If you like elephants, fruit and supporting human rights (and to be honest, who doesn’t?) then there’s no better way to spend a couple of days than Chai Lai Orchid Resort.
Nestled in the Mae Wang mountains, an hour outside the Thai northern city of Chiang Mai, the Chai Lai Orchid lodge is within an elephant park that offers amazing scenery and activities while you’re there.
The prices are high for a backpacker and the place is certainly aimed at tourists, but as you delve into the history of Chai Lai and the work that is being carried out you will honestly forget about the high prices and just relax and enjoy yourself.
History of Chai Lai Orchid Resort
Created by Alexa, one of the founders of the excellent Daughters Rising charity, who visited Chiang Mai in Thailand and discovered the appalling trade in women and young girls around the area. These unlucky souls are sold into sex slavery, sometimes by their own parents.
In order to provide a source of income and a future for these women, Alexa founded The Chai Lai Orchid. Many of the girls working there are from the Daughters Rising charity, given an opportunity for training and a real fulfilled life working in the successful Thai tourism industry.
It’s these noble actions and goals that allow you the justify the high price you pay for visiting this incredible jewel in the mountain.
We stayed in the least expensive option at The Chai Lai Orchid, an Eco-Hut. A simple wood shack without air-conditioning but, thankfully, a fan and mosquito net.
The king size bed was very comfy and there was a small balcony overlooking the river. We spent very little time in the room but it was comfy enough that, even though it was small, it never felt crowded.
We payed 1200 THB per night (about £23/$40), although there are other options with more beds and with air-conditioning.
Each room includes a complimentary breakfast, which has good food and plenty of coffee and tea.
Most rooms overlook the path which the elephants are moved along so you can quite often see them just walking in front of your hut, trust me this never gets old no matter how long you stay at Chai Lai.
There’s also a cafe in which you can sit and watch the river below. The mahouts are always bringing the elephants down to the river to wash them and play with them. We were jut happy to sit here all day looking at the elephants getting bathed or fed. It’s a magical sight as these elephants are not the ones you see chained up in other parts of Thailand – they are respected and looked fed which every elephant deserves but the reality is so far from this.
The Amazing Mountain Adventure
We took the full day tour, the “Amazing Mountain Adventure.” It is a very full day, it started at 06:30, finished at 17:30 and in the end we were totally exhausted.
Our day started by trekking in the jungle to find the elephants where they had been left to eat and sleep during the night. We had two older female elephants and a young baby elephant.
Once the mahout had woken the elephants up they walked over to us and laid down in front of us, at which point we climbed onto their necks, bareback, and they stood up…
I thought the site of an elephant walking straight towards me was scary, but being on their necks without any sort of harness, legs dangling behind their ears was a different level of scary… especially when they move their heads from side to side to rip bamboo from the floor for their breakfast.
Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely amazing experience in retrospect but it was intense, Serena’s and my hands were shaking after we got off the elephants.
We rode the elephants through the forest and to the river, on the way we met an American couple and their son who would stay with us for the rest of the day. My favourite part was the little baby elephant who ran around making mischief and having fun.
At the river the elephants get washed and cooled down before you dismount. Yes, you’re in the river getting squirted by an elephant and their handlers, but at least all your fear sweat gets washed away.
Then it’s time to recover. We went back to our room, shower, get changed and enjoy the breakfast at the riverside cafe. Eat well because you’ll need the energy for the next part of the day, the mountain hike.
In total the hike took us about 6 hours, but we had three rest points throughout.
We walked through a local hill tribe, learning about the history of how they were expelled from Burma (Mynamar) and found a home in Thailand, how they made their living by making cloth, and how they grow most of their own food locally.
This food is currently a concern as there has been an unseasonable dry spell in Thailand right now. We are visiting Thailand during their wet season but it hasn’t rained once. Our guide said that it hasn’t rained in over two months, not a drop.
We saw the problems with this as we walked through the rice paddies. Dried up and unused terraces down the hill-side surround this area. Places where locals would normally grow the food they need to live are totally barren. We asked our guide, Sing, what the people eat instead of rice… “They don’t.”
Our first rest point was after we had trekked up the side of the highest hill in the area. Amazing views over the surrounding countryside and a little shade. If we had attempted this trek in England I don’t think it would have been that challenging, but under the full heat of the Thai sun at around 40˚ Celsius it was hard – we drank about a litre of water each before that first rest point.
The going was a little easier then, downhill and towards our lunch rest point. Epic scenery all around and the occasional wildlife spot broke up the trek with lots of little moments of excitement. Sing made us all hats from local leaves to take the heat off our heads, stylish!
Lunch was at a small water fall with a number of small pools you could move between in the water, defiantly refreshing.
Sing cooked us lunch, a quick noodle and vegetable dish that was delicious and well needed after a long walk.
There was also a local woman selling goods she and her family had made, Serena bought a blanket but there was lots of small items you could buy.
Another hike through the forest, thankfully all under cover this time, took us to a refreshing waterfall. Again we took some time to relax and enjoy the water. I think this is the most impressive waterfall I have swum near, the force of the water was so impressive that it’s hard to swim up to the waterfall itself.
Yet another hike after the waterfall, the theme of the day, and a short car ride and we found ourselves at the Wang river, the same river that crosses the front of The Chai Lai Orchid resort. We hop on a bamboo raft with our driver (pilot? punt-er?) and head off down the river.
The low rain makes this an interesting trip, with the raft risking getting caught on rocks but our cheerful and playful expert driver avoids most of these… until he offers me the chance to control the raft. Not being an expert I got the raft caught more than a handful of times on the 2 hour drift down the river. It’s also more tiring than you would expect to constantly punt a raft trying to avoid rocks and direct the raft down the river, especially when your expert driver is behind you rocking the boat (literally) trying to make you fall off, all the time laughing as you stumble to regain your balance.
Once we had drifted down the river to the lodge I was totally exhausted while Serena had quite enjoyed her relaxing ride on the raft.
We finished off the day by washing baby elephant in the river and feeding it, it even gave us each a kiss on the cheek to say thank you!
We won’t easily forget our time at The Chai Lai Orchid, being introduced to these amazing creatures and learning more about the challenges that many people face to just survive in the world.
We are heading to Chiang Mai city itself to explore the temples and a local festival that’s happening there. We’ve also heard about a waterfall that’s made from a mineral deposit that’s actually so sticky you can actually walk up it.