It is the rainy season of 1969. Nang Sidaeng, a pretty Southern Lao woman lives on a large farm near Savannakhet. Popular for her elegant traditional dancing, her only concerns are the numerous suitors who come calling on her, and her desire to marry the handsome, courteous and honorable heir to a nearby coffee plantation, Anousak.
But news arrives that Anousak is engaged to his plain, unambitious cousin Maythanee. At a barbecue at Anousak's estate the next day, Nang Sidaeng confesses her feelings to Anousak, who respects her feelings but does not love her. He tells Nang Sidaeng that Maythanee is much more similar to him, and tells Nang Sidaeng she is very different from him, which was putting it politely. Nang Sidaeng slaps Anousak and he leaves the room.
Nang Sidaeng then realizes she is not alone, and in fact the scandalous but dashing Rote Bounsavath has been watching everything. He compliments Nang Sidaeng on being unladylike. Meanwhile, war continues to rage on across the countryside.
There Nang Sidaeng discovers city life agrees with her but she increasingly finds herself running into Rote Bounsavath, who she finds unbearably infuriating yet irresistible. He encourages her to forget about the conventional decorum for grieving widows. Which works out quite well for him.
Soon everyone is caught up in drama and amid many hardships and struggles. Nang Sidaeng comes to realize that she admires and respects her cousin Maythanee who endures it all with unrelenting optimism, even after Anousak become broken, boring and disheartened by his family's losses.
Nang Sidaeng might have been considered selfish and conceited, but she also learned to help her family and friends bear any burdens, as long as it wasn't too much of an inconvenience. To save her farm, she marries the elderly but doddering Thanou Kamarath and helps him to set up a lumber company. Because that's not an accident waiting to happen.
In 1976, Rote returns from the North a wealthy man, although the source of his gain is spoken of only in hushed whispers. When Thanou gets killed by a throwaway plot-device, Rote wastes no time proposing to Nang Sidaeng, and they get married amid much gossip.
Rote does everything in his power to help the family maintain its respect as the new government takes over, but in doing so grows disenchanted and bitter, falling out of love with Nang Sidaeng even as she realizes it was Rote she loved all along. But it's too late.
Rote declares, "Frankly, my dear Nang Sidaeng, I'd rather go study the Dhamma," and leaves her to travel to Bangkok to become a monk. Or something.