ELEPHANT TOURISM MYTHS DISPELLED

As you decide what kind of elephant experience you want to have, you'll hear opinions from all over.

I have to be clear: I'm not an expert on the subject. My knowledge is limited to what I've read on the topic, as well as the insights I've gleaned from my own experience at Chai Lai Orchid.

With that very important caveat in mind, let me dispel a few common elephant myths for you.

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Myth #1: Elephant tourism is irresponsible, so it's better to avoid elephant camps entirely.

There was a point during my trip planning when I questioned whether it was a good idea to see the elephants. Selfishly, I was dying to interact and see them. But I wondered if I was contributing to a negative cycle of abuse.

Myth #2: Riding elephants is harmful to them, so you should find an elephant camp that prohibits riding.

Riding elephants is not inherently bad. Some camps place chairs on the elephants' backs for you to sit in -- these

Myth #3: Ethical elephant camps do not use chains.

The use of chains is not unequivocally bad. Sorry, folks—it's just not that simple.

Chains can serve many positive purposes. They also keep elephants from raiding nearby farmland, which can be devastating to farmers' livelihood.

Camps that keep their elephants on 5' chains all day long aren't good. But to say that the use of chains is entirely unethical is untrue.

Elephants can weigh between 2-7 tons (that's up to 14,000 lbs). And while mahouts are trained to control the elephants, they're still wild animals.

Myth #4: Elephants doing tricks is bad for them. 

The use of chains is not unequivocally bad. Sorry, folks—it's just not that simple.

Myth #5: Ethical elephant camps do not use chains.

Chains are a responsible part of elephant tourism. Elephants can weigh between 2-7 tons (that's up to 14,000 lbs). And while mahouts are trained to control the elephants.

 

TOURISM FOR GOOD IN THAILAND

, while fighting injustices faced by several groups in Thailand.

Elephants and their caretakers, known as mahouts, are exposed to harsh conditions in much of Thailand's elephant tourism industry. Many elephants in Southeast Asia are forced to work 14+ hour days, 365 days/year, in arduous conditions and without breaks. Alongside them, their mahouts are clocking torturously long days for meager wages, often struggling to support their families. After witnessing the way the industry operates, Pham set out to make change however she could. Chai Laid Orchid now rents elephants from the owner of a nearby camp during daytime hours. Mahouts are provided fair compensation and improved working conditions, and elephants are given the space and time to rest and relax.

This jungle oasis offers not only a humane respite for elephants and mahouts, but it's also home to an important social movement to protect and empower women. Daughters Rising is a nonprofit working to end sex trafficking by empowering at-risk women through education. Pham created the organization in partnership with her eco-lodge to provide an alternative path for refugees and indigenous women who are at risk of falling into Thailand's sex trafficking industry. The organization runs a training program for young women, paying them a fair wage and providing valuable hospitality experience, skills training, English classes, and health education. Program graduates are eligible for an interest free loan to pursue their own enterprise if they choose.

After completing the Daughters Rising empowerment program, Nukul Jorlopo founded Chai Lai Sisters, the first trekking and homestay company in Northern Thailand run by indigenous Karen women. Chai Lai Sisters now offers trekking expeditions, jungle accommodations, and cultural immersion trips as part of the Chai Lai portfolio.

SLEEPING IN THE MAE WANG JUNGLE

If you're visiting Chiang Mai and are hoping to spend time with the elephants in Northern Thailand, check out my article on the Chai Lai Orchid elephant experience. For those adventurous enough to sleep among the elephants, Chai Lai offers a variety of accommodations choices, each of which has its own unique specialness.


CHAI LAI ORCHID JUNGLE BUNGALOWS

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Chai Lai Orchid Bungalows is an eco-lodge situated on the Mae Wang River, about an hour south of Chiang Mai. The lodge has nine comfortable bungalows, accommodating groups from 1-5 people. The common area is wrapped in colorful rugs and has panoramic views of the river. Breakfast is included, and there's an adjacent restaurant serving great Thai food. 

Though the Bungalows are your cushiest option, don't expect room service or an infinity pool. You won't forget you're in the jungle—key features include mosquito nets and constant dampness. Some rooms have A/C and private bathrooms, but not all. 

The Bungalows are also home to 11 rescued elephants, who roam the grounds and like to say hello to visitors. You can bathe and feed them as part of their elephant experiences.


CHAI LAI SISTERS NATURE RETREAT

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Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat is a bit closer to camping on the lodging spectrum, though what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in pure magic. Located deep in the Doi Inthanon mountains, the Nature Retreat has no address and is only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle or by foot. It's off the beaten path, literally. 

The seven bamboo huts are equipped with plush beds, solar-powered lighting, and mosquito nets. Our cabin in particular had only three walls—the fourth was open to the river, making for a pretty surreal wakeup call. Guests can swim in the waterfall on property, and evenings are spent around the fire pit with locally distilled "happy water." Cell service at the Nature Retreat is essentially non-existent, so you can live in the moment and not on Instagram. 

There are several retired elephants on the property, giving you plenty of opportunities for up-close-and-personal interactions. 


KAREN VILLAGE HOMESTAY

For a true cultural immersion experience, you can also request a village homestay, spending the night in the home of a local Karen hill tribe family. The accommodations are very basic—you'll sleep on a mat on the floor with a mosquito net and outdoor bathrooms. You'll learn about the traditional Karen way of life, eat a home cooked dinner, and get to know your new friends over a few beers. This isn't just a place to sleep—it's an education in the Karen culture. It's not for everyone, but it's a truly special experience. 


