On Thanksgiving Day 2011, Alexa Pham was on her annual fall trip to Chiang Mai, checking in on her non-profit, Daughters Rising, when her Thai translator was called in by a farang in need of assistance. Alexa went with him, and walked right into a scene that would change her life. A 60-something European man was seated on a picnic table in front of a hotel in downtown Chiang Mai. Next to him sat Naing, a beautiful teenage Burmese girl on the verge of tears. What the man needed translated was a contract that would finalise the lifelong sale of this girl to him for the price of 2,000 USD, a motorbike, and a gold necklace. The seller was the girl's own mother.
While Alexa and her colleagues were eventually able to stop this particular deal from going down, the most painful part of the whole situation was the realisation that despite her deep knowledge of sex trafficking and familiarity with the NGOs that help victims throughout Chiang Mai, Alexa was able to do nothing for this girl beyond stopping the immediate sale.
"I called every NGO I knew in the area, but no one would take her. She wasn't yet an official 'victim' so she didn't qualify for a 'rescue'. And at age 16 or 17, she had already been out of school for so long that she couldn't go back. It was heartbreaking," Alexa recalled. "To this day, I do not know what happened to her."
If you're living in Southeast Asia and paying attention, you're probably at least vaguely aware of the fact that scenes like this are all too common. For Alexa, already the founder of a non-profit dedicated to the prevention of sex trafficking, seeing such a familiar story unfold right before her eyes was a call to further action.
"We started formulating a plan right then and there," she said. "We needed to create a place where we could provide a safe shelter for girls caught in situations like Naing's - girls who had not yet been trafficked, but were at risk of being so."
One year later, Chai Lai Orchid opened for business.
A New Kind of Tourism
'Chai lai' means beautiful in Thai, and it's a fitting name for this hidden eco-resort tucked away in the mountains of Mae Wang, about an hour south of Chiang Mai. It's not a resort in the fancy, hoity-toity, pristinely manicured sense of the word, but rather a little slice of natural paradise alongside the beautiful Mae Wang River, dotted with hammocks, bungalows and a spring-fed swimming pool surrounded by mountainous jungles.
Sharing property with the Phutawan Elephant Camp next door, Chai Lai allows visitors to rent out elephants by the day, where they can ride them bareback, bathe them in the river, or just hang out. The resort also arranges bamboo river rafting, customisable trekking trips to nearby hill tribe villages, and excellent Thai food. It's pretty much everything you could want to do in Northern Thailand, all tied together in one charming package that you can feel good about buying.
"Your dollar has power," Alexa pointed out. "Why not leave places a little better than they were when you got there?"
Indeed, Chai Lai Orchid is more than just a lovely place to spend a weekend. It's also part and parcel of Alexa's innovative new brand of social tourism, a self-sustaining business staffed by paid apprentices, where at-risk women can receive the necessary training and experience for a profitable career in Thailand's rapidly growing hospitality sector. In addition, Alexa provides free daily English classes onsite for local kids as well as sex ed, life skills and empowerment workshops for adolescent girls from the surrounding villages.
"Dollar for dollar, it's cheaper to prevent sex trafficking than to stage a rescue," Alexa pointed out. "You can never restore someone's innocence, but by empowering at-risk girls, you can try to prevent it from being lost in the first place."
According to Alexa, pretty much all undocumented girls living in impoverished villages are at risk for trafficking. With Chai Lai Orchid, she has created a safe place for the girls to come together and create their own network, developing a powerful sense of sisterhood she hopes will help them throughout their lives. She is also able to develop strong bonds with the villagers, who help her identify women and girls who are most in need to fill apprenticeship positions.
Daughters in Need
"Before starting Daughters Rising, I spent a lot of time in the brothels in Chiang Mai, just talking to the girls. They were overwhelmingly not Thai," she said, touching on a statistic that has been scrupulously confirmed by official reports from TRAFCORD, the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit of Northern Thailand. "They were almost all undocumented hill tribe people lacking the basic human rights that Thai citizens have. And most of them were single mothers working to support their children."
