Chiang Mai never ceases to amaze me. As much as I love the region’s scenery, culture and food however, it’s really the people that make it something extra special. People who are simply incredibly kind, generous and open-minded, people who are going after their dreams or passion projects (like this), and people who are working to build businesses while sustainably helping others (like this).
Before heading back to the U.S., I got the chance to stay at an eco lodge about an hour south of Chiang Mai called The Chai Lai Orchid. Set on a leafy hillside in the middle of the jungle, the property is much, much more than just a hotel and another example how the people, not necessarily the place (though that’s pretty impressive too), are what will stick in your memory.
Run by the founders of the nonprofit Daughters Rising, the hotel is a socially responsible endeavor that helps provide jobs and training to Thai and Burmese girls who are in danger of being trafficked. While the nonprofit organization works to help to educate and help at-risk women, often along the Thai-Burma borders, the hotel provides not only a safe place for women to go but sets them up with hospitality training, skills and experience they can use throughout their life. All the money going into the resort from bookings, food and tour sales goes directly back into the nonprofit and various programs.
And, if a beautiful setting and good cause aren’t enough, there are elephants on the property.
The resort is located so close to a long-established elephant camp that the two seem to blend together and you’re surrounded by elephants all day long. From my corner room I could see a parade of elephants – seven plus two babies! – coming down the hill early in the morning, they were in and out of the river all day, and in the evening they ate near the lodge’s restaurant. They were everywhere and there was nothing separating you from them.
I was lucky enough to get to play with a young elephant that the owner of the resort actually adopted…and who is clearly very well loved. The mahout (elephant trainer) was laughing the entire time we were in the water clearly getting a kick out of getting the elephant to surprise us with kisses and splashing even though that’s what he does several times a day. In fact, it seemed like everyone was smiling around the elephants. While the hotel isn’t directly connected to the elephant camp, they do work closely with them to provide opportunities for the guests to get up close and personal with the elephants.
A quick aside: I’ve never written anything about elephant camps or riding elephants in Thailand because it’s a very complicated topic to take on and I personally tend to stay away from it all.
The elephant camp that operates next to The Chai Lai Orchid does offer elephant rides and, while if you go on an experience through the hotel you can only bathe the elephants in the river and ride them bareback, the camp does use chairs for other customers. While it’s best to not ride elephants at all, the heavy chairs seating 2-3 people on the elephants’ backs are definitely not safe or healthy for the animals and it made me uneasy seeing people ride them this way throughout the day. That said, elephants require a lot of space, work, food and care and to do all that takes money which the camp gets by offering rides and…the whole situation is just difficult.
The plus side is, here the elephants are in the jungle. They’re walking through the muddy forest, wading in the river and sleeping in the jungle in their herd. By choosing to ride bareback or – better yet – simply bathing and playing with the elephants, you’re showing the elephant camp that people are still willing to pay money to interact with the giants on a more ethical and sustainable level.
(If you’re interested in learning more about the issues surrounding riding elephants or how to responsibly choose how and where you visit elephants in Thailand, read this post.)
Rooms at the The Chai Lai Orchid are spread out across the property and are comfortable and peaceful. There’s really not much around except for some daytime roadside eateries so nights here are early and quiet, except maybe for the call of the elephants heading into the jungle.
The real draw of the place is the people and the work they’re doing. The small team of staff and volunteers, along with the owner, onsite are working tirelessly to run not only the hotel but a number of local initiatives and programs yet still find the time to connect with their guests, provide personalized experiences and make everyone feel welcome. The evening I spent chatting and having a casual drink with the volunteers learning more about the operation and each of their stories is one my Chiang Mai nights that will certainly continue to stand out over others.
Staying at The Chai Lai Orchid
Bookings for The Chai Lai Orchid can be made directly on the resort’s website and are processed through Air BnB. The property is about an hour drive away from Chiang Mai. The roads are great the whole way making for a nice ride if you want to go by motorbike or the hotel can organize a songthaew pickup from town.
There are several room options, from simple bamboo bungalows to more spacious rooms in a large lodge building with views of the river and elephant trail, with prices ranging from about 500 – 2,300 baht (roughly $15 – $70 USD). Keep in mind that, while comfortable, the rooms are still quite rustic – don’t expect a five-star experience. (But I’m sure you’ll be perfectly pleased with the more authentic experience you will have!)
The property also has a charming cafe/restaurant overlooking the river serving Thai, Burmese and Western dishes (priced between around 70 – 250 baht) and offers booking services for a wide range of tours and excursions around Chiang Mai as well as, of course, opportunities to interact with the elephants from the neighboring camp.
About Daughters Rising and RISE Shop
Started by two American women, Alexa Pham and Hannah Herr, Daughters Rising works to prevent human trafficking by empowering at-risk girls through education, resources, support and training programs. The Chai Lai Orchid opened in 2013 to house and train local minority girls at risk for human trafficking.
The non-profit has recently started another endeavor, the RISE Shop, a curated collection of Fair Trade and ethically produced handmade jewelry and accessories. Working with local female artisans, the goods are made from recycled or handmade materials and are full of life and color! (images above and below)
By staying at The Chai Lai Orchid or purchasing their goods, you help support not only the lodge and staff but local outreach programs, health workshops, classes, hospitality training and more. I honestly don’t know how they do it all.
If you’re not heading to Chiang Mai anytime soon you can still show your support through donations or volunteering – you can find a list of what types of volunteers and skill sets they’re looking for here.
Note: I was a guest of The Chai Lai Orchid but all opinions and recommendations are my own.
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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