Back in May, I had the opportunity to visit Chai Lai Orchid, a small resort in Mae Wang, in the mountains outside Chiang Mai.
I had heard interesting things about the resort, which is run by an American woman and employs at-risk members of local hill tribe communities. Many of these employees are women who, due to economic circumstances, were at high risk for being trafficked.
The people of the ethnic minority groups that make up northern Thailand's hill tribes face a precarious situation in this country. Even if they are born in Thailand, they are not considered Thai citizens and therefore are not entitled to the same rights, protections and opportunities afforded ethnic and natural-born Thais. In many cases, this leaves them ripe for exploitation, an all-too-common situation for disenfranchised groups in this part of the world.
These ethnic minorities have rich and in many ways self-sustaining cultures and environments, and I have had the privilege of getting to visit a few. My experiences have been but a glimpse of what the villagers’ lives are like, but they've moved me all the same.
Last fall, I spent a short amount of time in a Lahu village, where I was struck by the beauty and generosity of the children living there but also by the abject poverty in which many of them live. I later visited a Karen village and had a chance to observe stunning women wearing traditional Karen clothing, men weaving bamboo baskets and preparing freshly harvested coffee beans, and get some sense of life in the village.
I am eager to learn much more about the political and cultural background of these tribes, and so was intrigued when I learned about Chai Lai Orchid’s mission.
I spent only one night and two days there, but the experience was both uplifting and jarring. The resort itself consists of several cozy and elegant bungalows built in a clearing on a mountain. These overlook the Mae Wang River, and the resort sits directly across from an elephant camp, which means that you can enjoy your morning tea while gazing at elephants or listening to the river run by.
The staff are friendly and attentive, and it's just overall the kind of place you want to escape to for awhile. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was offered free accommodation for a night at one of CLO’s bungalows, and wrote about the resort for Travel Wire Asia. The positive review was not a condition of the free accommodations; my opinion of this place is genuine.)
While I enjoyed all of this, I wasn't at Chai Lai Orchid to enjoy the view. I was there to interview Alex Pham, the resort’s founder.
Pham is from the United States but relocated to Thailand to commit herself to combating human trafficking and helping women here. She has long been involved in anti-trafficking work, but wanted to be involved at the ground level and decided to open a resort where she could help women develop job skills that might keep them off the streets or being exploited.
“It's great to be here and see the girls and guys here getting stronger and to be able to do more preventative work,” Pham says.
The women who work at Chai Lai Orchid go through a training program, spending about three months a piece in different departments, such as cooking, accounting, housekeeping, and working in the resort cafe. Pham also teaches English classes, in the hope they will develop a skill set that qualifies them for a range of jobs if they decide they want to move out of the villages.
None of the current employees are victims of trafficking, but live in communities where there is a risk for that. Pham said she hopes to eventually be able to employ women who want to leave the sex trade but said she does not yet have sufficient resources to make that a viable option for them (such as offering counseling treatment).
Pham recently hired a mahout, or elephant trainer, from the nearby camp. She invited him over to join us while we talked, and Ning, her Thai business partner, translated for me.
We sat and drank a couple of beers and I learned that this man, whose back is covered in traditional Shan tattoos, is originally from Shan State in Burma and was once a child soldier in the Shan army. Like other ethnic minorities in Burma, the Shan have long faced violence and aggression from the government.
As has increasingly become the case since I started traveling in Southeast Asia, I found the contradictions in this part of the world staggering. Here I was enjoying a couple of cold Changs in a beautiful mountain resort while talking with someone who has faced challenges in his life that I can never fully understand. The women surrounding me grew up in a community that gave them no incentive to pursue an education or life outside the village, and have essentially become trailblazers for their villages. And here was Alexa, who has centered her life around the work she does at Chai Lai Orchid and in the surrounding areas.
Pham also does sexual education outreach in the villages, teaching people to use condoms and offering free and discreet HIV tests to anyone who requests one. She has a strict policy that any employee who gossips about someone who takes the test will be fired. Not only would it be invasive and insensitive, but the stigma could ruin someone’s life whether they were HIV positive or not.
Pham is only a couple of years older than I am, and I was humbled to hear how much she has been able to do for these women and how much she has overcome to make Chai Lai Orchid a success. The resort has not yet been open a year, yet she has had to grapple with a former business partner who ripped her off badly (and never disclosed to her that he once facilitated the trafficking of women), cultural politics, and corrupt police.
But she has also clearly developed a strong bond with the women and men she works with, and her passion for her work is clear.
Chai Lai Orchid isn't the biggest or most elaborate resort you will find in this country, by a long shot. But the people who work here and the mission behind it (not to mention the quality service and gorgeous surroundings) make it so worth visiting. Everyone there left a lasting impression on me and made me aware of how many people in this country, and this region, fall through the cracks of society and are at risk for being exploited and abused in horrifying ways. My visit there reminded me of this darker side of Thailand, while also reminding me of the astounding beauty, warmth and generosity of the people who live here.
Pham invites volunteers who want to teach English or work with the local community to get in touch with her. If anyone in the States wants to donate or help Alexa’s cause, she welcomes donations of Oraquick tests, over-the-counter home-use oral HIV tests that are available in the United States.