South East Asia: A Rice Ingrained Culture…

Rice paddies at an angle

For backpackers in South East Asia rice forms part of a cheap meal. No doubt you’ll encounter it in various forms during your travels; fried rice, boiled rice, sticky rice, steamed rice, rice noodles, rice soup, rice cakes, rice porridge, you may even come across rice popcorn! There’s a good possibility that you’ve drank it too. If you’ve ever been offered some suspicious cloudy liquid by locals chances are it’s ‘rice wine’ or ‘rice whiskey.’ From Thailand to Indonesia, most backpackers will eat rice every day of their travels without fully understanding the significance of it’s role in the survival of billions.

To the people of Asia, especially for the very poorest, rice is not just a food. Rice equals life. In fact, nearly 7 out of 10 people, or two thirds of the world’s population depend on it for sustenance. For thousands of years this tiny grain has shaped the cultures, economies and environments of many countries and regions in this part of the world. Entire lifestyles are focused upon the growth and protection of this staple food.

Rice Terraces Sapa Vietnam

(Hmong Hill Tribe Woman in the rice fields of her home, Sapa, Vietnam)

More than 90% of the world’s rice is produced by Asian farmers, Vietnam and Thailand being amongst the highest exporters of rice in the world. Just looking around us we can see how the growth of rice has shaped the landscape in many areas. Cultivated, neat rice terraces clinging to steep hillsides, shining a dazzling bright green are striking images of South East Asia that can be seen in Sapa, Vietnam, Bali, Indonesia among other places. One of the most famous rice plantations in Asia can be found in Luzon in the Philippines, with the Banaue and Ifuago Rice Terraces claiming status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Skillfully carved out of the mountain more than 2,000 years ago using only primitive tools and an ingenius irrigation system, these rice terraces are a fascinating example of living architecture.We begin to grasp an idea of just how inherent rice is within South East Asian culture when we look at the languages. In many countries, the word ‘rice’ is synonymous with the word ‘to eat.’ For example the expression ‘Kin Khao’ in Thailand, where Khao means rice, in Burmese “Htamin Sar” means ‘to eat a meal’, and ‘to eat rice’ and in Vietnamese ‘an com’ is used the same way. There are many other metaphors within Asian languages which demonstrate the significance of rice in Asian culture.

Deeply embedded within the spiritual heritage of the people who tend to it, rice has become sacred and revered. Many countries in South East Asia still worship rice in the form of a Goddess (nearly always female ie. a mother figure) – whose existence predates today’s major religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

In Indonesia, the Rice Goddess, Dewi Sri is worshipped widely in many parts of Java and Bali as a symbol of life and fertility. Dewi Sri is regarded as a kind of ‘Mother Nature’ with control over this blessed ‘food of life’. Through her influence over the harvests, she harnesses the power to grant health, wealth and prosperity or bestow hunger and famine. Offerings are given every year at the ‘Rice Harvest Festival’ as agricultural workers say thank you for an abundant harvest and all year in the rice fields you will see small shrines dedicated to the Dewi Sri called ‘Karangtengah.’ You will also see Balinese people wet their foreheads or chests and stick grains of rice to their skin in an attempt to soak up Dewi Sri’s powerful life force.

In Thailand, Mae Po Sop, the Siamese Rice Goddess is worshipped by farmers as part of an ancient custom. Offerings known as Cha laew are bestowed to Mae Po Sop at each stage of rice production to ensure that she provides all of the village with a plentiful harvest and enough rice to eat for the coming year. The annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony takes place in Bangkok in front of the Grand Palace to launch ‘rice-growing season’ in May. Seeds are scattered by the “Lord of the Festival” and afterwards audience members rush to gather the grains to take home to mix with their own seeds for prosperous harvest. Similarly, in Cambodia, Po Ino Nogar is the Rice Goddess. In rural villages you will see food offerings in rice paddies as a prayer from farmers for protection from the benevolent spirit.

So what for the future of traditional rice production? Like the descendants of the rice growers of Luzon, many young people in South East Asia prefer to work in the cities and the tourist industry rather than to cultivate rice as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Traditional ways are being eroded by modern technology and rice production as a culture and way of life and it’s associated rituals are uncertain.

Traditional Rice Production in Nepal

(Traditional Rice Production in the Nepal, Northern Asia)

And we shouldn’t just worry for the rice field itself. The rice field is a living entity – home to many animals such as fish, eels, prawn, frogs – then, there’s the insects that they eat and the animals higher in the food chain that eat them. It’s part of a delicate eco-system that many creatures depend on for survival. With modernisation it is becoming more important to develop more and faster producing grain. The use of pesticides and modern machinery threaten to tamper with the delicate balance. As rice is frequently grown more as a commercial product rather than subsistence farming – people need to make sure that we don’t lose this precious system in the larger system modernisation and profit. As the ancient Chinese proverb states…

“precious things are not pearls and jade but the five grains, of which rice is the finest.”

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