The Traveling Hacker


Chronicles of an international programmer

You can use your IT skills to change the world

Saving elephants and stopping sex trafficking in Thailand

There are hundreds of humanitarian projects around the world where you can use your IT skills to help. And even without any IT skills, you can still help by volunteering or donating money. I decided to write this article about these two particular projects because I met their founder last month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. What I lived there exceeded my expectations.

I am currently working in Bangkok, and went to Chiang Mai last November, for the Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festivals, inspired by pictures like this one:

As usual, I planned everything at the last moment. After booking my bus tickets for a couple of hours later, I started sending emails to all the Elephant Camps where I could ride an elephant. So, I learnt that there are three kinds of camps:

  • The tourist trap, where they put chairs on the elephant's back and they treat them as tools for making money. They even force very old and sick elephants to do it:

  • The "I still wanna ride an elephant, because #YOLO, but I do not want to hurt him" kind of camp, where your bare-back ride the animal:

  • The spa for elephants, where you basically pay to take care of the elephants, but you do not ride them:

I was, as usual, very lucky, because during the Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festivals, Chiang Mai is infested with tourists and all the Elephant Camps are usually fully booked. The only camp who had a free spot for me was the Chai Laid Orchid, and it was perfect, because it was a mix between the bare-back-riding and the spa camps.

I spent the night in the bus and arrived to Chiang Mai early in the morning. The Chai Lai Orchid's driver was waiting for me at the bus station. We were a group of three: an american couple and me. When we arrived to the camp, I saw a couple of elephants with chairs on their backs, and I was thinking "Hey, they lied to me!". But then I met Alexa Pham, Founder of Chai Lai Orchid and Daughters Rising, who explained to me what was going on. The Chai Lai Orchid is a nature retreat nestled in the mountains in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are a social business that works to promote sustainable tourism, kindness to elephants and helping at-risk women take the first step to get out of poverty and see a future of hope. Actually, they do not own the elephants yet, they are renting them in order to save money to buy them and be able to take care of them. That is why you can still see some of the elephants with chairs on their backs.

We started with a 2-hour trek up in the mountains, which was very nice:

When we came back, we went feeding bananas to the elephants. I was so scared, these beasts can easily kill you with their trunks. One of the young ones got mad at me because I did not have any more bananas and he hit me with his trunk. I did not hurt, but it would have been much less funny if it would have been one of the adults.

Then the Mahouts, who are people who are assigned an elephant early in their lives and they remain bonded to each other throughout their lives, taught us the basics of how to bare-back ride an elephant. The result was this:

Was it fun? Hell yeah! Would I do it again? Probably not. I still had the feeling that the elephants did not like it. But at the same time, I saw how much they enjoyed playing with their Mahouts, they were like brothers, and they seemed happy when the Mahouts were riding them. Anyway, I am not 100% sure on this, but I would probably not do it again.

When we finished the ride, it was time to care of one of the young elephants, and I can say that this was one of the most beautiful experiences I had in my life. The elephant was so happy that we were taking care of him, you could almost see him smiling! We washed him and brushed him, while his Mahout was feeding him and making him do tricks for us. He was playing with us and even trolling us, using his trunk as a hose to spray water all over us. The most touching part was when he kissed us with his trunk on the cheek to thank us.

Now, a lot of people say that riding elephants, bare-back or not, is bad, and they are right, elephants should not be domesticated in the first place. The problem is that these ones have already been domesticated, you cannot just throw them back into the nature, they would die. Therefore, the "less bad" solution is giving them a peaceful life, without any kind of rides or mistreatment, but taking care of them at the same time. The Chai Lai Orchid aims to do that, but it will take time and money.

We also had some time to talk to Alexa about her projects. I think these videos describe perfectly what she told us:

For more information about the "Chai Lai Orchid" project, please go to: http://chailaiorchid.com/dollars-for-deedee-and-friends

Many of the women who work at The Chai Lai Orchid are women who have been saved from sex trafficking in Myanmar. Alexa started the "Daughters Rising" project when she saw a 12-year-old girl being sold to a man from Europe. She prevented that horrible transaction and has been helping at-risk women since then.

For more information about the "Daughters Rising" project, please go to: http://chailaiorchid.com/marie-claire-interviews-chai-lai-orchid-founder-alexa

Before leaving the Chai Lai Orchid, we played with a baby elephant and experienced some cuteness overload:

This is the baby elephant who became famous online:

OMG OMG OMG!

But when I asked "And where is the girl on the video?", they answered "She is at the hospital with dengue, and tomorrow is her birthday...". Next time I will keep my mouth shut...

Oh, and the Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festivals were very nice:

Both festivals were beautiful, yes, but what about the environment? Those baskets and lanterns are polluting rivers and skies across Thailand every year. There must be a way to find a balance between traditions and environment protection, maybe biodegradable baskets and lanterns?

Chiang Mai itself was very beautiful as well:

Another issue here. When I was searching information about the tigers, I found this place called "Tiger Kingdom" where they say they do not drug the tigers like in other places. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Indeed, the tigers were playing when I arrived there, and they looked normal, but they were very sleepy when I entered the cage to see them. They were drugged for sure, there is no way a tiger can be that calm.

I am probably not the best example, but I want my own experiences to be helpful for others. Please do not ride elephants, and if you do, go to a place like The Chai Lai Orchid, where they want to improve these animals' lives. Do not throw baskets into the river or lanterns to the sky during Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festivals, and please do not support those "Tiger Kingdoms", those tigers should not be domesticated in the first place.

The "Chai Lai Orchid" and the "Daughters Rising" projects are currently looking for IT volunteers who could help them with their websites and servers. If you are interested in being part of these awesome projects, do contact them at explore@chailaiorchid.com. And if you do not have any IT skills, you can volunteer or donate money, just send them an email!

2016 is around the corner. Is "changing the world" on your New Year's resolutions? Because it should be!

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