Approximately 75 percent of the population are Thai, and 14 percent are ethnic Chinese. Other ethnic groups include Malay-speaking Muslims (4 percent), Khmers (1.3 percent), Soai, or Kui (1.3 percent), Karen (1.3 percent), and Indians and Pakistanis (.4 percent). There are maybe 100,000 people of Indian, Pakistani or South Asian descent. Westerners are known as farangs. Farang is the accepted word for a foreigner and doesn’t implicitly have negative connotations

Additionally, as of 2004 Thailand hosted some 188,400 refugees from Burma, many of them ethnic, non-Thai-speaking Karen who fled their country in the face of fighting between Karen rebels and Burmese troops. An estimated 1 million members of hill tribes, collectively called “highlanders,” live in the northwest. Remnants of 1940s Chinese Nationalist military forces and their descendants and children of Vietnamese immigrants live in northeastern Thailand. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the 1980s it was estimated that Chinese constituted about 11 percent of the population, Malay about 3 percent, and long-term resident (as opposed to refugee) Khmer less than 1 percent. The remaining minority groups ranged in number from a few hundred to more than 100,000. Of these, the largest group was the Karen, estimated at about 250,000 in the 1980s. Some of the minority groups spoke languages of the Tai family but differed in several ways from the core Thai.

See Hill Tribe Articles

Homogeneity and Regional Identity in Thailand

An estimated 85 percent or more of Thailand’s population speak a language of the Tai family and share other cultural features, such as adherence to Theravada Buddhism while about 75 percent are considered member of the Thai ethnic group.

Today, there are four regions of Thailand with distinct cultures: the north, the northeast, the central area, and the south. Although regional and cultural differences exist, there is a strong national identity, and the central Thai language is taught and understood throughout the country. This is enhanced by a well-developed mass media and communications system, a good telephone service, and a reliable transportation system servicing all parts of the country. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]

The only exception to this is the hill tribe people in the mountainous regions that surround northern Thailand. The hill tribe people migrated south from China and have remained relatively separate and distinct. However, as the government cracks down on the growing of poppies (for opium and heroin production) and deforestation, the hill tribe people have been moving into the lowlands of Thailand or, through better roads and transportation, commute regularly into the lowland cities for work. Hill tribe people have maintained their own languages, cultures, and customs in the past several centuries.

In addition, there is also an ethnic division between the Thais and the 10 percent of the population who are of Chinese descent. Mostly excluded from the upper echelons of nobility, Sino-Thai people have gained power and status through commerce. The ethnic Chinese in Thailand have managed to blend well into the urban middle-class communities with particularly great contributions in commerce and, more recently, the sciences, while still maintaining their traditional heritage through customs and Confucian family values. Despite the longstanding tradition of classes, social mobility is common, and the ethnic Chinese stand as examples of “rags-to-riches” possibilities. Racial prejudice exists on a subtle level, but has never resulted in overt segregation or violence, even during the anti-Chinese nationalistic government in 1939.

Ethnic and Regional Relations in Thailand

Although the population of Thailand is relatively homogeneous—regionalism and ethnic differences are issues that are socially and politically significant. Moreover, these differences affect the access of specific groups and regions to economic and other resources, which in turn heightened ethnic or regional consciousness. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the past, the government had often ignored the needs of the outlying regions. Neglect, corrupt administration, and heavy taxation perhaps affected the Thai-Lao more than others. Until King Mongkut established central control through administrators in the nineteenth century, the Thai-Lao region was governed by local Lao princes who were really vassals of the Thai monarch. Corvee (forced) labor and oppressive taxation supported a rapidly expanding Thai court, bureaucracy, and military. Peasant revolts erupted and were suppressed. Real social and economic changes did not began until the reign of King Bhumibol, who in the early 1960s was assisted in these efforts by Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, a northeasterner. In the 1960s, programs of community and agricultural development were coupled with counterinsurgency measures; these efforts continued into the 1980s with mixed results.

The problems had accumulated over time, and solutions were difficult. Whether the tensions and the potential for conflict between the central government and the Thai-Lao could be understood solely or even largely in ethnic terms was questionable. Besides ethnicity and regionalism, a number of other factors required consideration, including the inadequacy of most economic reform measures and the insensitivity or repressiveness of administrators. The Central Thai lack of understanding of social forms and practices different from their own contributed to the mishandling of local situations and the imposition of so-called reforms without full consideration of the effects of these changes on the local people. The Thai-Lao had a close cultural and linguistic relationship with the people of Laos that was further strengthened by trade and kinship. Laos was viewed by many northeasterners as their home country.

