Life on a Malaysian Rice Farm: Up to my Knees & In over my Head

May 22, 2010

Should you be a regular reader of my blog, you’re probably wondering how I could top my last two months of house-sitting in a jungle in Northern Thailand with only two cats and about a gazillion biting ants to keep me company.

Should you not be a regular reader of my blog, then you’re really missing out! And, I’m not just talking about missing out on some quality blog posts; I’m also talking about missing out on your chance to win a FREE PONY!

Yep, that’s right.

One lucky reader of this blog will win his or her very own FREE PONY! All you have to do is leave a comment below detailing all the reasons why you deserve to win a FREE PONY.

After careful consideration of the comments, I will decide who gets the FREE PONY. Should you be deemed the winner of the FREE PONY, keep in mind that FREE PONIES do not come with FREE DELIVERY. After all, do you think bubble wrap just grows on trees? And do you know how much bubble wrap it takes to ship a pony from Southeast Asia?! Really, do you? Because I could use that information…

I do have to admit that it was hard coming up with gig more daunting then living alone in the Thai wilderness with little more than a toilet plunger and the survival skills of an eight-year-old to protect me.

But I think I’ve done it: my current stint is on an organic rice farm in Southern Malaysia.

And, let’s just say, after four full days of working on said rice farm, I’m pretty sure I won’t last the month, let alone the two full months I signed up for.

I’m just hoping that saying you’re going to volunteer for two months on a rice farm is a lot like saying you’re going to give someone a FREE PONY… nobody really believes you when you say stuff like that and they just figure you lack the ability to follow through with your promises, as well as the ability to think in any coherent manner.

I’m sure you’re wondering why on Earth I’d volunteer to spend my days working on a rice farm?

Maybe you know a thing or two about rice farming. For example, maybe you know that rice grows in these horrible, mosquito-infested muddy fields called rice paddies (and not on magical rice trees which are tended to by magic rice elves).

Maybe you know that the people who work on rice farms actually have to wade through these rice paddies on regular occasion to tend to the rice plants (rather than just, you know, hanging out watching the magic rice elves do all the work).

Maybe you know that from mid-May to mid-July (the time that I’m signed up to wade through these rice paddies) is prime rice paddy weeding season.

Maybe you know that rice paddy weeding is a rather tedious task that involves the aforementioned wading through mud combined with the un-fun duty of discerning between rice plants (which look a lot like grass) and weeds (which also happen to look a lot like grass).

Maybe you could have informed me of all this before I signed myself up for a two-month stint on the rice farm and saved me a whole bunch of trouble (not to mention a whole bunch of mud).

Frankly, I’m kind of wondering why on Earth I’d volunteer to spend my days working on a rice farm, too.

I don’t think I was drunk when I emailed the manager of the rice farm to tell him I was interested in volunteering on his farm for two months. I might have been under the influence of a teensy bit of self-disillusionment after surviving a couple months in the jungle by myself and possibly convinced myself I was capable of surviving other things… like mosquito-infested rice paddies.

Now, after four days in that rice paddy, I’ve realized that it’s possible I’ve gotten myself in a bit over my head (not to mention up to my knees in a whole bunch of mud).

I’d like to believe that I can survive this, but I’m starting to think I lack the physical strength and mental fortitude to do so

I’d also like to believe that I can send you a FREE PONY, but I’m pretty certain I lack the bubble wrap to do so… as well as the, umm, pony.

Even if I do manage to survive my two months on the rice farm, I’m certain I’ll come out a much different person and not so much in a good way — more like in a smelly, dirty, dengue-fever-infested way.

First of all, organic rice farms require a lot of manual labor; manual labor I wasn’t exactly physically prepared for or even expected.

I’ve spent the last thirteen years toiling away in front of a classroom or in front of a computer; this is not exactly the kind of work that prepares you for any kind of heavy lifting… or heavy bending… or anything heavy aside from heavy drinking.

Sure, I expected to slog through muddy rice paddies on regular occasion. (What? Did you really think that I believed in magic rice elves? I’m not that disillusioned! Besides, we all know that elves are a Nordic lot better suited to life in the North Pole… rather than life in Southern Malaysia).

What I didn’t expect was all the other work; work you wouldn’t necessarily expect to do on an organic rice farm.

