At The Living Land Organic Farm, a community enterprise five kilometres from Luang Prabang town, travellers can learn how to grow rice and try their hand at every one of the 14 laborious steps to go from a single grain to the dinner table (including step #3, a romp through the muck with Susan to prepare the paddy). By the end of the half-day Rice Experience programme, you’ll be dirty, sweaty and have a profound appreciation for the work that goes into producing rice.
When we try it, we can’t quite believe we’re knee deep in s*** with Susan and having a blast. Susan seems indifferent – not that you’d expect much emotion from a water buffalo. She’s been teaching visitors to Luang Prabang how to plow rice fields for three years and today is just another day at the office.
“In Laos, rice is life,” Laut Lee, The Living Land’s director and guide says. He isn’t kidding. Sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice, is the staple of Laos and it’s eaten with every meal. More than 500 kinds of sticky rice are grown in this country and to this day cultivation is still done manually. No fancy machinery, just hard work and the same basic tools and techniques that have been used for centuries to plow, plant, water, scythe, harvest, thresh, fan, pack, husk and winnow. Exhausted yet?
Laut Lee isn’t. With a big smile on his face, he picks up the bundle of rice and shows us how to thresh, loosening each grain from its tough casing by beating the stalks against a wooden plank. His tireless enthusiasm for traditional Lao culture, organic farming and his hometown Luang Prabang is why he helped start this community enterprise in 2007 and introduced the experiential program for travellers three years ago.
The Living Land is dedicated to organic methods, a response to the pesticides, chemical fertilizers and destructive slash and burn method typically used in Laos. Seven families run the farm, mainly growing sticky rice but also supplying Luang Prabang’s hotels and restaurants with fresh organic herbs and vegetables.
It’s almost noon and we’re starving. We’ve worked up a hearty appetite and thankfully the final step is learning how to cook sticky rice, a process far more finicky than cooking your average grain. Our stomachs grumble as the familiar, almost nutty aroma wafts from the bamboo steamer.
When we gather around the table to eat our meal or kin khao as they say in Laos — which literally translates as “eat rice” — we scoop up a small ball of sticky rice with my fingers. It’s something we’ve done countless times since living in Laos, but this time we can’t help but pause, look closely and admire each miraculous grain before popping it into our mouths.
It’s the best rice we’ve ever had.
By Cindy Fan.