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Padi fields: Rice in Central Java, Indonesia

3 January 2012

The Indonesians have a saying: Tidak makan nasi, belum makan (If you didn’t eat rice, you haven’t eaten yet).

I am fascinated by the traditional production of rice using irrigated fields like these. For one thing, I think this cultivated land is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I don’t care if it’s in Indonesia, Vietnam or Cambodia — it’s simply lovely. When I look out across the padi fields, I feel content and peaceful.

Second, I am staggered and humbled by the magnitude of labor that goes into this agriculture. The flooded ground must be plowed up before planting, as seen in the top photo here. Then people come in with the rice seed and plant it by hand. After a few weeks, the new rice plants make a lush, bright-green carpet sticking up out of the water. At that time, the plants must be carefully pulled up and transplanted to another flooded field, with each baby plant separated from the others, as seen above in the lower-right corner of the photo.

When the mature rice is ripe, the plants are pulled again and threshed so that the grains fall out. Of course, the tiny little brown grains must be carefully collected. These are then carried somewhere and laid out to dry in the sun.

In the photo above, you see the main (and only) street in the town closest to the fields in the second photo. The homes sit close by one another on each side of this street, and here a woven-palm-leaf mat has been laid in the street in front of someone’s house, and the rice spread out for drying. Everyone’s chickens run free in the village, and no one shoos them away when they come to eat the unhulled rice. (I guess they don’t eat too much.)

Later when the rice is dry enough, it will be tossed around (probably by hand, using big round trays made of woven palm leaves) to separate the hulls from the white inner grain, because Asians prefer to eat nasi putih (white rice). Note that in the Indonesian language there is one word for rice in the field (padi) and another word for cooked rice (nasi). There’s a third word for the rice that has been hulled but not yet cooked: beras.

So you grow padi, you buy beras, and you eat nasi.

While I was staying in Borobudur, I contacted a group of local guides and activists, called Jaker (, and arranged for one of them to take me to a very small Hindu temple called Candi Selogriyo. My guide’s name was Golan, and he spoke excellent English. We both rode on his Honda Vario scooter to this village, about 30 km north of Borobudur. The ride took about 90 minutes because the roads are small and winding.

The point of going to the temple is really (in my view, anyway) to get to see these rice fields. (They are also growing corn and tobacco here.) The stone temple is very small and not all that interesting, although it’s older than the giant Borobudur monument, and there’s a wonderful view from the top of the hill, where the temple sits in a very well-maintained park with a close-cut grass lawn. (More photos here.)

Golan and I left his scooter close to where the chicken (above) later had its snack. Then we walked on a narrow brick-paved path around the top edge of the valley you see in the second photo above. After about half a mile or so, the bricks ended and we walked on a well-traveled dirt path. People were working in the padi fields just below us, and several times we stopped to chat. They didn’t want me to take photos of them, though, so I didn’t. Eventually we reached a long set of new, well-made stone steps leading up to the temple.

I really, really enjoyed this excursion! Golan and I left my hotel in Borobudur about 9:30 a.m. and returned about 2:30 p.m. It had rained earlier in the morning, so the walk was not too hot, but I’d recommend you bring a bottle of water to drink on the way.

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