout here. Learning about the life of a mahout in doing my research was incredibly enlightening, and made me realize how valuable they are, while also becoming less and less respected (and compensated). Elephants need care around the clock, and without their mahouts, their heath and needs can be disregarded. Rather than summarizing all this information, because it would take me pages and pages, I will assume you'd read everything, and move on with my recap. 

What I can say is, in the end, I’m so happy these discussions are being had. And also, I whole-heartedly stand by my decision to support Chai Lai. I truly believe they are doing great things to provide the best life they can for these elephants whose options are limited, while also earning money to be able to pay their mahouts to care for them and keep them safe, and contribute in a meaningful way to the Daughter’s Rising program. What I encourage everyone to do is research everything yourself, as I did. Make a decision with good intentions, and set aside your own preferences and make the safety and well-being of these elephants your priority. If everyone does that, has awareness of the industry, good things will happen.

During my stay, I actually never even saw a bull hook. All the mahouts I encountered had such great relationships with their elephants that they only needed verbal or hand commands to ensure the elephant's and human's safety. I did see some elephants in chains, and I encourage you to read about how chains are the safest way to keep an elephant from wandering off when their mahout needs to step away to use the bathroom, eat or take care of themselves (which is, sadly for the mahout, for a very short time). Beyond that, I saw nothing but kindness during my stay here, and I saw plenty of elephants roaming freely, and many seemed to be living a life as close to the wild as possible. I was actually touched by the relationship many of the mahouts seemed to have had with their elephants.

Okay, now, onto the absolute magical 24 hours I spent at Chai Lai Orchid.

I spent one night here, and it most definitely wasn't enough. I would love to come back some time and spend an entire week here. Not only do they offer accommodations on their grounds in addition to their elephant encounters, they also have jungle treks, tours dedicated to learning more about local culture and home stays with members of local Karen tribes. Their prices are more than reasonable and the bungalows are very basic but very cozy. They range from bare bones to slightly more upscale, but it’s important to remember that you’re staying in a jungle, and overall, it’s a more remote location. This will not be a luxury stay nor will it be a glamping experience, and expectations should be adjusted.



That said, I absolutely loved my bungalow. I chose one of the "modern" bungalows with air conditioning. It was about $60 for the night, and that included breakfast, unlimited access to the entire Chai Lai grounds, and interacting with the elephants that were roaming freely. The bed was super comfortable with nice linens, it was very clean and there was a nice deck area overlooking the jungle with partial view of the elephants' main hang-out area. The bathroom was very clean and nicer than I expected. I loved everything about my accommodations.

I spent a lot of time on my first day just hanging out on my deck and listening to the elephant sounds in the background.

When you first arrive at Chai Lai, you cross a suspension bridge to get to the grounds, and immediately, you'll see the elephants. It's kind of hard to not be happy as soon as you get here.

How you arrive at Chai Lai Orchid.

What you'll see right after you cross the bridge.

You should also know that because the women at Chai Lai are in training through the Daughter's Rising organization, many are still learning English, and I encourage everyone to arrive with compassion and patience. Every e-mail communication I had with them prior to my arrival was so friendly and pleasant, but I also prepared for things to not go as planned. For the most part, my itinerary was executed as planned, with me reminding the lovely ladies at reception what that itinerary was. But everyone there was very happy and kind, and it was a great way to start my adventure here.

Chai Lai also has a restaurant on-site, and they can arrange for an in-room Thai massage. I ate dinner at the restaurant on my first night, and all the food I had was so good. All the ingredients were very fresh and had great seasonings. The restaurant also overlooks the river, so while I ate, I could watch people taking their bamboo raft rides, and I even had a roaming elephant walk by.

Spring rolls from the Chai Lai Restaurant.

Some kind of watermelon cocktail from the Chai Lai Orchid Restaurant.  It was so good.

View during my dinner.

They coordinate elephant encounters during the day as well as jungle treks with an experienced guide. They have quite a few options that don’t even involve an elephant, so if your choice is to not participate in an elephant encounter, there’s still plenty to do while here. You don’t need to have an overnight reservation to participate in any of the tours or activities and are more than welcome to just spend the day.

