Being a Rice Farmer in Bali
In a rice paddy in Bali’s central highlands, a traveller connects with the island’s gentle pace and generous spirit.
Water-filled terraces, lush with rice grass, fringed by jungle with bowing palms and banana trees—making my way up country to Ubud in Bali’s central highlands, I’m struck by how many times I come upon this iconic view. Rice farming is perhaps the single most important productive and cultural element on the island. And not 24 hours after I arrive, I find myself knee-deep in a paddy, a woven wicker hat shielding my head from the morning sun, raking mud through water. All this, would you believe, courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan.
Don’t be alarmed: I’m not doing the Balinese equivalent of washing the dishes for an unpaid restaurant cheque. No, this is purely by choice. An Extraordinary Experience available exclusively through the Resort, A Day in the Life of a Balinese Farmer offers guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in the unique culture of this island paradise. And extraordinary it certainly is.
We start at the corner of the Resort, which is nestled into the jungle that covers the side of a river gorge—the place is truly spectacular. It is in these idyllic surroundings that Poonama, our guide, offers a brief introduction to Balinese philosophy: a love of life and nature, harmonious coexistence. And, perhaps most important, a love of laughter.
Poonama is a model of the Balinese disposition, a cheery soul with an infectious sense of humour. Our day begins with a trek, and he takes us to the riverbank, the waters whipping along at a rate of knots. “Now we cross,” he says, adding, “Don’t worry, we only go waist-deep.” He gives us a moment as we look quizzically, almost imploringly, at each other before he bursts into a belly laugh and assures us he’s joking. This breaks the ice, and he proceeds to tell us of the Balinese penchant for humour—and how good it is for the soul.
We continue up into the forest on the outskirts of the Resort and are soon in a village, moss and vines covering the surrounding walls. Poonama leads us past stone ape effigies, their hands formed in a sign of welcome, and into a compound surrounded by shrines. A woman is silently making offerings to each in turn, and we learn about the spirituality of this culture. In Bali every house, every building, has a temple or shrine that receives daily blessings. Small banana-leaf baskets with incense sticks and offerings are a common sight all over the island.
As we tour the village, Poonama gives us an overview of the farmer’s way of life. With the heady complications of Western urban routines receding, I can’t help thinking there’s a wonderful simplicity to this rural idyll. The personal touches Poonama gives—showing us childhood games he used to play in the forest and telling anecdotes as we walk among the houses—add to the warmth of the experience. Far from feeling as though I’m viewing the culture from inside a fishbowl, I have a sense of participation and understanding, and this feeling intensifies as our walk concludes and we sit down to breakfast.
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Having worked up an appetite during our stroll, we sit in a traditional bale (a sort of raffia gazebo) and enjoy a farmer’s breakfast: rice porridge; a range of fruits that includes the enigmatic and oddly sweet-sour-dry “snake fruit,” so named for its scaly skin; and Balinese coffee, a curious silt-like brew. The meal helps enhance the experience, certainly, although one suspects it’s rather more cushy than the farmer might be used to. The flavours, setting and smells, however, are authentic.
And then comes the main event. Outfitted with traditional hats and soft gumboots, we begin, first raking the mud through the water. A local farmer demonstrates what has taken place prior to our arrival—the seeds being sown and covered to germinate—and brings out the rice saplings that we will plant. All those images we’ve seen of rice paddies and we’re finally doing it, working in the warm sun planting the crops. I get a sense it could be back-breaking stuff, and our laboriously slow and inaccurate planting provides much amusement for the professionals who tell us a 20-square-metre (23-square-yard) paddy can be planted in 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes? I spent five laying just a handful. It’s a skill that can only really be appreciated once the task is attempted.
The knee-deep experience lasts under an hour. The easy option, you might think, but no. Rice farmers don’t toil all day; planting is done swiftly so the afternoon can be enjoyed. For our part, this comes with the delights of a Balinese massage at the Resort’s luxury Spa—the conclusion to our experience. And while this is admittedly not a daily ritual available to the farmers, we are assured that their day ends with plenty of time for relaxation and, of course, much laughter.