In the villages, teen pregnancy is widespread but also looked down upon. Several of the apprentices at the resort are also single mothers, forced by their parents to earn money or get out of the house. In addition to the sex ed classes, Alexa passes out free condoms and homemade educational books printed in all the local languages.
"Some of these girls didn't even know they have ovaries," Alexa said. "They don't know how their bodies work because nobody in the village talks about it. So then there is also no birth control or STD/HIV protection. Ironically, most of the world's condoms are made in Thailand," she added.
At Chai Lai Orchid, the girls receive paid training in the five major departments of hospitality that keep the resort running: cooking, housekeeping, reception, gardening and guest relations. They finish their 15-month apprenticeship with letters of recommendation and valuable experience in one of Thailand's most rapidly growing industries.
"Lots of nonprofits are based off artisan work, training local women to create baskets or jewellery and selling them in their online stores to generate fair wages," Alexa noted. "This is great, but it's creating an artificial need. What we needed was to find a market that was already thriving and insert ourselves into it. In Thailand, that market is hospitality."
Brothels Without Borders
Hospitality is a sector that Alexa knows well, but getting there was not an easy road. After running away from America to Germany at age 16, where she worked long hours as a maid in a hotel, and developed close relationships with fellow teens who had fallen victim to the booming sex trafficking industry that haunts the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. These girls were often kidnapped and sold into brothels where they were brutally raped up to 20 times per night. Some escaped or were rescued, others didn't. Sadly, sex trafficking is unique in that unlike the black market sale of weapons or drugs, traffickers can sell the same girls hundreds of times over.
After witnessing their plight firsthand, Alexa realised she'd found her calling. She spent the next decade working with NGOs all over the world, from Germany to Nepal to Cambodia, where she worked with sexual slavery survivor and activist Somaly Mam at her foundation. Her experiences led her to start her own Chiang Mai-based NGO, Daughters Rising, which strives to prevent sex trafficking on an individual basis by empowering girls through education, training programmes and scholarships. She did most of the back-end work from her home in New York City, while her business partner Laksanara Kaewduang led workshops in Chiang Mai. It wasn't until Alexa started Chai Lai Orchid that she relocated long-term to Northern Thailand, maybe for good.
Terror by Numbers
At the height of the transatlantic slave trade in 1809, if you adjust for inflation, the average price of a human slave was $40,000. Today, it's $90. Sex trafficking is the fastest growing industry in the world. A human is trafficked every 30 seconds, and an estimated 50% of the victims are children. In Thailand, the government has become notorious for tolerating the country's billion dollar sex industry and has spent three consecutive years on Tier 2 of the U.S. State Department's Watch List in their Trafficking in Persons Report for "not fully comply[ing] with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." In other words, Thailand's sex trade remains rampant and the number of convictions for perpetrators is embarrassingly low.
It's a massive, worldwide problem with no easy solutions in sight, but that doesn't mean that it's time to throw up our hands. And Alexa herself, with her infectious smile and soft-spoken voice, working 14+ hour days to connect all the moving parts she has set into action - teaching daily classes, keeping resort guests happy, maintaining connections with local villages, managing her staff, networking with potential future employers for her apprentices, writing workshops and lesson plans, dealing with the red tape of running a new business in a foreign country, trying to learn Thai from her Burmese students, and constantly troubleshooting - presents a relatable and deeply inspiring example of this.
Currently, in order to maintain financial sustainability, the resort only has the capacity to train eight apprentices at a time, and going through the necessary processes to fill each slot is difficult and time-consuming. But Alexa is determined to work out the kinks. Her ultimate dream is to create and refine a working business model for responsible social tourism that others can use.
"Once you know about things like this, you can't un-know them," Alexa said. "They leave a mark. Then all you can do is whatever you can to try to make things a little bit better."