I opted to add a photo session with an elephant during my stay. Chai Lai partners with a local photographer that will document your experience with an elephant. It does cost extra, but for those wanting to be in the moment while spending time with an elephant, this is a priceless experience to work into your budget.

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Chai Lai has a short list of photographers they partner with, but it was the easiest decision I've ever made to work with James of DLC and Chiang Mai Photo Tours. I couldn’t be more grateful that I made this decision. Even just from looking at his photos, you could immediately tell the respect he had for Chai Lai, and of course, the elephants. He's also incredibly talented, and just a really kind person that I very much enjoyed talking to and working with. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and to have it captured means more to me than I can ever express. James also donates 500 Baht for every session he does at Chai Lai to the organization, which is a wonderful and heartwarming gesture.

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

This session was actually the first thing I did after arriving at Chai Lai, and getting to spend such quality one on-one-time with an elephant, while not having to think about taking a single picture to document the moment, was just so amazing. James has a really special connection to Chai Lai as well as the elephants, especially Seavoy, which is the lovely lady that joined me that day. Seavoy has such a beautiful speckled trunk, and is the grandma of the group - she's about 57 years old, if I remember correctly. She was so fun to explore the jungle with, and she even joined me for a walk through the river. What I appreciated about James is that not only does he deeply care about what he does, as well as the care given to the elephants, he's also super fast. He understands how the elephants move, and knows when to take the perfect photo. It's all a very natural process that was also highly respectful of the elephants.

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

Photo by James De La Roche of DLC Photo Tours

I also opted to do an elephant Morning Call during my stay, which allows you to give an elephant their breakfast, while you eat your own. The staff will bring your breakfast tray to your bungalow, and shortly after, an elephant and the mahout will arrive outside with a bag of bananas to feed the elephant. I was so excited to do this that I actually didn't eat my own breakfast, and while my back was turned getting more bananas for the elephant, she actually used her trunk to sniff out my food, which was incredible because it wasn't anywhere in her site (and tucked behind a corner). She managed to get most of my fruit and a few muffins, and it was actually really cute. The mahout was so apologetic, but I was just laughing and reassured everyone that it was fine. I didn't plan to attempt to get any photos of this because I wanted to just be completely in the moment, and since I was by myself, I didn't have anyone to help take photos. But the mahout was so great and just took my camera from my bed, and snapped tons and tons of photos without me even asking. He even took a short video clip for me. I was so grateful, and the mahout was just such a nice and kind person, and taught me some Thai words the elephant understood (which, sadly, I've already forgotten). And the time with the elephant was so amazing. I just sat on my deck in the morning sun, in my jammies, and fed an elephant who was sweet as can be.

Complimentary breakfast tray, which is brought to your room if you do a Morning Call with an elephant.
The top tier, which you can't see, is loaded with fresh fruits.

Post-breakfast raid.





For my tour, I did a 1-day jungle trek/elephant encounter combination, which started with a hike through the jungle, a visit to a local Karen mountain tribe, a lunch made over over a fire in the jungle next to a waterfall, and a really lovely bamboo raft ride down the river. Our guide was absolutely incredible. He spoke excellent English, and was very handy with a knife. When we started our trek, he would grab a stalk of bamboo from the jungle, and would start to chip away at it with his knife. We all kind of wondered what was going on, and all of a sudden, he presented me with a utensil that was a fork on one side, and a knife on the other. It was amazing. He also made us all bamboo straws, and showed us how to use plants from the jungle to blow bubbles. He made a tiny cup out of a leaf, poured liquid from a plant into the cup, and fashioned a stem into a bubble-blowing wand. The liquid from the plant formed bubbles when you blew on the wand, and everything he used to do this came right out of the jungle. We asked where we learned to do all this, and he proudly said, "My dad," which made me smile.

Views during our trek.

Our guide carved each of us all utensils to eat our lunch with, which was so memorable.

More views during our trek.

Growing pineapples in the jungle.

I loved these beautiful, vibrant pink flowers.

