Empowering Women by Creating an Eco-Travel Resort

Have you ever met someone who simply amazes you? I mean amazes you in ways that words cannot express. It’s not the way they look or any particular skill they possess, but it’s more about the sheer size of their heart. Yeah… that kind of amazement. Webster’s defines awe as, “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” However, I find the true meaning of “awe” when this phenomenon happens — like a beautiful sunset, a baby’s first smile or the moment you know someone truly loves you. The type that simply fills you with warmth. The type that makes you wonder, “Did this just really happen?”

DongdeealexaThat awe happened to me in Thailand when I met Alexa Pham, the co-owner of the Chai Lai Orchid. Alexa gave up her comfy life in New York, packed up or sold everything and moved out to Chiang Mai, Thailand to help create a brand new life for those who need it most — women who are at risk of becoming part of the world’s deep underbelly of sex trafficking. For years, Alexa had been helping Daughters Rising, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping prevent sex trafficking by empowering at-risk girls through education, training programs and scholarships. However, Alexa knew that she could do more to help at-risk girls. And, boy did she ever…

This past March when a met Alexa, the Chai Lai Orchid had just had it’s one year anniversary in January. Even though the road to building this eco-travel hotel was paved with good intentions, it was a bumpy ride to start. Alexa first had to find a location. That, believe it or not was the easy part. Her partner found the location as an abandoned, what we could only guess, housing. But when Alexa found it, the location might of well been a garbage dump. It took 8 of them 6 solid weeks just to dig the original buildings out from all the piles of garbage. The current location is right next to the river and an elephant sanctuary, so being so close to the river, the locals used the location to party and left their rubbish behind. After the clean up, it took about 3 months of renovation work. Some of the local tribes’ men were employed to assist in the renovation work and remain working at the eco-resort today.

Next, Alexa set on her quest to find at-risk women in the local villages. In the hills of Mae Wang, where Chai Lai Orchid is located, there are a number of tribal villages; each with it’s own dialect and language. Communication had to be difficult for the red-headed New Yorker, Alexa. In order to find the girls who need help the most, Alexa first introduced herself to all the tribal leaders in the area. She became apart of each community. The amazing part of the tribes in the area is that even though they are spread out, either by language or geography, they are all one big “family”. If one family needs to build a new house, everyone is there to help. If another tribe needs to plow their fields, everyone is in turn there to help. So the fact that Alexa wanted to help was not only welcomed by all, but appreciated.

At the Chai Lai Orchid, the women learn many new skills to help them create a life for themselves. Many of the women help out on the hospitality side of the eco-resort, either by being a waitress at the restaurant, a front desk hostess, working with housekeeping, cooking or even learning how to be a massage therapist. Because of the popularity of the eco-resort, the staff gets to interact with people from many different backgrounds and nationalities. All of which helps them not only learn new skills, but learn new languages. The job training program at the eco-resort lasts around 6- 8 months. Then, Alexa helps the women find either more training or begin a new job.

I asked Alexa about a few of her recent success stories. She told me one transgender girl, who just left the Chai Lai Orchid, started her own laundry mat in Chiang Mai. Another young girl, who was married at 12 years old and has two small twin boys to care for, opened her own home stay in her village. Now, like many of the women who go through the program, she has become self sufficient by earning her own income. While I was visiting the Chai Lai Orchid, there were two young, determined girls helping out. One found Alexa via word-of-mouth. She had only been in Thailand for about two months, living on a refugee camp. She wants to be a teacher and someday head back to Burma to teach Karan, a native language of a few of the villages. The other girl helped with the gardening and the guests around the hotel. She was studying English and human rights. Her goal is to go back to Burma someday and help people know and fully understand their rights. Alexa was in the process of finding her a four year program for her to attend after Chai Lai.

Today, Alexa has a waiting list of at-risk women who want to come work for the Chai Lai. Unfortunately, she has to turn some women away — not only does Alexa only have a few training spots, but many of the villagers around Mae Wang are refugees, they don’t have papers, which makes it difficult for Alexa to hire them.

Even after only four days at the Chai Lai Orchid, the memories of each and every person I met there are forever etched into my heart. The women and what Alexa is helping them achieve is truly inspiring. If you have time, I highly recommend visiting the Chai Lai Orchid. And if you have more time, consider volunteering at the eco-resort. Personally, I don’t know a better way to take a vacation than helping others.

Thanks Alexa for all you do!

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Why Travel Changes Your Tune

Life’s steady drum beat, the underlying rhythm of your life with its isometric pace  — the formality of your work, the predictability of your friends, the steady stream of unconscious thoughts that hit you like waves breaking on the shore — well, frankly, they can be boring.  Don’t get me wrong; I like some predictability in my life — to know what’s expected. But where’s the excitement in that?

