MAE WANG, Thailand — As we sat together on a long, narrow raft of bamboo, Alexa Pham dipped her hand into the quickly moving river. "It's the really simple things," she said with a long breath, "that make it beautiful here in Mae Wang."
Two wiry boatmen, steering with long poles, navigated the raft beneath the branches of overhanging trees, around boulders and through bars of late-afternoon sunlight. The men are part of Pham's staff, hired from the hill tribes and Burmese refugee communities of northern Thailand. Though they knew the river, they greeted every bend and rapid with shouts of glee and panic.
Despite their soundtrack, it was a blissful moment. I didn't want it to end, even though the 40-minute ride soon took us back to the riverbank in front of the Chai Lai Orchid, Pham's newly opened resort.
As idyllic as the scene appeared, Pham's work in this hilly, wooded area (an hour's taxi drive south and west of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-largest city) is anything but simple. Pham, a professional photographer, opened the Chai Lai Orchid in December to help address one of the region's crises: the trafficking of girls and young mothers into Thailand's sex industry.
Pham, 30, divides her time between Asia and Manhattan, where she lives with her husband. She was born in upstate New York and, at 16, ran away from home, crossed the Atlantic and worked, undocumented, in Germany. She earned enough money to return to the U.S. and attend film school in Florida. That career path didn't take.
"I found my passion is more in doing work than documenting it," she said with a shrug.
In 2006, what was meant to be a brief vacation in the hills of Chiang Mai changed her life.
"I came here during the rainy season and saw the way the mist looked on the mountains," she said. "I fell in love with it." Pham already had experience working with at-risk girls in Nepal through the nonprofit Daughters Rising (www.daughtersrising.org). Bringing her values to Thailand seemed an imperative next step.
The Chai Lai Orchid is one of the more unusual resorts in this overgrown part of northern Thailand. Pham and her high-spirited local partner, Puang (foreigners can't own land or businesses alone), have created a small but welcoming retreat that feels more like a home stay than a hotel.
Though it lacks the polish of a high-end resort, its rooms (and traditional thatch-roof "eco-huts") are clean and cozy, with fans, mini-refrigerators and mosquito nets. The Chai Lai features all the signature activities of this popular area: rafting, hiking to hill tribe villages, raft rides and bareback elephant trekking (a full-body tactile experience not to be missed). For about $100, visitors can adopt an elephant and its mahout, or tender, for a full day — learning how to feed, steer and bathe their beast.
But the Chai Lai is a resort with a purpose. It was created to offer hospitality training to local girls, drawn mainly from the refugee communities along this part of the Thailand-Myanmar border, who are at risk of being sold or traded into sex slavery.
Even basic skills such as cooking, waitressing or housekeeping, Pham has seen, can be the difference between work in a legitimate tourist hotel or a brothel.
"Sex trafficking is a huge problem in Thailand, a problem that a lot of Western visitors contribute to," she said. "Many girls who cross the border from Burma [Myanmar] dream of getting jobs in hotels and end up being tricked and trafficked instead. Here at the Chai Lai Orchid, we're giving some of those girls that dream for real."
One highlight of my stay was participating in the evening English classes, which Pham offers at no cost to children from nearby villages. They arrived in their best clothes, on foot or by local transport, and filled the tables at the resort's terrace cafe. Pham (and other recruits, myself included) helped the arrivals with workbook drills and engaged them in basic conversation.
After one class, the mother of a bright young student presented Pham with bananas from her garden. "People give what they can, when they can," she said, as delighted as if she'd been given a case of fine wine.
When I visited, three at-risk women were training at the Chai Lai. Pham's goal is to hire 14. Before one class, I met two of them. Each shared a similar story.
Ann, 23, has a serene, almost Buddha-like nature. Her mother smuggled her from Myanmar into a Thai refugee camp at 6 months old; she now has three children of her own. Lin, 15, is being trained as a cook. Though she looks like a typical teenage girl — with braces that display a tiny pink heart over each tooth — she had a baby recently and barely survived the ordeal.
"Ann and Lin are especially vulnerable because, if they're in a brothel, the owners can threaten to harm their children if they try to leave," Pham said. "So being a young mother is one criteria for accepting girls into our programs." Others include not having access to education, or being an ethnic minority or a refugee without documents.
"I'm not from Burma," Pham continued. "But at 16 I worked as a maid, in a foreign country, without papers. So I can talk with these women even though there's a language barrier. I can understand their struggle with learning a new language, in a new culture, and feeling alone."
As devoted as Pham is to her work, she never brings you down. Her delight with the area is contagious, and staying at the Chai Lai is an uncomplicated pleasure. Visitors are welcome to engage with her work or enjoy the hills, river and jungle on their own terms.
And there's a great deal to enjoy. The morning trumpeting of elephants punctuated the rush of the Mae Wang River, and evening brought the cries of exotic birds and the croaking of river frogs. In between, water-loving guests can join Pham and the mahouts for the afternoon elephant bath — a ritual that inevitably devolves into a gleeful, shrieking splash fight staged on the slippery backs of the well-loved beasts.
Despite the hardships that motivated its creation — or more likely because of them — the Chai Lai is an uplifting destination. Here, the simple things are beautiful — and the complexities lead to rewards of their own.