Around lunchtime, we stopped at a local Karen tribe that settled near a really beautiful waterfall. There were tables available to sit, and our guide made us pad Thai over a fire, wrapped in a banana leaf, and also sticky coconut milk rice cooked in a bamboo stalk. Fresh watermelon was also served. We were all so stuffed after lunch because the portions were huge, and we loved eating with our hand-made bamboo utensil.

Our view for lunch.

You can walk behind the waterfall, and are free to change into your swimsuit and swim.
Our guide made pad Thai over a fire, which was so, so good. Just as good as the noodles I would get on the street in the city.
They will make it vegetarian for you, and the guide will ask before you start walking if you are vegetarian.

He also made us coconut sticky rice over the fire, cooked in a bamboo stalk. 


After lunch, we continued our trek uphill until we reached a river where the elephants were waiting for us to have bath time. We started by feeding them bananas, and then walked them down to the river and splashed their skin with water. While we were there, we had one baby elephant and two adult elephants, and the baby was so silly. I can't for the life of me remember how old he was, but he had such a playful personality. He didn't quite understand that he was still so much bigger than us humans, and while we were in the river, he toppled me over a little. I just laughed because I couldn't believe that I was just shoved over by a baby elephant - it was amazing. The adult elephants were so sweet and they flapped their ears a lot in the water, which means they were happy.







After bath time, we walked them out of the river, and through the jungle for a bit. Elephants need to walk a lot for exercise and to keep their hooves filed down. In the wild, all they do is walk and eat for the most part, so keeping them moving really helps with their overall health.




After we said goodbye to the elephants, we were driven in a truck to the launching point of the bamboo raft rides. I loved that we ended our day with this. It was so peaceful after such a tiring and exciting day, and the water was cool, so felt really good after being out in direct sunlight. The ride was about 30 minutes, and I completely zoned out and got super zen during the whole time.



After the bamboo raft ride, it was time to say goodbye. I wished the three other people in my group safe travels, sadly said goodbye to the elephants, and I was on my way to downtown Chiang Mai. With most of the day-long tours, transportation to and from downtown Chiang Mai is included in the cost of the tour, which is so very convenient because it's about an hour outside downtown. I shared a truck with about 6 other people who were also ending their day, and they dropped me off right at my hotel. During my ride back into Chiang Mai city, all I could feel was a whole lotta love and gratitude that I even got to visit such a special place.



Chai Lai sent me a really great rundown of packing suggestions once I booked my bungalow. They've since redesigned their website, and I can't seem to find that section on their website, but they do touch on packing tips in their FAQ section here. I read and re-read the list so many times while I was packing, and decided to share what I ended up using, and what I didn't really need, as well as a few things I think are important to know before you arrive.

1. I didn't use a single drop of bug spray while here. I visited at the end of February, which is considered dry/cold season. It's very likely a different story during their wet season, but I was anticipating needing to use all 3.4 oz of bug spray I packed, and I never needed it while at Chai Lai. I don't think I even encountered a single mosquito. The area isn't a malaria zone, but my doctor did prescribe me Malarone just in case I found a lot of mosquitoes once there, and the bug spray didn't work well as I'd hoped. I never needed that, either (and thank goodness because the common side effects of Malarone included extreme night terrors and nausea/vomiting).

2. Waterproof or quick-dry sandals were a lifesaver. I struggled with what footwear to pack for my time here simply because I only used a travel backpack for my entire trip and had very limited space. For my hike, I knew sneakers would be ideal, but after a lot of debate, I decided to just pack sandals that had a lot of traction and very comfortable cushioning. They were also quick-dry after water exposure, which was really helpful while wading through the waterfall area, and also, visiting the elephants in the river during down time since the bottom of the river is rocky. I found that there were only 1-2 hairy areas of the hike where, for a second, I regretted not having sneakers. But honestly, 99% of the time, I was fine, and it saved me a ton of room in my backpack. If I had planned to stay longer and do more trekking, I most definitely would have packed sneakers. But for a day, this was the right call for me.

