Isan Northeast Thailand
It is located on the Khorat Plateau, bordered by the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the south. To the west it is separated from Northern and Central Thailand by the Phetchabun mountain range. It is Thailand’s poorest region.
The main language is Issan (which is very similar to Lao), Thai is also widespread and Khmer is spoken in the south. Prominent aspects of Isan culture include Mor lam music, Muay Thai boxing, cock fighting and the food, in which sticky rice and very hot chillies are prominent.
A Brief history of Isan
Isan can trace its history from the many Bronze Age sites, with cliff paintings, artefacts and early evidence of rice cultivation. Bronze tools, such as thoughs found at Ban Chiang, could predate similar tools from Mesopotamia. The region later came under the influence first of the Dvaravati culture and then of the Khmer empire.
After the Khmer empire began to decline from the 13th century, Isan was dominated by the Lao Lan Xang kingdom. Thereafter the region was increasingly settled by Lao migrants. Siam held sway from the 17th century, and carried out forced population transfers from Laos to Isan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Franco-Siamese treaties of 1893 and 1904 made Isan the frontier between Siam and French Indochina.
In the 20th century a policy of “Thaification” promoted the incorporation of Isan as an integral part of Thailand and de-emphasised the Lao origins of the population. This policy extended to the use of the name “Isan” itself: the name is derived from that of Isana, a manifestation of Shiva as deity of the north-east. The name therefore reinforces the area’s identity as the north-east of Thailand, rather than as a part of the Lao world. Before the 1960s, the people of Thai Isan were simply labelled Lao and wrote in the language in the Lao alphabet before the central government forcibly introduced the Thai alphabet and language in schools. Most Isan people now speak the Isan language which is closely related to Lao language.
The geography of Isan
Isan covers 62,000 square miles (160,000 square km). It follows roughly the same boundry as the Khorat Plateau, which tilts from the Phetchabun mountain range in the west of the region, down towards the Mekong River. The plateau consists of two main plains: the southern Khorat plain which is drained by the Mun and Chi rivers, while the northern Sakon Nakhon plain is drained by the Loei and Songkhram rivers. The two plains are separated by the Phu Paan mountains. The soil is mostly sandy, with substantial salt deposits.
The Mekong River forms a large part of the border between Thailand and Laos to the north and east of Isan, while the south of the region borders on Cambodia. The Mekong’s main Thai tributary is the Mun River, which rises in the Khao Yai National Park near Khorat and runs east, joining the Mekong in Ubon Ratchathani Province. The other main river in Isan is the Chi River, which flows through central Isan before turning south to meet the Mun in Sisaket Province. The smaller Loei and Songkhram rivers are also tributaries of the Mekong, the former flowing north through Loei province and the latter flowing east through Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom and Nong Khai Provinces.
The average temperature range is from 30.2 C to 19.6 C. The highest temperature recorded was 43.8 C in Udon Thani province, the lowest 0.1 C in Loei province.
The economy of Isan
The Isan people have for centuries eked out an austere existence on generally inhospitable land in less than favourable conditions as substance-level agrarians and pastoral hunter-gatherers whose ancestors inhabited the area before them. As a result, this indigent farmer-class people have learned to make do with what they have, within the confines of their own sub-economy, and have developed a resilient love of life that belies their predicament.
Agriculture is the largest sector of the economy. Rice is the main crop (accounting for about 60% of the cultivated land), but farmers are increasingly diversifying into cassava, sugar cane and other crops. Many farmers still use water buffalo rather than tractors. The main animals raised for food are cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks and fish.
Despite its dominance of the economy, agriculture in the region is extremely problematic. The climate is prone to drought, while the flat terrain of the plateau is often flooded in the rainy season. The tendency to flood renders a large proportion of the land unsuitable for cultivation. In addition, the soil is highly acidic, saline and infertile from overuse. Since the 1970s, agriculture has been declining in importance at the expense of the trade and service sectors.
Isan is the poorest region of Thailand: average wages are the lowest in the country.
The culture of north east Thailand
As mentioned previously the indigenous culture is predominantly Lao, and has much in common with that of the neighbouring country of Laos. This affinity is shown in the region’s cuisine, dress, temple architecture, festivals and arts.
The region’s food is distinct from Thai and Lao cuisines, but has elements in common with each. The most obvious characteristics are the use of sticky rice rather than plain rice, as well as fiery chillies. Popular dishes include tammakhung, or in central Thai, som tam (papaya salad), larb (meat salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken). These have all spread to other parts of Thailand, but normally in bowdlerised versions which temper the extreme heat and sourness favoured in Isan for the more moderate Central Thai palate.
Conversely Central Thai food has become popular in Isan, but the French and Vietnamese influences which have affected Lao cuisine are absent. The people of the region famously eat a wide variety of creatures, such as lizards, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, silkworms and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these animals as delicacies. Food, except soups, are commonly eaten by hand.
The traditional dress of Isan is the sarong. Women’s sarongs most often have an embroidered border at the hem, while men’s are in a chequered pattern. They are worn “straight”, not hitched between the legs in Central Thai style. Men also wear a pakama – a versatile length of cloth which can be used as a belt, hat, hammock or bathing garment. Isan is the main centre for the production of Thai silk. The trade received a major boost in the post-war years, when Jim Thompson popularised Thai silk among westerners. One of the best-known types of Isan silk is mut-mee (aka mudmee), which is tie-dyed to produce geometric patterns on the thread.
The Buddhist temple (or wat) is the major feature of most villages. These temples are used not only for religious ceremonies, but also for festivals and as assembly halls. They are mostly built in the Lao style, with less ornamentation than in Central Thailand. Lao style Buddha images are also prevalent.
Isan houses are often built on stilts: the area underneath the house can be used as a living area, for storage or for keeping animals. Large jars or “ohng” are used for collecting and storing rainwater.
The main indigenous music of Isan is mor lam; it exists in a number of regional variants, plus modern forms. Since the late 1970s it has acquired greater exposure outside the region thanks to the presence of migrant workers in Bangkok. Many Mor lam singers also sing Central Thai Luk Thung music, and have produced the hybrid Luk Thung Isan form. Another form of folk music, Kantrum, is popular with the Khmer minority in the south. Although there is no tradition of written literature in the Isan language, in the latter half of the 20th century the region produced several notable writers, such as Khamsing Srinawk (who writes in Thai) and Pira Sudham (who
writes in English).
Isan is known for producing a large number of Muay Thai boxers: as with Western boxing, kickboxing provides a rare opportunity to escape from poverty. Isan’s most famous sportsman, however, is tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, whose family are from Khon Kaen.
The cultural separation from Central Thailand, combined with the region’s poverty and the typically dark skin of its people, has encouraged a considerable amount of racism against the people of Isan from ethnic Thais; the novelist Pira Sudham wrote that, “Some Bangkok Thais… said that I was not Thai, but… a water buffalo or a peasant”. Even though many Isan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, they are largely restricted to low-status jobs such as construction workers and prostitutes, and discriminatory attitudes persist. Nevertheless, the Central Thai perception of Isan is not wholly negative: Isan food and music have both been enthusiastically adopted and adapted to the tastes of the rest of the country.