By Tania Guidolin
My journey begins at the Chai Lai Orchid hotel, where I meet two Americans in the back of our vehicle, an open-top songtaew. They’re fresh from the airport where a Chai Lai driver has picked them up. Just days before the Thai New Year water festival, Songkran, the surrounds are already abuzz with music, partying and happy vibes.
A family from Australia hops into the truck. The girls, aged six and nine, are beaming with excitement about their grand adventure. Off we go – but before too long, the driver slows down for the local children on the side of the road so they can splash us – and so the Songkran festivities begin! In the tropical heat, it’s a welcome cool-down as we wind our way up the mountain. With the sounds of cicadas fading away, we lie back and enjoy the coolness of our damp clothes in the breeze and the sweet scent of jungle foliage.
The views are breathtaking. We’re surrounded by the mountains and the scent gets even sweeter as we pass flower farms and near our destination. Our trek begins here. We’re happy to hear our luggage won’t be trekking with us and will appear at our destination. For now, we have just the bare necessities – water and citronella spray.
Leafy Trails, Streams and a Picnic Beside a Waterfall
Before we know it, we’re under the shade of the jungle canopy, navigating fresh streams and leafy trails that lead us to our destination: a jungle picnic beside a waterfall.
It’s one of those experiences that makes you completely lose sense of time, because you’re so in the moment. Apparently, we had already walked for an hour before climbing into our waterfall-side nook for lunch. We’re handed neatly wrapped banana leaf parcels filled with tasty rice, and there’s an abundance of bananas that one of our guides collected from her parents’ farm on the way here. I stand in the waterfall pool to cool my feet and soak up the tranquil moment before moving on with the trek. We climb a little further up to witness the magnificent cascade, our little trekking companions filled with wonderment.
The remainder of the trek is easy and enjoyable, with hillside rice terrace views peering through the trees and the ease of heading downhill, knowing we’ve only just begun – there are far more adventures to be had.
Elephants in Paradise at the Chai Lai Sisters Homestay
A truck awaits at the end of the trail and we take in more breathtaking views on the way to our next destination. As we near Chai Lai Sisters, there are lush fields of produce and other signs of village life as we pass by Karen villages.
We arrive at Nukul’s homestay and are immediately greeted by villagers’ warm smiles, the sound of the waterfall and river flowing beside us. We meet each of four retired rescued elephants and hand-feed them watermelon. They gently grab each piece with their trunk, munch away and are ready for the next sweet treat.
Our next activity is swimming – extra rewarding after our hours-long jungle adventure. We all take turns standing under the falls, noting that it’s the first time any of us have stayed somewhere with a natural pool, let alone an incredible waterfall.
Hangin’ With Karen Hill Tribe Villagers
The village of Pong Noi is not far up the mountain, and we arrive refreshed from waterfall swims eager to experience the Karen village life. Our guide introduces us to her grandparents and other relatives – it’s such a welcoming and personal visit that we feel part of the family, too.
We visit a local store to gather some ingredients for the evening and promptly head back to the homestay before it gets too dark and tricky to prepare dinner. We offer to help cook and help prepare a little as our guides insist on doing the rest. After a beautiful orange and pink sunset, we’re surrounded by the natural night air, starry skies, wafts of campfire and delicious food aromas – every now and then, the elephants’ mahout spots where they are with his headlamp.
A massive banquet is served of local dishes: soup, fish, noodles, tea leaf salad, rice, vegetables, and meat dishes, all of which are simple and delicious. Our fire-cooked jungle dinner just adds to the already incredibly fun experience that just keeps getting better. Most satisfied, we say goodnight under the full moon and head to our riverside bamboo huts. The sound of the waterfall lulling me to sleep is an organic jungle lullaby I’ll always remember.
Reflecting With Gratitude on my Amazing Chai Lai Experience
The next morning, I wake up excited, that dreamy sound reminding me of where I am in the world. I wanted to get up a little earlier to sneak in a meditation session, but the waterfall, some deep breaths and moments of peace are more than enough to center me. After breakfast, we have some downtime to relax before snapping photos with the elephants and another refreshing swim. I reflect with gratitude on how amazing and fun this experience has been. It’s time to say goodbye to this lovely slice of paradise.
We take another scenic mountain drive to the bamboo rafting drop-in point, where I leave the travelers to enjoy the rest of their adventure: floating down the river and bathing a baby elephant at The Chai Lai Orchid. Upon seeing them next, everyone seems as if they’ve had the most unique and fun-filled adventure. I know I sure did, and I’ll undoubtedly be planning another outing to Chai Lai Sisters before I leave Thailand.
Thank you to everyone involved for creating such an amazing program for Karen women, their villages, the elephants and the lucky tourists who get to experience it all. It makes it all the more rewarding to know that we can contribute in this way. I’m honored to be a part of this; I’m so grateful to Chai Lai.
With authenticity and love, Tania