Rice Without Rain opens with an introduction to Jinda, the protagonist. It establishes this through the agrarian setting of Maekung and the overworked, impoverished conditions which will animate much of the novel's development. The opening sentence reveals the struggle that the poor farmers endure: "Heat the color of fire, sky as heavy as mud, and under both, the soil- hard, dry, and unyielding." This opening establishes the struggle that life is for the farmer, conditions that surround Jinda.
As the narrative opens, Jinda sees a bird flying past the harvest. Its presence causes her to wonder and potentially believe that this year's harvest will not be as bad as the past. Yet, Jinda realizes the challenge of this year's crop. So much work is exerted for so little a product. Jinda is seventeen, and confronting the reality that she has not seen a crop as bad as this one. As Jinda and her sister, Dao, work in the field, both are startled by the hungry cries of Dao's child, Oi. The sisters work, speaking of what will happen upon receiving the income from the harvest and what they might purchase.
Conversation seeks to offset struggle and toil. As the sisters talk, their reveries reach back into harvests in which Ghan would sing to Dao, while they worked, as well as the opulent manner in which Dao's and Ghan's marriage was celebrated. Such visions are in stark contrast to the struggle which lies in front of the girls now. What was once filled with "laughter" is now replaced with "the whispers of sickles against dry stalks in parched fields."
As the girls finish, Jinda suggests that Dao and Oi join her in going down to the river to rest. From this, Inthorn, the girls' father, enters, speaking about how his age challenges his own physical strength. Jinda is close to her father, as she has become of age and as Dao has moved to her in- laws. Inthorn warns Jinda against going down to the river, foreshadowing troubles ahead. Jinda protests lightly, but recognizes her father's fear. She promises her father to go to the river but to return before dark.
The sisters rest near the banks of the river. Jinda remarks how Dao's voice sounds of lightness and "gaiety" that is no longer present as life has begun to take its toll on the older sister. It is in this context that Oi cries out of hunger. It becomes clear that both he and his mother suffer from malnutrition. Oi's hair is falling out, he is not growing, and his belly is protruding from a lack of nourishment. Dao tries to nurse her child, lamenting her own lack of nourishment which prevents her from giving milk to Oi.
While the girls bathe in the water, they are startled by a group of travelers. The leader of this group speaks to the group with an "urban accent" and asks for shelter on behalf of himself and his fellow travelers. Jinda rebukes him and gathers Dao and Oi as they walk back to their village with Jinda feeling the traveler's "gaze burn into her." Dao wonders what he is doing in Maekung, surmising that the traveler sounded educated, as if he were from Bangkok. Jinda simply repudiates him, wishing for him to leave and not return.