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.
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...
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.