For example, one of my big jobs this week was to dispose of old tractor tires by throwing them into a pond; a task which required me to roll each huge, heavy, ant-infested tire down a pitted gravel road for a couple hundred meters before I could hoist it into the pond. I don’t really know a lot about organic farming, but this didn’t seem very, well, organic to me. I suppose it’s all a part of the farm’s commitment to leaving no trace behind… well, at least, not a visible, above-water trace.

In addition to the muddy job of rice weeding and the exhausting job of hoisting tires into a pond, there are other factors which may lead to my early demise on the rice farm.

For example, there’s the whole location issue. One fact about rice farms that you might not be aware of is that rice farms are, as a rule, located nowhere near civilization of any kind. This is because if people knew what actually went on in a rice paddy, they’d never eat another grain of rice again. You see, there’s a whole lot of mud involved… a whole lot. If you knew how much mud it took to grow a rice-cooker worth of rice, you probably wouldn’t be tucking into your sushi rolls so fast.

The rice farm that I’m working on is located about three hours away from Johor Bahru, Malaysia’s second largest city. In order to get to the rice farm, I was instructed to catch a bus to Kluang, a dusty, industrial town (a town whose former glory is only hinted at by the fact that it was named after fruit bats). I was then told to catch another bus heading East and tell the bus driver to drop me in the neighboring village’s rice field. By the expressions on the faces of the driver and the other passengers on the bus, I had a feeling not many white girls are boarding buses in Southern Malaysia asking to be dropped off in rice fields.

An hour after leaving Kluang, the bus was still rolling along winding country roads, and I started to worry that the bus driver had forgotten about me and my request to be dropped off in a rice field (as unforgettable as both of those things may seem…. plus, there was the unforgettable fact that I was sitting directly behind him, staring into his rearview mirror with the international expression for “Are we there yet?” stamped on my face). The bus finally careened to a stop in front of a pitted, dirt path that led off into the jungle, and the driver indicated I should get off the bus. I was sincerely hoping this was because I’d reached my destination (and not because he’d gotten annoyed with me staring at him in his rearview mirror).

Dragging myself and my bags along the dirt path towards what I hoped was a rice farm (and not my pending doom… although I would soon come to realize that these two things may be one and the same), I realized that wheeled luggage, while helpful in airports and city streets, are not exactly designed for remote back roads.

I have also realized that I, myself, may not be designed for remote back roads. Although I had gotten used to a rather rural existence while living in Thailand, I had also gotten used to twenty-four hour access to Internet and a bike ride access to beer. My new home is five miles of winding back roads away from the nearest village, which happens to be the closest source of both beer and Internet. It seems that rice farms must also, as a rule, not offer ready access to these two things. After all, a full night of drinking beer makes it pretty hard to slog through rice paddies and hoist old tires into a pond the next day. And, if given Internet, the volunteer workers residing on rice farms might be tempted to send out desperate messages on Twitter and Facebook asking people to come save them… and urging the public to stop eating rice.

Another issue which may drive me to drink (if only I could get one!) is the whole living-with-lots-of-other-people issue.

It probably has something to do with all that mud in the rice paddies (and the lack of magic rice elves), but rice farms require lots and lots of people. Most of these people are men and most of them live either in or near the house that I’m currently living in. And, while these men have been more than welcoming and friendly to me, they also seem to possess a great deal of phlegm… which they very regularly expel from their bodies through a series of loud, body-wrenching snorts… usually while standing outside of my bedroom window… at six o’clock in the morning.

After over six years of living on my own, I’m not really used to living with lots and lots of people. (Cats, on the other hand, I could deal with). And I’m certainly not used to these people waking me up to the sounds of their phlegm-clearing, bodily functions every morning. (I’m sorry, Mom, but this whole stint on the rice farm isn’t getting me any step closer to wanting to get married… unless I can be assured that my future husband is physically incapable of producing phlegm!).

In addition to my mucus-clearing male housemates, I have also had two female roommates this week. One roommate, a girl from Ohio, has really been wonderful to live and work with. I was quite sad to see her go on Friday when she left the farm to move on to Indonesia (this sadness was only slightly tinged by my exhilaration over being able to claim her lower half of our shared bunk bed).

The other roommate, a Chinese girl from Kuala Lumpur, hasn’t been nearly as delightful. In fact, she stopped talking to me on my third day on the farm. I would have taken this personally, but she had stopped talking to everyone on the farm by then. I couldn’t really blame her; at that point, I was ready to give the entire world the silent treatment, too. She was just tired and overworked and taking this all out on everyone around her by not talking to any of us and acting like a sullen snot (A tactic I, myself, have perfected after using it on a number of different roommates, coworkers and family members over the past thirty-four years). Her attitude also ensured the fact that everyone on the farm became increasingly anxious around her and promptly stopped asking her to do any work (Which means I now know how to get out of any future tire-hoisting!).

