June 13, 2016 03:46 PM

Valorie Darling Photography

It’s not every day that your job brings you face to face with an elephant, but for Lauren Conrad, encountering the friendly giants on her recent trip to Thailand was a definite perk.

“It was so surreal to be right up close to all these rescued elephants,” Conrad, 30, tells PEOPLE exclusively of her visit to the Elephant Nature Park. “And everybody we met in Thailand was so friendly and kind. It’s really a very happy place to be.”

RELATED: Exclusive: Look Inside Lauren Conrad’s Stunning All-White Kitchen

The lifestyle maven traveled to Koh Samui, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand to source local goods produced by talented female artisans to feature on her fair-trade online marketplace, The Little Market.

Valorie Darling Photography

Valorie Darling Photography

Valorie Darling Photography

Conrad was joined by Little Market’s co-founder Hannah Skvarla, and the pair spent days meeting artists and even trying their own hand at the skills of the trade. “One group dyes [products] with indigo and it’s all natural,” she says. “We got a little class to see how it was done. We learned different techniques to dye. It was so cool!”

RELATED: Make the Apple Pie Lauren Conrad Served at Her Wedding!

And the Celebrate author had plenty tastes of the local culture, as well, snacking on traditional delicacies like veggie Pad Thai and Pad Siu. Plus, “I drank and ate a lot of coconuts!”

Valorie Darling Photography

Valorie Darling Photography

Valorie Darling Photography

And for Conrad, whose marketplace has helped the lives of countless local artists, some of whom wouldn’t have any way to access the internet without Little Market, there isn’t a price to put on her own experiences.

‘The more time you spend experiencing other cultures and the way people live, it makes you more open-minded,” says Conrad. “Traveling opens me up to trying new things. It’s inspiring.”

—Aili Nahas

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