3. As much as I questioned it before I left, I'm really glad I packed a lightweight sweater for my time here. It was pretty chilly in the evenings and early mornings. I would have been cold during my elephant Morning Call without a sweater. It got pretty warm during the day, however. So don't worry, even if you travel during their cold season, it will still be very hot during the day (it averaged 98 while I was there).

4. All organized experiences, including the Morning Call, jungle trek/elephant bathing in the river, etc., are paid activities. All profits go right back into everything Chai Lai works toward, including Daughter's Rising and elephant and mahout care/wages. I thought the prices were all very reasonable.

5. Every single person working at Chai Lai was so nice and welcoming, and spoke excellent English. And while they are pretty organized (they walk around with cell phones and text each other details of tours and such), it's a good idea to remind them of your itinerary during check-in if you planned a lot of activities like I did. I confirmed all my activities and tours via e-mail about a week before I arrived, and when I checked-in, they didn't have that information readily available, which isn't a big deal. Once I told them my itinerary, they knew exactly what I was talking about, and confirmed everything was ready to go. But in general, much like the rest of Thailand, everything is very relaxed.

6. There is no ATM nearby, and with Thailand being a cash-based society, bring enough cash with you for all your meals, experiences and very importantly, to tip your guides and mahouts. If you read about the life of a mahout on Chai Lai's website, you'll know how little they make (and really, everyone in Thailand makes very little) and also how difficult their past may have been. After my photography session, I lost track of the mahout who joined us, and found him later that day. I walked over to give him a tip for our session, and he was also with a few other mahouts. When I handed him the money, the amount of gratitude I received from not only him, but also his fellow mahouts, was surprising to me. They all just kept saying, "Thank you, thank you" over and over again, and said I was very kind and cheered about how nice I was. Tipping your mahouts and guides is absolutely the right thing to do.

7. If you participate in a jungle trek full-day tour with elephant interaction, wear your swimsuit under your hiking clothes because there isn't a great area to change once you arrive at the waterfall, or the the river for elephant bathing time. At the waterfall for lunch, there is a bathroom, but it's a bit of a walk from the waterfall. I didn't see anywhere to change at the river for elephant bathing time, so I was rather happy with myself for just wearing my swimsuit under my clothes.

8. Pack a bottle of water for the hike, but also, they will provide bottled water during your tour. We never had to worry about being dehydrated.

9. The hike was moderate in difficulty. The beginning was pretty easy, but after lunch, everything was up a steep hill, and we were all out of breath (except our guide, of course). I wasn't in the best shape of my life when I did the hike, but I wasn't dying after the challenging part, so I'm pretty sure most reasonably healthy people could handle it.

10. If you have space in your bag, bring donations for Chai Lai with you. They have a list you can find in their FAQ section here of things they need. I wish I had done this, but I had zero space in my backpack to bring anything else with me beyond what I needed for my trip, so I chose to just make a cash donation while I was there instead. This isn't mandatory, of course, and completely your discretion.

11. Two bottles of water will be provided in your room daily, but they also have a clean water refill station near the restaurant. Chai Lai participates in the Trash Heroes program, which you can read about here. In a nutshell, since clean tap water is widely unavailable in many areas of Southeast Asia, everyone relies on plastic bottled water, which has created a problem with littering and pollution. Trash Heroes sets up clean, drinkable water refill stations all over Southeast Asia, and if you purchase a refillable water bottle through them, you can refill for free at these stations (and for a very, very small fee with any other vessel). Since I forgot my reusable water bottle at home, I had planned to buy one once I arrived at Chai Lai since it was my first stop in Thailand. When I asked about it at check in, they didn't seem to know what I was talking about (I asked two different people). So I never ended up buying a water bottle from them. But, that said, the clean water dispenser was available to refill any water bottle at all times, which was very nice (it was the only place in Thailand I stayed that did this). So I just kept reusing my plastic bottles over and over again.

12. All food and experiences are charged to your room, which you pay at checkout (no need to wait for a bill at the restaurant - they will ask your room number when they take your order). You can pay your bill with a credit card, but they will charge you a 3% tax, which is how all of Thailand operates (if they even accept credit cards at all). You will save a bit of money if you bring all the cash you need with you, which is what I did. But if you need to, they will accept credit cards.






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