After thousands of years of hindsight it seems maybe rice wasn’t the best choice for humanity’s most popular food staple. Yes, it tastes great with sushi. But growing rice is very water and labor intensive. And it requires a flat field that farmers can flood during the planting season.
Rice is particularly labor intensive in hilly areas where farmers must create their flat field by carving floodable terraces into hillsides. We find even a single terrace impressive when we contemplate all the work involved, work usually done by hand. The sight of multiple rice terraces, stacked atop each other as if to form a giant’s staircase, is truly awe inspiring.
Spot Cool Stuff has been a longtime fan of rice terraces. We once flew round trip between San Francisco and the Philippines specifically to spend a single day in Banaue, supposedly the site world’s most grand rice terraces. Supposedly. After nearly two decades of rice terrace travel we’ve formed our own opinion on such matters. Here’s our list of the top 10 rice terrace destinations:
Travelers can see rice terraces are petty much everyplace in Nepal that’s rural, mountainous and below the snow line. Which is to say that travelers can see rice terraces are pretty much everyplace in Nepal. It is the sheer quantity of rice terraces here, as well as spectacular mountain settings in which they are found, that makes the Himalayan country our top rice terrace destination.
If your trip to Nepal is confined to the Kathmandu Valley, there are wonderful rice terrace views from the village of Nargarkot on the valley’s rim. (Spend the night there at the End Of The Universe Resort, run by long time friends of Spot Cool Stuff). From Kathmandu’s popular Thamel district your closest rice terrace views are to be found a 20-minute bicycle ride north along the road to Beklot. However, to experience the full majesty of Nepal’s rice terraces you’ll have to strap on hiking boots and walk; the treks in the Annapurna Sanctuary region is the height (literally and figuratively) of rice terrace travel.
Best time to see the terraces: late August through early October and mid-February through April
#2 Guangxi & Yunnan Provinces, China
Modernization is encroaching upon China’s incredible rice terraces. Go and see them while you can! For the moment, pockets of rice terraces still dot the hilly areas of southern China, from Shanghai to Tibet.
There are two rice terraces destinations in China of special note:
The first is the spectacular Longji terraces near the villages of Ping and Jinkerg in northeastern Guangxi Province. Transportation to the region is by uncomfortable bus—it’s a two hour ride from the butt ugly town of Longsheng, which is itself 12 hours from Shenzhen—but the journey is worth it. Old China is here. Farmers tend to their fields here in much the same way they did when the terraces were built during the Yuan Dynasty 800 years ago.
The second destination of note is the Yuanyang terraces farmed by the Hami tribal people. The terrace views here are the earth’s most expansive—stand on a hilltop and you may get 360 degree views of rice terraces. The main tourist center (such as it is, this place sees little tourism) is the scruffy town of Xinjiezhen about three hours south of Kumming.
Best time to see the terraces: For Longji, go anytime except the snowy and cold December through March period. For Yuanyang, November until mid-April is best.
#3 Banaue, Philippines
Quiz question: What’s the only country in the world with a depiction of rice terraces on its currency?
The answer: the Philippines. There’s no other nation is as proud of its rice terraces. The terraces in the vicinity of the town of Banaue, a rough 10-hour bus ride north of Manila, are thought by many Filipinos to be the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The Banaue terraces were constructed by the indigenous Batad people over 2,000 years ago. Way back then this region was cut off from the rest of the world. But the time has long since past when farming this rough land was practical. For most of the last century, the Banaue terraces were in a state of disuse.
That changed in 1995 when the Banaue terraces received designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and got the money and attention to match. Since then concerted efforts have been made to reconstruct the terraces. The Philippine government subsidizes the locals who farm the terraces and that, combined with tourism, has brought new life to the region.
If you visit these terraces don’t confine yourself to Banaue, as many travelers do. Instead, take a bus or taxi 30 minutes out of town and then hike the three hours to Bangaan. This tiny dwelling is at the base of a hill completely covered in rice terraces; from top to bottom the Bangaan terraces are over 1000 meters (3,200 feet) high, or nearly twice the height of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The accommodations around Bangaan are simple. The views are amazing.
Best time to see the terraces: December through May (which is outside of the monsoon season).
#4 Bali, Indonesia
While most tourists come to Bali for its beaches, the hilly middle of this tropical island offers some of the world’s best rice terrace travel. The foliage is thick in these parts and the hills aren’t especially large or steep. So, you don’t get the expansive rice terrace vistas in Bali that you do in Yunnan or even in the Philippines. However, Bali’s lush terraces have a quality no others can match—they smell really good. We aren’t sure what the source of their sweet scent is; perhaps it isn’t the rice at all but the cinnamon, cloves and other spices grown in these same hills. Regardless, walking amongst the rice terraces of Bali is a feast for the senses.
Best time to see the terraces: late November to early April
Where to stay: The lovely Alila Ubud is set atop a green hill; the resort’s infinity pool is perched above a rice terrace.
Mostly random musical note: The line in the Sting song Fields of Gold is about fields of barley and not, as is commonly thought, fields of Bali. Nevertheless, when looking out upon the rice terraces of Bali it is impossible to not to think that’s the scene String had in mind:
#5 Machu Pichu & Peru
The Incas were among the world’s first people to farm on terraces, though most of these terraces were used to grow potatoes, not rice. In Asia farmers constructed their terraces with walls of dried mud. The Incas, however, used stone. As a result the rice terraces in Peru have a distinctly sculpted look (check out the photos) and have withstood time’s erosion exceptionally well. There are Inca farming terraces scattered around the hills of Peru but the best, easiest and most popular way to see them is by hiking the Inca Trail and visiting the famed historical sanctuary of Machu Pichu.
Best time to see the terraces: anytime, especially September through February
Where to stay: There are several accommodations options in the town of Aqua Calientes, about 30 minutes from Machu Pichu. But there is only one option on the grounds of the Inca’s ruins, The Machu Pichu Sanctuary Lodge, and so staying there is the only way to see Machu Pichu at night. The chance to stand alone in such an ancient and powerful spot is worth the Sanctuary Lodge’s otherwise exorbitant room rates.
The bottom half of our list:
#7 Bhutan. Really, the rice terraces here are every bit as spectacular as they are in Nepal, they just aren’t as extensive and Bhutan is a must more expensive country to travel to.
#6 India. There are wonderful rice terraces in India’s Himalayan areas, especially Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh. You’ll find some among the hill station areas of Tamil Nadu too.
#8 Eastern Africa, in the hills of Rwanda and Burundi and around Lake Bunyoni in Uganda.
#9 Northern Vietnam & Laos, especially in the hill tribe areas around Sapa, Vietnam; Northern Laos might be the best place to see rice terraces by boat.
#10 Morocco, in the Atlas Mountains.
A few of the other places with rice terraces include Iran and the northern areas of Iraq (indeed, the Gardens Of Babylon were built upon terraces), Chile, Mexico, Fiji, Korea and Japan, Yemen, Madagascar, Swaziland, Sri Lanka (although tea plantations have taken over most of the terraces) and the hilly rural areas of Southeast Asia not mentioned above.
We do not know of rice terraces in the United States or Europe but perhaps you do. Or maybe you have your own thoughts on the best rice terrace destinations. For you, the comments section awaits . . . .
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