Meet the Chai Lai Team

From being a survivor of abuse and exploitation, to running a social hospitality business and partnering an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, it’s been a long, challenging and eventful journey – but one I wouldn’t change for the world! 

In 2013, I was living in New York working as a photographer and anti-trafficking activist. My own past ordeals inspired me to help others who either had experienced or were vulnerable to experiencing similar circumstances. Together with my close friend and fellow activist, artist Johannah Herr, I co-founded Daughters Rising, a non-profit that aims to empower at-risk girls to end trafficking and exploitation in their communities, and break the cycle of poverty.  

 The reality of generating meaningful impact within a widespread and complex issue soon became evident: if we were to really make a difference, the next step was to establish something that was a long-term, sustainable solution at a pulse-point of the problem. And so, after months of research and exploration, I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

 My aim was to find a simple guesthouse and give training and employment to ethnic minority women who otherwise had very limited job opportunities. To say I didn’t know what I was doing is an understatement.  My only hospitality experience was as a maid in a hotel when I was a teenager!

 Finding a guest house within budget meant that it would most likely have to be outside Chiang Mai – but eventually I came across a rundown resort with 7 wooden bungalows, located in the mountains about one hour drive outside the city. The Chai Lai Orchid was born – and the adventure began! For the first few years, I lived in a bamboo hut in the jungle, with no indoor plumbing or electricity but with the most amazing views! Mae Wang district is famous for elephant trekking camps, so my only neighbors were elephants and their mahouts (caretakers). From naïve beginnings to where we are today has been quite the journey!

 I met a mahout (elephant care taker) from Karen state, and we had a son. We became foster parents and adopted our first elephant! We worked for a couple years without any time off. I lost everything, closed and reopened the business three times, moved locations, and faced the challenges of being a foreigner running a business in Thailand! But the Chai Lai Orchid has weathered several storms. Over the years we have continued to grow and flourish beyond our hopes and dreams, enabling us to share profits from the social business with Daughters Rising, which in turn means more community projects and helping more people in need.  One of my proudest achievements is that we currently sponsor 40 girls to attend university and run a family-oriented dorm for girls 18 years and below, providing them with safety, mentorship and education.

I still miss NYC pizza, snow in winter and become paralyzed if I see a gigantic Thai spider. But all things considered, I’m so lucky to be here in this beautiful corner of the world surrounded by our Chai Lai Orchid family. And the added bonus…elephants of course!

Tiger, Elephant sanctuary Mahout

Chai Lai Elephant Sanctuary

The history of domesticated elephants in Thailand is a long and complex one. Not all good but not all bad! However, when I first came to Thailand, witnessing elephants in the trekking industry being abused and injured was difficult to endure. But just as hard, was seeing their mahouts work long hours under exploitative conditions. The last straw for me was witnessing a mahout get killed by his elephant, a large male, because the animal was stressed.  I decided that if we were going to work in the tourism industry, in a country famous for its beautiful majestic elephants, helping humans alone was not enough – we must also work to improve the lives of elephants, especially those we regularly interacted with.

 The idea behind the Chai Lai Elephant Sanctuary was two-fold: to effect change in the way that elephant camps operate, and to empower the indigenous Karen families who care for elephants. In [date], twins Tiger and Charlie, indigenous Karen brothers from the mountain village of Mae Sapok (Chai Lai Orchid’s location) became our partners.

 In the beginning, it was difficult to get people to trust us with their elephants. Despite the twins’ renown as mahouts (their family has cared for elephants for generations), how could we possibly overcome the commonly held belief that all elephants worked or performed tricks to earn money for unscrupulous businesses, or convince the local community that tourists really would pay money to watch them simply being elephants?  The answers are really quite straightforward: in a country where elephants and humans have existed side by side for thousands of years, adopt a pragmatic approach to ethical elephant husbandry; treat the elephants in your care with genuine love and respect; and pay mahouts a decent living wage. In Tiger and Charlie, we believe we have the best partners! 

 During Covid 19 Thailand closed its borders. There were no tourists. The hospitality, and related industries, were devastated. Elephants quickly became homeless and hungry as many elephant ‘sanctuaries’ prioritized profit over the well-being and safety of the animals. Charlie and Tiger did exactly the opposite! They took in abandoned elephants and cared for them like family. Even with no tourism to contribute to the extremely high costs of providing for the elephants, Charlie and Tiger worked tirelessly, ensuring the elephants were well fed and cared for. We all invested a great deal of time and energy to get people to trust us, and thankfully, it has paid off!  Tiger and Charlie work incredibly hard to provide the best lives for the elephants – they are happy and healthy – and at the same time, uplift their village.

 When we started our social business, the only opportunity for local people was subsistence farming. Today, in a village of two hundred and fifty inhabitants, half of the families derive an income through the Chai Lai Orchid.  Men from the village are employed as guides, drivers and farmers to grow food for the elephants; Karen women work in our hotel, and sell their beautiful, traditional handwoven textiles through our Rise Up shop.