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?”
That 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!