Travel favours the curious as you can learn a lot about the world experiencing it in person. Curiosity is also a helpful career skill that drives innovation and advancement, which is part of our series of articles that focus on the various career skills that can be developed through travel. In this article, Sam, founder of My Flying Leap, shares what she learned about rice farming in Luang Prabang, Laos, and why her adventure has been so meaningful when applied to her work.

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Rice is a staple food product in much of the world because it’s inexpensive, filling, and goes with pretty much anything. When you travel through Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, you see huge rice paddies sprinkled all over the countryside. Rice farming is a way of life here.

I’ll be honest – I never really gave the process of rice farming much thought. But I learned from my time in Luang Prabang that when it’s done in the traditional way, it’s very time consuming, laborious, and messy. Learning about rice farming provides a really interesting perspective about the work that goes into growing such an everyday food. I promise you, visit the Living Land Farm and you’ll never look at a bowl of rice in the same way again.

Rice paddies and a Kondauna made of rice stalks to protect the rice
Rice paddies and a Kondauna made of rice stalks to protect the rice

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former capital of Laos. The historic centre may be a sleepy and small town, though Luang Prabang is packed full of fun things to do. Take a boat ride on the Mekong, give alms to local monks in the Tak Bat alms-giving ceremony, hike the sacred Mount Phousi, visit the many beautiful temples, or shop in the night market.

And that’s not all, because one of the most popular places to see in all of Laos is just outside of Luang Prabang. The stunning Kuang Si Falls are a beautiful cascade of turquoise blue falls in the jungle. Swim in the beautiful crystal-blue pools to get a break from the heat and humidity and you’ll quickly learn why this is one of the most popular trips in the entire country.

The Living Land Company

To get the most of your time in Luang Prabang, a visit to the Living Land Company is a must. It’s a small and charming organic community farm located in the countryside with a patchwork of rice paddies surrounded by beautiful mountains. It’s just a short distance from the historic centre of Luang Prabang.

This community project supports Luang Prabang In a number of ways. The farm offers English classes for the children free of charge, and they provide jobs to the locals to help support the economy. They also raise and sell organic produce and flowers in the local market. The farm doesn’t sell the rice that they produce but they give it to village families in need. It’s a worthy cause to support the local people and they offer a really interesting tour as well.

An additional option to get to know the farm and to enjoy the calm tranquility it offers is to stay at the homestay on the property. It’s rustic but has western amenities and they also have a restaurant onsite.

Homestay at the Farm
Homestay at the farm

Living Land Company Rice Experience tour

The rice tour provides an introduction to the farm and the community work that they do, and then walks you through the process of rice farming and preparing it for consumption. Your guide walks you around the farm and also shows you the fields where they grow flowers, fruit, and vegetables.

But, this isn’t a “view it from the sidelines” kind of tour! You are able to get involved as much as you want to and that means getting dirty jumping into rice paddies. If you want to know just how much work it is to bring that bowl of rice to your table, now’s your chance to dig in and learn all about rice farming!

My tour guide was Mua, a 17-year old boy in his last year of school who had worked at the Living Land Farm for three years. He works over the weekend to help support his family. His English is very good and he was benefitting from the farm’s English classes as well as practicing on the tours. He is grateful for the opportunity he was given, and was aware of just how lucky he was.

The rice farming process

There are a surprising fourteen steps (yes, fourteen!) for cultivating rice and preparing it for your bowl. Here’s how they do it in the traditional way that you learn all about on the Living Land Rice Experience tour.

Step 1: prepare the rice

First, you select the seeds that you will use to grow the rice. Add a large amount of salt to a cup of water and place an egg in the cup. Once there’s enough salt, the egg will float to the top. When the water is ready, add the seeds. Those that float are removed and those that remain are planted.

Step 2: sprinkle the seeds

This is where things start to get fun! Kick off your shoes and wade into the rice paddy, going mid-calf deep into the mud. You can choose to sit this out, of course, but why would you? Go for it and enjoy the authentic experience! Then, sprinkle the seeds on top of the mud and add water. In around a week, each rice seed will become a small seedling that is two-inches long. In a month, it’s a mature plant.

Step 3: prepare the rice paddy

Before the rice can be replanted in it’s final spot with enough space to grow adequately, you first need to prepare the paddy. The rice plants in farmed paddies are cut down and cleared, and a water buffalo is used for this. Susan, Bentley, and Betty, their water buffaloes, are up for the task. (And they are absolutely adorable!)

You’ll again wade into the sucking mud to guide the buffalo around the paddy. A heavy metal till is attached to the buffalo for the task and they show you how to navigate it. It’s not easy work, both working the till and staying upright in the mud. And once you learn that buffalo, er, poop, is used to fertilize the paddy, you definitely don’t want to do a face plant.

Getting into the paddy can be challenging as you quickly sink into the thick mud. Getting out of the paddy is no easier and it almost has the feel of what you might expect quicksand to be like.

Mua, another farm worker, and Bentley the water buffalo
Mua, another farm worker, and Bentley the water buffalo

Step 4: plant the seedlings

Back into the mud you go with a handful of rice seedlings to plant them. You take four to five of them and place them in the mud an inch or so deep and inches apart. All the while, trying to not think about the buffalo poop in the paddy and the fact that you really want to itch your face.