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ELEPHANTS [YOU'LL] NEVER FORGET

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Meet Phu Teng. He lives in the jungle south of Chiang Mai with his female companion and their caretaker. He's gentle, yet assertive. (Read: if you have food in your hand, don't expect to hold onto it.) Sugarcane and bamboo are his favorite snacks, and he has several hidden talents, including turning on his own water faucet with his trunk. His wife's name is Moh Kha Pah, and she's 5 months into her 2-year pregnancy with their calf. Though she's blind in one eye, she's playful and attentive.

If you're traveling to Thailand, chances are you're excited about spending some 1:1 time with these big guys. You may have already spent hours researching the various camps and rescues, unsure about which one to choose for the best possible experience. I'll save you the angst—go with Chai Lai.

Chai Lai Orchid is an eco-lodge and elephant camp located in the Mae Wang District of Northern Thailand, just south of Chiang Mai. Started by Alexa Pham, an American who now lives in Thailand with her husband and son, Chai Lai Orchid is a one-of-a-kind sanctuary. The multi-faceted operation offers travelers an ethically responsible way to interact with elephants and experience jungle life. 

The Elephant Experience

Our day started with an early pickup at our hotel in Chiang Mai, organized ahead of time with Chai Lai. We shared an open air truck with a group of five awesomely fun Canadians who ended up being our travel companions for several days. We opted for a multi-day overnight jungle adventure, though single day trips are also available with transportation to and from Chiang Mai.

Upon arriving at Chai Lai Orchid, we changed into traditional Karen attire and headed out to meet the elephants. One by one, we met our new friends, treated them to a mid-morning banana snack, and received trunk hugs as gratitude. We then headed out on a short trek near the property with the herd. With a small group of just seven travelers and our guides, we were able to get ample personal time with the elephants. I buddied up with Mae Sak Tong, a big gal with gold eyes and a pink speckled trunk. We bonded over our love of massages, as she stopped periodically to give herself a tree trunk back rub. 

Following the trek, it was bathing time with the baby elephants, Chai Lai and Watermelon. A short stroll down to the river, and the duo was ready for a swim. We gave them a full body scrub down, and the babies reciprocated with kisses and trunk showers. Our guide, Alex, doubled as the photographer and snapped some pretty amazing photos of us throughout the day. 

I should acknowledge that elephant tricks can be a difficult subject in Thailand. Many tourist "shows" feature elephants doing dangerous or backbreaking stunts, in which they're often confined to tiny enclosures and given inadequate care. However, elephant tourism and training is a much broader topic than just these camps. After careful research and speaking with experts on the subject during my trip, I've come to a better understanding of the impact of tourism on Asian elephants. The truth is that there isn't anything inherently bad about training elephants to do tricks like giving kisses, spouting water from their trunks, or even painting (yes, painting!)—as long as they're trained and supervised responsibly and humanely. I learned quite a bit about the topic during my trip, and have dispelled a few other common elephant tourism myths here

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Later in the afternoon, we relocated to the Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat, a beautiful eco-camp about an hour and half further into the jungle. This off-the-grid retreat is situated along a secluded river and is home to several retired elephants who have been rescued from working camps. The retirees—including Phu Teng and Moh Kha Pah—live quiet lives in the jungle, enjoying walks with visitors and a daily diet of 200 kilos of bamboo. 

The truly magical part of the experience was spending time with the elephants in an unstructured, spontaneous way. On our second day at the Nature Retreat, we woke up to find the elephants having a bamboo breakfast just steps from our huts. As we brushed our teeth at the outdoor sinks, Phu Teng drank from the faucets, playing and poking at us with his trunk. Our interactions with the elephants at the Nature Retreat were impromptu, intimate, and flexible. There were no agendas, no time limits. After breakfast, we hiked with Phu Teng and Moh Kha Pah through the unkempt jungle, keeping them fueled along the way with sugarcane and words of encouragement. But mostly sugarcane.

When we weren't feeding, bathing, or trekking with the elephants, the Doi Inthanon mountains had plenty of other activities to offer. We rafted down the Mae Wang River with a local guide, tasted home distilled rice whisky in an indigenous Karen hill tribe village, and swam at the base of hidden waterfalls. More on those adventures at another time...

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Booking Your Elephant Experience

To book your elephant adventure, visit ChaiLaiOrchid.com. I highly recommend the overnight experience, with at least one night at the Bungalows and one at the Nature Retreat, though a day visit is better than nothing! For those adventurous enough to sleep among the elephants, check out this post about Sleeping in the Mae Wang Jungle. Of course, you can customize your own trip based on your interests, activity level, and adventure barometer.

Our itinerary can be found on their website as Elephant Rescue and Mountain Homestay with Jungle Orchid Bungalow. It includes the following:

  • 1 night at Chai Lai Orchid Bungalows
  • 1 night at Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat
  • Elephant Caretaker Experience (feed + bathe the elephants)
  • Elephant Trekking
  • Bamboo Rafting
  • Karen Hill Tribe Village

Chai Lai is wonderfully unique in that they not only give travelers an avenue to understand and positively impact human rights and animal welfare in Thailand, but they also manage to provide an unparalleled adventure experience. To learn more about the Chai Lai organization and the human rights work they're doing in Thailand, visit my post Tourism for Good.