Changing the expected

I like to think of life like a great symphony. You could live your life as a Mozart operatic masterpiece, with each character always having their own melody, like the intro music baseball players have when they first come to bat, or you could choose to live your live like a Shostakovich symphony – one with happy, joyful moments, mixed in with melancholy melodies and then the occasional off -beat, out of tune note that surprises you so much you wonder if the musician hit the wrong key only to realize they didn’t – it’s intentional. My life seems to follow a Mozart opera with the occasional Shostakovich moments.  Honestly, I’m not sure which one I enjoy more. They each have their time and place. But life is full of musical moments; sometimes you just have to play to your own tune, improvise your next score.

Why travel changes your tune

There are some adventures in life that have the ability to fundamentally change who and what you are, both inside and out.  Your internal musical meter can go from 3/4s, like a Viennese Waltz, to one that’s more like a Fantasia, where you have no measures and only basic meter and note values are provided, leaving you free to compose as you see fit. Just like in music, planning a score or trip with limited guidelines can lead you to venture out of your comfort zone. These types of adventures are my favorites!

Discovering yourself

Last month, I ventured to Thailand for a little over two weeks, all by myself. Everyone asked me before, during and even after the trip if I was ok to travel by myself. To be honest, and please don’t tell my Mother this, I was a little bit afraid. My first stop was in Bangkok, a city larger than any other city I have been to before. In fact, it’s almost 600% larger than San Francisco, where I currently live, and 1760% larger than my hometown of Galveston, TX. Talk about big! The size really didn’t scare me, but the fact that I don’t speak Thai really scared me. What happened if I got lost and no one spoke English around me? Then, I said, “Oh well, here’s to an adventure. I’ll never know until I try.” And you know what, I actually enjoyed the fact that I had little understanding of what was being said around me. To put it into perspective, it’s like listening to new music with an instrument you have never heard before. Not knowing the how the notes are created or what each word means gave me the piece of mind to really soak in my surroundings, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Fighting your fears of the unknown

Besides being around an unfamiliar language, silly me, I decided to push into the unknown even further by signing up for an adventure tour. Since I came down with Fibromyalgia over 14 years ago, I haven’t been too adventuresome, physically speaking at least. But hey, life is short, so why not. On this tour, I signed up for mountain biking and kayaking, both of which I haven’t done since I was a teenager. On the way up the mountain, an hour ride outside of Chiang Mai, my internal thoughts sounded something in between The Little Engine that Could… I think I can, I think I can and Geddes, A Familiar Rain,  “……and not out of fear or loneliness, but only to find myself again… for we have come too far my Life, to turn back now…”


Creating a constant stat of change

After fighting my fears of the limits of my physical abilities, I was unstoppable. My symphony of my adventure kept a steady crescendo from one adventure to the next.

From eating new foods…


To playing with tigers


To learning about an ancient culture…

To riding elephants….


My tune has changed forever because of my travels. No longer will my life be that pop melody, with it’s expected intro, repeating lyrical verse and grand exit. I will be always creating and recreating the story of my life.

Now the only question is, “where will I find my next tune?”



Traveling Alone to Thailand

When I tell people that I am traveling alone on this trip to Thailand, they always look at me funny. Well, they look at me funny anyways. That being said, the thought of traveling to a foreign land, especially one where I don’t speak the language, baffles people. Either they can’t fathom traveling by themselves, or they wonder why I would. Is it safe? Will I get bored? Will no one else go with you? These are all questions I’m sure they are wondering, but never say so to me.

Today, I was walking around Wat Po and the thought struck me, “Why do I love to travel alone?” Even with all the tourists walking around aimlessly in the 90+ degree heat, there was a calmness to the place. (Or maybe, I just had heat stroke.) I walked amongst all the golden statues thinking about Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Seems fitting with my own journey – both of us traveled alone to find our inner peace. Traveling alone, I am able to be as active or inactive as I want to be while on vacation. Giving me the flexibly, time and space to really soak in the world around me while getting lost in my own thoughts; finding my own path to enlightenment.

I found this row of golden Buddhas and deities. On first glance, they all looked the same, except for maybe the position of their arms. However, once I looked closer, I could really see the slightest details in their figures, robes and even facial expressions. There was a subtle beauty to each and every one of them. And unlike most Catholic sculptures that I have seen where they depict a story, these golden Buddhas seemed to evoke a different emotion in me. Each one setting off a different brain wave from my conscious mind to may unconscious way of being. After a while of walking around the temples and golden Buddhas, my mind went blank – a peaceful rest (either that or I was hungry and jet lag set in). No but seriously, this blank state of rest is rare in today’s society. We are always thinking what to do next, what work do I need to do, who do I need to see, did I pay that bill? And today, my mind is at peace – a blissful empty peace. Can’t wait until tomorrow!

Strong Case of Wanderlust Through Music

People always talk about dreaming the impossible dream. And yet, how many of us continue to dream instead of just do? Count me as the former – until now. This past year, I’ve decided to get off my butt, drop the excuses and to quote Nike, “Just Do It.”

My grandmother always told me that if I was going to dream, dream big. Reach for the stars.

So my wanderlust is growing and it’s too big to contain. I want to go..

And honestly, for the past few years, I’ve really wondered…

Screw that wondering if I should stay or go. I’m going on…

And looking forward to my…

When I return, I’ll let you know how I’ve …

Where will your wanderlust take you?