Step 5: add water

Water is added to the rice paddies from the mountains and is controlled through channels. It takes around four to ten days to add the water then the channel is closed. The paddy is dried out for as many days as it took to add the water. Everything is balanced in nature, and the same principles apply to rice farming as well.

Then, it is time for weeding. This is a community effort and families often do it together singing to help the rice grow. Sing along with your guide and don’t be shy – it’s for the rice, after all. Weeds are composted by rolling them into a ball and mashed into the mud. It’s not just buffalo poop that feeds the rice.

Step 6: harvest time

When the rice stalks turn yellow, it’s ready to harvest. Though the paddy is dried, it’s still mud-packed so again, you’re wading back into the mud to do this. Grab a large handful of rice stalks and cut carefully with a sickle after your guide shows you how. Then the bundle is tied off and laid on the other stalks.

The bundles are then dried for a few days. The dry stalks and leaves remaining are collected to be burned to use for the vegetables. No chemicals are used on the farm and nothing goes to waste.

Step 7: crush the rice

Once the bundles of rice are dry, you get to use a nunchuck to grab the bundle, lift it over your head, and smash it on a large flat stone on the ground. You are done when no more rice is released. The straw remaining is used to build houses, to make brooms, and to feed the buffalo.

Step 8: wind the rice

A large wooden fan is waved over the rice to blow the rice, or to wind it (“wind” as in a breeze and not like winding a clock). Bad rice flies away and the good rice will remain. Around 20% of the good rice will be used for next year’s planting, and the remainder is used to feed local people in need.

Step 9: carry the rice home

There are several types of baskets used for this activity, and generally the basket you used depends on where you live. The Hmong mountain people use a basket that is similar to a backpack. The lowland basket is actually two baskets held on the shoulder attached by a wooden bar. To control the baskets, you are shown how to do a “sexy bottom walk”, wagging your backside to cause the baskets to sway. The last basket is called a khamul, and is worn with a strap on the forehead. To use this basket, you bend over forward so it’s easier on your back. You get the opportunity to practice each of the methods.

Step 10: produce the rice

This is done with two people in a machine that looks like a see-saw in a children’s playground. One person rides the machine up and down while the second turns the rice, scooping it into a bowl while the machine crushes the husks. Anything left is used to feed fish and chickens or to make rice wine.

Step 11: grind the rice

Rice is ground by hand and the powder is used to make things like rice flour, noodles, and rice candy. Then, it’s filtered through a very tightly-woven bamboo plate by flipping it in the air so it lands back on the plate – which is no easy task! Large pieces are removed by hand.

This is considered “women’s work” and it’s required to learn this as a woman in Laos in order to marry. It had me more than a little concerned I might be expected to do my duty for the village when I learned of this after I completed the task.

Woman sifting rice
Filtering rice demonstrating eligibility for marriage

Step 12: soak the rice

Rice is soaked in water overnight. The milky water remaining is not thrown away, but it’s used for medicine or shampoo.

Step 13: steam the rice

The rice is then cooked in a big steamer over an open flame.

Step 14: eat!

Once the rice is cooked, it’s ready to be eaten.

Can you ever look at a bowl of rice in the same way again after knowing what an intense process it is to cultivate it? The farm serves up a tray of sweet rice treats for your hard work. You’ll be tired after this tour, and it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to do this for a full day. Makes my 9-to-5 job sitting at a desk seem so much easier now!

A plate of sweet rice treats
A plate of sweet rice treats

Rice Experience tour information

The rice tour can be booked online at the Living Land Farm website, or your local hotel or hostel can book it for you. Your booking includes pickup and drop-off from your hotel or hostel and an approximately three-hour tour on the farm. You can purchase the tour with or without lunch.

Note: This tour includes walking on uneven ground and may not be appropriate for all people.

There are a lot of fun things to do during your visit in Luang Prabang and choosing can be a challenge. But, if you’re looking for an informative, interesting, and unique experience that benefits the local community, look no further than the Living Land Company Rice Experience. You will never look at a bowl of rice in the same way again.

How this all relates to curiosity as a career skill

Travel is all about learning, both about the world around us and internally for our own personal growth. We learn about different people, different cultures, and different ways of doing things when we travel and that in turn, stretches us and our ability to take those learnings to continue to find better ways of thinking, doing, and feeling. Curiosity is what fuels our desire to travel and to feed our knowledge. It’s what sparks our path of learning.

It’s a great idea when you’re traveling to really immerse where you’re going and to find things to do that will expand your mind. That’s why I chose to do this tour at the Living Land Co. I could have chosen another fun activity, but I don’t think I would have learned as much as I did. Now, I not only understand exactly how much effort goes into the rice that i regularly eat, but I have seen some of the faces behind it. It means something to me now when I see rice and I can internalise the efforts of the hard-working farmers who make a huge difference in the world.

This is the lens that I take back to my career. My love of travel and insatiable curiosity lead me to question the status quo and to always dig in to understand to see how I can make things better. Quality matters, and as a project manager, the customers and stakeholders I serve appreciate my willingness to jump in to truly understand their needs so I can meet them. It also helps me to establish better and deeper connections with people as they recognise when I ask questions that I genuinely want to understand their viewpoint and how I can help them. That’s what travel has taught me, and how my curiosity has paid dividends in my work-life.

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Travel sparks curiosity, a skill that's invaluable at work. Sam writes what she learned about the process of rice farming in Luang Prabang, Laos. #ricefarming #luangprabang #careerskills #curiosity #laos

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