It starts as a drizzle after dinner … a soft pitter patter on the roof of the main area at the Park. It’s dark, so we can’t really see the full effect. But, we can hear it.
Within minutes, that light little drizzle gives way to sheets of rain, dumping from the sky. As we make our way up to a deck on the compound, the rain pounds the roof, dripping in from the open sides of the room and onto us.
This is Thailand’s rainy season, and it is pelting us with all it’s got on our first night at the Elephant Nature Park.
We enter the room to young adults from the nearby village playing traditional Thai music, and a few elders, sitting cross-legged. We leave our shoes at the door and walk across the floor to take a mat and be a part of the Baci welcome ceremony.
“We need a few volunteers,” Jack announces.
My hand shoots up, along with three other girls — Marie and Adele (sisters who are in their second week at the park), and Jasmin.
Marie and Adele give me a quick rundown since they did the ceremony the week before.
“Don’t point your feet at anyone,” says Adele. “You have to sit mermaid style. And, be sure to clasp your hands and bow when appropriate.”
I tuck my legs to the side, away from the elders, and, following everyone else’s cues, put my hands together (called “wai”) in front of my face.
Then, the ceremony starts.
My eyes grow wide as the shaman begins to chant.
I have no idea what he is saying, but I know this: we are being blessed.
The ritural celebrates important events and occasions, such as a welcoming of volunteers. We begin with the shaman evoking the kwan, which watches over our 32 organs. According to ancient beliefs, it is important to have as many kwan as possible together in the body. The ceremony calls the kwans from wherever they are to return to our bodies.
To enable this, the paw kwan is prepared. Placed on a silver tray, the cone is made of banana leaves and, at the center, are a bundle of flowers to symbolize love, longevity and more.
It is intricate. It is beautiful. I immediately begin to feel ridiculously blessed, not just because of the ceremony, but because it hits me just how fortunate I am to be sitting here.
We sit for a long time, as the shaman has us place our hands on the paw kwan and douses us with water. He takes a bundle of string and loops it around each of our hands, ending with Adele, across from me.
Then it hits me. My legs are in such pain. After having them tucked to the side and our hands in prayer, it is really hard to sit up straight. And to be comfortable. I try to adjust, but can’t kick my feet around.
Hang in there, D. Keep it together.
I look to the other girls. How are they doing it? Aren’t they in pain? If they are, their faces give nothing away.
Then, it’s time for the white cotton string to be tied around our wrists for good luck. First, he snips the string at my wrist, then wraps it around, tying it in a knot. He proceeds to each girl, snipping and tying, until we all have these blessings on our bodies.
While he ties them around our wrists, the women step out into the crowd and tie it around the wrists of the rest of the volunteers who wish to be blessed.
When it is over, I stretch my legs out. Ahhh.
The rain is still beating on the roof, but I’ve been so entranced by the ceremony, I haven’t noticed.
I retreat to my room, using a torch to guide my way, before 8:30 p.m. I fall asleep to the chirping of crickets, cicadas and occasional elephant conversation.
It’s the most peaceful sleep I’ve had in a long time.