Susan the pink water buffalo greeted us by promptly defecating, and the knee high mud we were in suddenly seemed more suspect. The large swell of her stomach announced her pregnancy, but with six months remaining she was destined to balloon much further. We were at the Living Land farm, where local farmers demonstrate how to harvest rice to educate tourists, and in turn support the local farming families with their schooling and medical needs.
Each of us were issued with a woven bamboo conical hat and set to work in the waterlogged green fields. Our guide, Laut Lee, showed us the various stages of rice production and introduced us to the art of being a rice conoisseur. We first ploughed a mud pit with Susan strapped to a traditional rotating metal contraption to upheave the soil and expose the natural compost. She slowly circled to four commands, and was apparently anti-hipster as she stopped walking at the sound of ‘Yo’.
Everything is organic on the farm, and no pesticides are used to control the insects and birds that want to feast on the crops. Instead, bamboo models of hawks are used to scare away russet sparrows, citronella plants repel insects and marigolds distract other pesky animals (and the flowers are later donated to Buddhist shrines). A compost heap kept the snails happy, a special log hive is cultivated for bees, and sacrificial plots are used to save the more important crops. Traps are used on the paddy fields to catch tasty birds, crabs, snails and eels that create a hearty lunch for the farmer.
‘In Laos, the question is what don’t we eat?’
We planted some seedlings in what was almost a pond, and the excess water would be drained away a few weeks later to encourage roots to grow. Despite the monsoon rainfall, the little seedlings hold fast and do not wash away. A woven spirit sign guards the field, and the farmers sacrifice a chicken or duck if they receive two good harvests of rice a year. The rice cycle of the four sticky rice types farmed here had a production cycle of 3 months. The average Laos adult consumes 20kg of sticky rice a month, so it really is their staple food. Seven families in total worked and depended on this farm, with four (soon to be five) water buffalo, and one motorised plough for emergency harvesting. Many young students visited the farm at weekends to practice their skills in craftsmanship and improve their English with the flux of tourists that the farm initiative attracted.
Once the leaves begin to turn golden, the rice is ready to be cut. Using a rebar steel sickle forged by the flames inside his house, he expertly trimmed the stalks and bunched them together until he had a large leafy bouquet. The rice was still locked inside, so we had to extract the grains by beating the bundles downwards and splitting the cocoons. Once the grains were released, they were smashed with a giant pestle and mortar for almost an hour. The husks and grains were all mixed, so a process of sifting them in a pan was used to separate off the husks in dusty clouds, leaving unsplit grains and creamy rice. The quality of rice was tested by sinking the good stuff in saltwater, and the floating grains were rinsed with fresh water and fed to the chickens to reduce waste. The washed sticky rice grains could then be used as they are, or ground using giant turning stones into flour for cooking.
We crushed our own delicious sugar cane juice using a giant hard wood wheel system that was over a century old, before sitting down to enjoy a dinner of salted rice cakes, sweet rice crispy waffles, fresh sticky rice, crispy rice coated in caramelised molasses and light sugar rice cones, served with the obligatory red chilli paste. It will be difficult to leave Laos, but we will return to find out whether Laut Lee named the new calf Tom or Daisy based on our suggestions!
The Living Land experience, Phong Van village near Luang Prabang. We paid 344,000 Kip ($45) each for 4 hour morning. Visitors are treated to a hands-on, fun and informative tour, which educates tourists whilst supporting the local community.