Amazing Isaan – Thailand’s Northeast Region
Thailand is variously composed of 4 or 6 regions, depending on who you ask, as a rise in regional identity in recent years has pressed inhabitants to emphasize regional traits. Whether there are 4 or 6 regions, one that is never forgotten is the Northeast region, also known as Isaan. The language, history, and culture of this large and populous region all differ from the official central region or the heavily touristed North and South.
Geography and History of the Northeast
Isaan is the northeast region of Thailand and comprises 20 provinces, making up about 1/3 of the country’s total area. The region is bounded by Cambodia to the south and Lao to the east and north, while western limits are largely cultural. Despite some fertile mountain and river valleys in northern Isaan, most of the region is arid with poor soil that has been intensely farmed. Since clearing of most of the region’s forests, climate has been unpredictable and the region has a hard history of multi-year droughts followed on by flood.
The area that is now Isaan was earlier populated by Khmer people and during the Khmer Empire’s dominance of Southeast Asia, Isaan held strategic centers but was still sparsely populated forest land. In the 1300s, the Lan Zan kingdom centered in Laos spread influence and settlers into this region, and later Siam (now Thailand) exerted a major influence, especially in warring with Lao, and this also led to a major influx of population. France invaded the region in the 1800s but a treaty gave Isaan to Siam while the French stayed in what is now Laos. Because of this history, many Isaan people refer to themselves as Lao first and Thai second, displaying pride in their heritage and their present nation.
People in Isaan learn central Thai (thai klang) in school, but the languages used in their homes are typically Lao Isaan or Khmer Isaan (in the southern provinces bordering Cambodia). A number of other languages remain as a residue of the region’s pre-Tai Khmer influence, though these are limited to small communities and most speakers will speak either Lao or Khmer dialects in the surrounding area.
Khmer Isaan really comprises a set of dialects all found in the southern provinces of Buriram, Surin, Sri Saket, and Ubon Ratchathani where they border Cambodia. Historic boundaries were not so clearly defined as at present and many Khmer speakers still have relatives on both sides of the border. This language is un-related to Thai and Lao languages and is especially distinct in being a non-tonal language.
Lao Isaan is considered a dialect of the Lao language, although Thai and Lao languages are so similar that it’s hard to tell where dialect boundaries start to separate into languages. The grammar of the two languages is almost exactly the same, and many words are shared between them. Of note are several differences, for example the lack of a rolling ‘rrrrr’ and ‘ch’ sounds in Isaan. Thus words like rak (love), reuan (house), chang (elephant), and cheu (name) are pronounced hak, heuan, sang, and seu in Lao Isaan. These words can still be understood and are considered pronunciation differences by Thai people, whereas other words are completely different.
Consider the following example, where the words are nearly all different yet the word order and meaning is the same
Thai: Phrung ni khun ja pai tham ngan mai?
Lao Isaan: Meu eun jao si pai het wiak baw?
English: Tomorrow you will go do work <question word>?
(Will you go to work tomorrow?)
Isaan people are also known to speak quickly and because of their different dialect which essentially broadens their vocabulary past regular Thai, they are often found to be quick-witted comics.
Isaan culture shares elements with Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Within Thailand, Isaan is known as a rural, farming based area and people from the region are even disparaged as bumpkins. Isaan people are generally proud of their heritage and the cultural differences that distinguish them from the rest of Thailand.
Food in Isaan shows a marked difference from Thai cuisine. Isaan food is powerfully spicy and characterized by dishes that are eaten easily with khao niao (sticky rice). This glutinous rice is different from regular rice and is soaked then steamed producing chewier grains that stick together when rolled into balls. Balls of sticky rice are then dipped into various dishes, most especially som tam (spicy green papaya salad) and lap (spicy meat mince with herbs, sometimes raw). Isaan food also includes edible insects, frogs, snakes, and various birds, originating the joke, “If you want to visit Isaan and live, don’t move”.
Isaan’s economy is still largely based on agriculture, especially the production of rice. However, due to relatively frequent drought and flooding, most farmers currently diversify their crops, planting fruit and vegetables. The region is also well known for cattle and buffalo ranching, since these animals can forage on hard grasses and rice straw during the 6-7 month dry season. Nakhon Ratchasima province (also known as Khorat) is the gateway of Isaan to the markets and ports of Bangkok and as such has become an important manufacturing center. Because of the prolonged dry season and dense population of the region, many Isaan people migrate seasonally to work in other locations, most notably labour in Bangkok and tourist industry jobs in Pattaya and the South.
Isaan is a seldom visited region in Thailand, largely because it is far from the beaches of the South and relatively unknown. Lately though, Isaan pride has boosted interest in travel in the region both with Thais and foreign tourists.
Mountains in the north of Isaan, most especially Phu Reua and Phu Kra Deung in Loei province, are becoming more visited. During the cool season when the Phu Kra Deung trails open they are immediately full of hikers, though not everyone makes it to the top of this arduous climb.
Khmer ruins are another draw to the region, most notably two excellent sites further south at Prasat Hin Phi Mai in Khorat province and Prasat Hin Phanom Rung in Surin province. Both sites are excellent examples of fine Khmer stone work and have been painstakingly resorted. Phanom Rung is situated on a small hill overlooking the southern Isaan plains and presents a spectacular setting.
Festivals held throughout Isaan draw visitors, but few more than the Bang Fai festival. Though held in most Isaan provinces, the Bang Fai rocket festival in Yasothon is most widely known and visited. Huge rockets are built and fired into the air at the height of the hot season to ask for rain, and of course for competition. Bang Fai Phraya Nag, the Naga Fireball Festival held in Nong Khai province each October is a different event altogether. This festival brings believers and sceptics together to see mysterious fireballs rise from the Mekong River, though whether it’s the king of the serpents or a man-made cause, no one seems able to prove.
Isaan people are known as fun-loving and friendly, and this is expressed through their musical traditions. Using a reed pipe called the kaen, a musician can accompany a solitary singer of spontaneous poetry or else lead a full band with drums, guitars called pin, and hardwood xylophones bong lan blended with modern instruments. The most popular kind of Isaan music has to be maw lam (dance doctor) music which has a punchy dance beat and quick, clever lyrics.
The northeast of Thailand is an area where people have fought back against hardship with laughter and happiness. Isaan people are proud of their family traditions and every visitor knows that after a trip to this vibrant region you’ll feel like a part of the Isaan family too.