Why do otherwise perfectly rational people travel to remote – and, in some cases, arguably godforsaken, places all around Asia, fumbling through guidebooks, tracking down drivers and farmers, asking for directions, searching high and low, Facebooking, Instagramming – and occasionally paying exorbitant fees, all in the name of seeing a rice paddy or two?
What is it about these surreal-looking, carpet-like fields, comprising nothing more than the makings of an essential food staple in these parts that causes people to swoon and sway, to ooooh and ahhh at first sight? Why do cars and tourist buses screech to a sudden halt, leaving legions of tourists breathless and gaping in awe?
I’m sure you have your theories, but for what’s it worth – and I am no expert in the field (pardon the pun), here are my two cents:
Quite simply, and certainly unintentionally, rice paddies are hallucinogenic. Incandescent. As addictive as alcohol or drugs – minus the hangover and potentially hazardous side effects. Unlike most hallucinatory substances, they happen to be free, easily accessible and safe – unless you tumble onto a patch of hardened earth and break your leg, or slip into a paddy overflowing with gushing water and snakes.
The mere sight of rice paddy fields is known to bring some tourists to their knees, triggering imaginary delusions or eliciting an immediate sense of well-being and peace. All is right in the world. The mere presence of paddies is captivating, simultaneously ethereal and ephemeral, sucking us into the cyclical vortex of nature’s beauty. You can almost hear a chorus of paddy-walkers chanting in unison: Ohm…
From afar, a plethora of rice terraces takes on the semblance of a 1960s psychedelic shag rug or a plush wall-to-wall carpet in a luxurious resort. The landscape invites us to imagine ourselves falling into, and being embraced by its thickly woven green weave. We can almost imagine falling backwards into its majestic folds of greenery, gazing up at the stars (at night) or in daytime, watching dragonflies, butterflies and swallows swoop down low and across our field of vision.
Here and there, fields dotted with bamboo sticks, scarecrows and wires strung across, are stark reminders of the daily challenges faced by farmers, as they ward off birds of prey and guide wading ducks through muddy patches. Still, these telltale signs – and the occasional sighting of a farmer himself – are the only indicators of human presence amidst the paddies.
At a much closer distance, we are met with an impossibly bright glow that causes us to fall into inexplicable trance. What is it? The sheer precision, one season after the next, one stalk next to the other, of nature’s design and procreation? Row after row of aligned and perfectly erect and luminous stalks? The shadow play that a rising sun forms along the uppermost part of each shoot as it juts up into the sky?
At eye-level, the prickliness of each stalk is clearly visible, pointedly protruding tips with equally sharp edges; if you simply MUST reach out and touch, proceed with caution, or nature’s progeny will sic you with a paper cut.
If you bend down, squat on your haunches I mean, you’ll likely get up close and personal with the muddier aspects of rice-growing; little fish, eels, snakes, algae, and an unfortunate scattering of plastic bottles and bags. If you stick around long enough, you might even imagine that you’re hearing the rice grow…
At dusk, when the sun’s orb lowers itself beyond the horizon, the magic is snatched away together with the ebbing luminescence of paddies that have been tinged by brilliant sunshine. As the sky darkens, so do the shades of green, until the layered silhouettes of pointed stalks against the dimming sky finally dissipate into uniform blackness. Blades of grass as shadow puppet play.
Imagine if you could bottle up some of that rice field brilliance, then feed it as fantasy to people the world over. It might conjure, even across the globe, images of you strolling knee-deep in rice terraces, surrounded by a landscape that enfolds you, graciously, into its mood-altering stillness and calm.