Along with majestic temples, Bali’s rice paddies are one of the island’s great architectural icons. Carved out of the volcanic slopes over generations, they descend toward the coastline in great rippling stairways. The paddies are in a constant state of change and, for those who are lucky enough to live among these most beautiful of tropical landscapes, the view changes by the week.
As a Balinese Hindu, Pak Sudana’s life revolves largely around the all-important rice seasons and the religious ceremonies that take up much of his spare time. Although the seasons vary slightly across the island (and vastly throughout Indonesia), the rice season at Sudana’s home in remote West Bali has traditionally followed a fairly predictable timetable. ‘Recently,’ he says, ‘it’s become increasingly unpredictable as weather patterns change.’
A traditional shrine safeguards the precious crop. In Balinese Hinduism, the goddess Dewi Sri (wife of Shiva) is official protector of the rice. Shrines are built in the paddies and offerings are made at crucial periods: planting, full moon, when the rice is a month old, when the grains are fist appearing, before harvesting… Without Dewi Sri’s protection, no farmer in Bali would expect to survive for long.
January and February are the months that the Balinese call perai—a time of rest both for the farmers and for the land itself. The land lies empty, regenerating its resources for the coming year. For visitors, however, this is one of the most charming times to visit the paddies, for it is the season when the pengangon bebek (duck herder) leads his flocks carrying a magically charged bamboo staff called a penyisih. ‘A bad person could ruin the entire flock just by touching that stick,’ says Sudana. ‘By shaking it a jealous person could stop all the ducks from laying.’
At the end of February the seed grains are planted in carefully guarded nurseries and the farmers spend 21 to 25 days—the time it takes for them to grow into seedlings—preparing the land. Sudana is one of the few remaining farmers in West Bali who still plows with buffalo (prized Balinese white buffalo) rather than machines. Once ubiquitous throughout the island, buffalo are almost extinct outside of the remote west these days.
The young seedlings are planted around late March and the paddies are often at their most beautiful as the lush green of the plants starts to cover the mirror-like tabletops of the flooded terraces.
Planting is backbreaking work but Sudana claims that ‘a good planter can plant 10,000 square feet of seedlings a day, with each seedling placed between 8 and 10 inches from the next depending on the quality of irrigation.’
There can be no green in the world that’s quite as rich as a mid-season rice paddy. Whether you’re in the rural hinterlands of the west or on the carefully landscaped paddy-side resorts of Ubud, the views will be something you’ll never forget if you’re fortunate enough to visit at this time.
It’s said that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow and it might be true that the Balinese have as many for rice: nasi (cooked rice), beras (harvested rice), padi (rice when it is still on the plant), sawah (the terraces themselves).
When the rice plants are 60 to 65 days old, the farmers face the truly terrifying period of ngugahin kedis. Literally ‘bird scaring,’ this is when the farmers must fend off the plague of birds that come to feast on the sweet young grains.
Scarecrows are erected throughout the fields and entire webs of lines (festooned with flapping plastic) are rigged across the paddies. The paddy workers erect little pondoks (huts) in which to sleep so that they can be on hand to defend the precious plants.
Finally, if all goes well, the rice will be ready to harvest when the plants are about 90 days old. The timing is crucial and migrant harvesting crews arrive at this time from Java to tour through the island, following the ripening plants.
‘If a farmer gets his crops to market fast he might make US$26 per are [1,000 square feet],’ says Sudana. ‘But if he’s slow or unlucky all this work might only result in US$17 per are.’
Bali has two rice harvests a year with the dry months of June to August reserved for the growing of other, less thirsty crops such as melons, beans, peanuts or corn.
The second rice season (planted at the end of August) is crucial as prices can be particularly high, but the encroaching rainy season can make the November harvest a risky one. If Dewi Sri is pleased with the offerings, however, there’s a chance that Bali will have a good year and can soon relax again into that precious period of perai; offering much-needed rest for both the land and the farmers.
Share your images of Bali’s rice paddies with us on Instagram @momentum.travel
Main image: Alamy
Body images: Mark Eveleigh