Susan the albino water buffalo greeted us by promptly crapping herself, and the knee high mud we were in suddenly seemed more suspect. The large swell of her stomach announced her pregnancy, but with six months remaining she was destined to balloon much further. The early monsoon rain had washed the mud from her pink skin and she would need to roll around to cover herself again if she wanted to remain cool, but now she was harnessed to work. ‘The living tractor of the East’ as our guide Laut Lee phrased it.
She bristles with white hair, and her neck flaps shake in an extended ripple as she swings her head to study us and the salty treat we hold out for her. Her sinewy back is laced with veins that only steroid abusers could aspire to. Three smaller water buffalo graze in the field beyond against the backdrop of jungle that borders the rice farm. Three years ago on this farm, there were twenty domesticated buffalo working to feed the monthly Laos appetite of 20kg of sticky rice per adult. Unlike much of the modern agricultural revolution, the animals were not replaced by machinery as the fuel was deemed too expensive. So why the decline in numbers?
We were at the Living Land farm where farmers train tourists how to effectively set up a rice farm in a morning, and in turn support the local families with their schooling and medical needs. Each of us were issued with a woven bamboo conical hat and set to work in the waterlogged green fields. Laut Lee demonstrated how to harvest rice with a rebar steel sickle and introduced us to the art of being a snobbish rice connoisseur.
After licking up her salt crystal with a sluggish black tongue, Susan allows us to take her reins. To plough the mud pit, Susan is strapped to a traditional rotating metal contraption to upheave the soil and expose the natural compost ready for the seedlings. She slowly circles to four grunting commands, and abruptly stops to the hipster instruction of ‘Yo’. Once released from duty, Susan twists her head and snorts as the wooden planks across her back are removed. Despite her weight, her hooves stop her sinking too deep into the thick chocolate mousse, and her four legs allow her more balance and dignity than her human companions.
“In Laos, the question is what don’t we eat?” Laut Lee showed us the bamboo traps that were positioned to catch birds, crabs, snails and eels, creating a welcome lunch for the farmer. Even Susan isn’t safe, with Laos consumers favouring rich water buffalo milk and cheese to the imported cow varieties, and their dried hides are a local favourite. Roasted minced water buffalo meat is served in local dishes such as laap with fish sauce, coriander, galangal, chilli, lime and mint.
The process of farming remains spiritual. With typically three or four harvests of sticky rice over the annual wet and dry seasons, workers rely on good fortune. A woven bamboo spirit sign guards the field, and the farmers will sacrifice a chicken, duck, or even a water buffalo if they receive two good harvests of rice a year. Let’s hope that’s not where the other 17 disappeared to…