by Claire Sabatini

Welcome to the Mae Wang Jungle in Northern Thailand, home of the Chai Lai Orchid. No, it’s not an exotic flower, but rather a pioneer in eco-tourism and an advocate for human and animal rights. The director of the organization is Alexa Pham, a photographer from New York turned social business entrepreneur. 

Pham was traveling in Thailand when she witnessed a young, Burmese girl named Ning, being sold to a Serbian man. She managed to stop the transaction, but when she tried to get Ning into a local safe house, no one would take her because she was undocumented. Pham’s eyes were then opened to the plight of the Burmese and Indigenous people of Thailand. Instead of simply feeling that pang of sadness that we all feel when we hear about a cruel reality in the world and then forgetting about it, Pham moved to Thailand to open the Chai Lai Orchid and to launch Daughters Rising’s training program. 

Photo by Jacqueline Romano /
Alexa Pham with baby elephant

The Chai Lai Orchid is an eco lodge where guests enjoy a peaceful stay while supporting a social business. The eco lodge is also a safe house for women who are escaping or who are at risk for human trafficking. Daughters Rising’s strategy is to empower women through education and employment. The women who participate in the program receive fully paid training in hospitality services; they take English classes, empowerment workshops and much more. Once they complete the program, they have the financial and other means to go forth and accomplish their goals. All the income generated from the eco lodge is put right back into the Daughters Rising program. In the last three years the program has seen many graduates who go on to gainful employment or further education. In addition to the training program, Daughters Rising also runs a mobile clinic that reaches rural communities, supports an Indigenous school, and has launched an artisan project with women in the local communities. 

This year the focus of the Chai Lai Orchid has intersected with human and animal rights. Since its founding, Chai Lai Orchid has shared property with an elephant camp. This proximity has made them witnesses of the daily mistreatment of 12 Asian elephants and their caretakers who are refugees and ethnic minorities. Camps in Thailand are managed with the aim of generating the highest possible profit for the tour companies – all at the expense of the well-being of the elephants and the safety of the mahouts.

Photo by Jacqueline Romano /
Daughters Rising with founder, Alexa Pham

Elephants are being used all day, every day for back-breaking chair rides where they would support the weight of the heavy, metal chair and up to 4 people. If elephants protest, or are tired or hungry the mahouts have to force them to stay on schedule for the tour companies. The mahouts work 14 hour days with no breaks, no days off, and no medical care or insurance if they were injured on the job, all for a deplorable $5 USD a day. 

August of 2015 was the breaking point when the abuse of a full grown bull elephant led to the death of a mahout. The bull, Som Jai, had been showing signs of being in his musth phase, which is the mating time for male elephants when their aggression spikes. Mahouts, knowing elephants better than anyone, could tell that Som Jai was entering musth and begged to not have the elephant working. “He’s going to kill me,” his mahout, Kadow, warned. When the tour company showed up with bus-loads of paying tourists who wanted their amusement ride on the chair, the tour company made the executive decision to put Som Jai to work. Pham was sitting just a few feet away when the horror of the attack unfolded.

Photo by Jacqueline Romano /
An Mahout with his elephant

Photo by Jacqueline Romano / Alexa Pham with Mahout

I don’t remember anyone screaming. The horror and helplessness of the situation drowned out all the sounds and time seemed to stop. I watched as a massive Asian bull elephant gored my friend’s husband to death. The sun crept higher in the sky. The body was eventually covered and taken away. The man who was killed was named Surachai, and he was the elephant’s caretaker, known in Thailand as a “mahout.” His wife, Fasai, wept, holding their 11 month old baby. Fasai’s friends were determined not to let Fasai suffer further; the added humiliation of poverty would be too much to bear. They collected flowers from the jungle and wove beautiful wreaths for Surachai’s funeral that night. The bull elephant was chained in hobbles and his owner began talking about sawing off his tusks. The next morning, five monks came to have a Buddhist blessing ceremony. As we knelt in the dirt, hands clasped, heads bowed, tourists casually snapped photos on selfie sticks, oblivious to the sorrow and the occasion. To them we were just part of the exotic backdrop. They climbed onto heavy metal chairs once again.

In the days that followed Surachai’s death, Daughters Rising helped his widow set up a business in her village and  immediately began to plan and negotiate with the current elephant camp owner. An agreement was reached that at the set price of $9000 USD per month the owner would allow the Chai Lai Orchid to rent the entire camp on a half-day basis. This would allow the eco lodge to take over the management from 11 am onwards, during which time the elephants and their caretakers would be treated humanely and have time to relax and eat. Elephants would not be subject to chair rides, beatings or being worked to death. Mahouts would receive fair wages, breaks and be offered English classes. In December 2015, The Chai Lai Orchid launched the Don’t Let DeeDee Down campaign (#DontLetDeeDeeDown) to raise funds and awareness for the project and also started ethical tours under the name DeeDee’s Elephant Adventures.

The owner has allowed the Chai Lai Orchid to manage the camp for half-days for a trial period of 6 months. In that time, the eco lodge must prove that the owner can still generate a profit from running only ethical tours. If they are successful, the owner will allow the camp to be transitioned into a sanctuary full-time. 

Photo by Jacqueline Romano /
Daughters Rising

The difference between mornings and afternoons at the elephant camp is like the difference between night and day. The relief of the elephants and the mahouts after 11 am is palpable. Instead of treating elephants like amusement park rides, guests are invited to join elephants in the animals’ favorite activities: walking in the jungle, bathing in the river and eating sugar cane and bananas. The Chai Lai Orchid believes that this camp-turned-sanctuary will serve as an example to the neighboring elephant camps who will follow their model if it proves that it can generate a sustainable income. Chai Lai Orchid is now in the fifth month of operating DeeDee’s Elephant Adventures and the journey, while laudable, has not been easy. 

The industry, driven by greed, is intent on impeding the success of this endeavor. Since starting the Don’t Let DeeDee Down campaign the Chai Lai Orchid has received death threats from tour companies and been denied basic services to the eco lodge. 

Surachai’s death uncovered a dismal truth about mahouts in the elephant tourism industry; that the death of a mahout is a common and concealed occurrence. Unfortunately, a mahout dying fails to attract international media coverage. Racism, poverty and stateless contribute to the invisible nature of their death. The Chai Lai Orchid wants readers to know that the protection of human rights is at the crux of their campaign to change the elephant tourism industry; that the victims of this industry are not just elephants but also the men who risk their lives to take care of them. 

Photo by Jacqueline Romano / A Mahout with his elephant

The Chai Lai Orchid refuses to surrender. They are determined to save these elephants and provide basic human rights to the men who care for them – but they need your help. 

You can provide support in a number of ways:

Visit: The name of the ethical tours held at this camp is DeeDee’s Elephant Adventures- if you or someone you know is traveling to Thailand, please book a tour with us. This is a pivotal time where the bookings determine the success of turning this camp into a sanctuary.

Yes, it would be easier to write this camp off as a lost cause; to accept defeat, turn a blind eye, and allow the elephants and their caretakers to go back to a life of mistreatment. But how many times in our lives will we do this? What would happen if we refused to accept injustice; if the refusal of injustice wasn’t consider the act of an idealist, but instead became commonplace? How would we be different as individuals? How would the world be different? 

We invite you to find out.