While I understood the reasons behind her attitude, it didn’t make living with her attitude any easier; especially when her attitude decided to get up every morning at five-thirty and rummage through her collection of plastic bags which were strewn across our shared room (All of this did make it easier for me to understand why a number of former roommates, coworkers and family members refuse to talk to me anymore and consistently ignore my requests to be their Facebook friend, though).

After four days of rice paddy weeding and tire hoisting and unwelcomed early morning wake up calls, I hatched a plan to escape the farm for the weekend.

I headed into Johor Bahru yesterday afternoon to luxuriate in my very own fifty-dollar hotel room complete with free wifi and absolutely no housemates prone to early morning phlegm-clearing or plastic-bag rustling. Last night, I settled into my cushy hotel bed (a bed that I didn’t need to climb up a ladder to get into) and spent the evening tending to my sorely neglected Facebook and Twitter accounts and my blog.

It was a glorious evening punctuated only by a half dozen showers to remove the week’s worth of rice paddy mud encasing my body and a dinner of chocolate bars and McDonald’s.

I vowed that if I was to survive my two months on the farm I’d have to make this a regular event. Sure, it’s not exactly in my budget to splurge on a fifty-dollar hotel room and meals of chocolate bars every weekend, but sometimes a weekend here and there of wifi and quiet and a cushy hotel room bed is worth the money spent.

Besides, my budget got thrown out the window long ago when I promised to give you a FREE PONY. Seriously, do you know how much a pony costs in Southeast Asia?! Really, do you? Because I could use that information…


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On December 18, 2010 at 1:10 am Kim said:

    Hello There,

    I am searching the organic rice … and came across your blog. It interested me that what made you went to Malaysia to work on the rice field? Is this special project or something else. I grew up at Malaysia and never had worked at rice field before. And I just can say you are BRAVE!


    • On December 19, 2010 at 11:42 am Unbravegirl said:

      I actually just came across the opportunity via WWOOF (World-wide Organization of Organic Farms), which is an organization which helps connect volunteers with organic farms looking for help. I didn’t have much interest in rice farming prior to going there, but I felt like it would make for an interesting experience to write about. And, boy, was that true!

  2. On August 8, 2012 at 10:54 pm Cindy Eliza Vaz said:

    Hello there,

    Kluang is appoximately only 45 minutes away from my hometown – Batu Pahat; the land of food, textile and gold! (-:

    I am very surprise that you chose Kluang to volunteer at, but pleased nevertheless as the northern side of this country lacks visitors, apart from the main Johor Bahru.

    I hope you have had a chance to try out all the local dishes! (-:


    P/s – I’m a new fan! (-:
    Cindy Eliza Vaz recently posted..Top 5 Travel Tips for Phuket Thailand

    • On August 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm Sally said:

      Thanks for stopping by, Cindy, and glad you’re enjoying the blog! I loved my time in Kluang — I think it might have been my favoritest part of Malaysia, actually! The people were so friendly there.

  3. On December 17, 2013 at 4:39 pm becky hutner said:

    Sally, can you tell I’m working my way through the archives? After recently hiking the rice terraces of the Cordillera region in northern Philippines, I am seriously cringing at the thought of ever working on one. But am also the type to throw caution to the wind & not bother to research what these things entail so I could totally have ended up in your nightmare & that makes me cringe some more. Ahhh! Kudos to you for slogging it out girl. Those slippery, stinky things are no joke.
    becky hutner recently posted..VIETNAM HIGHLIGHTS: Part 2

  4. On October 30, 2016 at 6:02 am Zara said:

    Im reading this while looking for volunteers work. And it surprised me when i founf your blog. Omg!! How can you survived in rice paddy field. Its hard work. Even locals nowdays ask firms to work for them. The thing i hate the most is its hard to walk in paddy. Thats means you are super awesome!! I would love to follow your blog! Please do contact me if you come to malaysia again. Would love to become your host!

    • On November 12, 2016 at 11:45 am Sally said:

      Yes, it was definitely hard work, Zara, but kind of, oddly, relaxing. You get to think about a lot of things when you’re standing in a rice paddy. I’d love to come back to Malaysia sometime — I will let you know when I do!


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