Cultural Assimilation in Thailand

In “The Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns”, Suntaree Komin wrote: “The fact that there are evidences of successful assimilation of ethnic groups in Thailand (i.e., Chinese, Indians, etc.) or acceptance of different religions in Thailand (i.e., Christian, Islam, Hindu, Sikhs, etc.), has led many attempts to investigate the reasons for the successful assimilation. Eisenstadt analyzes migratory movements in relation to the motivation to migrate, the social structure of the actual migratory process, and the absorption of the migrants into the social and cultural framework of the new society. He sets three criteria to determine the degree of full absorption with the new society. They are: (i) Acculturation—the extent to which the immigrant leans the various roles, norms, and customs of the absorbing society; (ii) Personal adjustment—successful adaptation evidence as low rates of suicide, mental illness, crime, family upheaval and so on; and (iii) Institutional dispersion—the extent of the immigrants dispersion into the various institutional spheres of the society, with the assumption that full absorption has occurred when the migrant group populates the society’s institutions and ceases to have a separate identity. [Source: Suntaree Komin, “The Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns”, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991]

“Gordon (1964) gives special importance to the structural aspects of assimilation—to the degree to which migrants have been able to move beyond the primary groups that are part of their ethnic communities into groups that are contained within the new society. He distinguishes 7 different but inter-related sub-processes of assimilation. They are: (i) Cultural or behavioural assimilation (acculturation), where cultural patterns have changed toward those of the host society; (ii) Structural assimilation, where large-scale entry of migrants into cliques, clubs, and institutions has occurred within the host society, on a primary group level; (iii) Marital assimilation, where extensive inter-marriage has taken place; (iv) Identificational assimilation, where migrants have developed a sense of peoplehood based exclusively on the host society; (v) Attitude receptional assimilation, where social relations involve an absence of prejudice toward members of the migrant goup; (vi) Behavioural receptional assimilation, where no discriminatory behaviour is shown toward members of the migrant group; and (vii) Civic assimilation, where conflict between migrants and the host society is absent over issues concerning values and power.

“Taft who also treated assimilation as a multi-faceted process, in his attempt to identify basic aspects of the assimilation process, lists 5 aspects, with each may be analyzed in terms of their dynamics. They are: (i) Cultural knowledge and skills, in which the migrant leans the language, learns new roles, and acquires knowledge of the history and culture of his host society; (ii) Social interaction, in which the migrant is socially accepted and interpersonal contacts occur; (iii) Membership identity; in which the migrant is granted formal membership in groups within the host society; (iv) Integration into new groups within the host society, in which the migrant assumes some status within the new society and is granted attendant roles, privileges, and rights; and (v) Conformity to group norms, in which the migrant adopts the values, frames of reference, and role perceptions of the host society, performs roles according to its norms, and conforms to its norms in appearance and expressive behaviour.

“According to these criteria, there is no doubt that the minority groups (i.e., Chinese-Thai) in Thailand are successfully assimilated on all counts. Briefly stated, there is fact of structural assimilation or institutional dispersion where migrant descendents have merged in and up in various institutions, social, administrative and political as well as identificational assimilation, where there is hardly any migrant descendent who would want to be identified as anything else other than being Thai. As observed by researchers, they bear Thai names, look and behave like Thai. They acquire shared attitudes, values and beliefs in various aspects. They are, to all intents and purposes Thai.

“Since society has a structured nature, any migrant does not enter a homogeneous mass, but a social field that is organized and stratified in various ways which sets the range of possibilities. However, the extent to which a migrant has become assimilated is very much determined by his success in being accepted into some of these groups, and assuming a role and status in each. Crucial on the process of being accepted has to do with the receptional assimilation on the part of the host society, both in attitude and behaviour, where social relation involve an absence of prejudice toward migrants, and social interaction, in which the migrant is socially accepted and interpersonal contacts occur.

“These are viewed as the potential positive ground and atmosphere for successful assimilation to take place. In view of this basic assimilation process, which has a lot to do with the attitude of the host society and the pattern of social interactions, the present researcher considers that the Thai “social smoothing” interpersonal relationship values have to a great degree accounted for the initial important successful assimilation process, in that: (i) there is an obvious absence of strong prejudice against different religion, different beliefs or different race, because the Thai would rarely show a look-down attitude toward another human being. It is the cognitive world of the Thai interactions to keep one another’s “ego” relatively untouched; and (ii) the value of smooth interpersonal interactions has played down any apparent differences between interactors.

“This “soft” approach characteristics of the Thai—in keeping one another’s ego intact and by providing pleasant and smooth interpersonal interactions—helps to reduce tensions and provides a comfortable ground for adjustment process to occur smoothly and successfully. It makes the migrant feel at ease, and disarms their potential defensive mechanism, who in turn are charmed into the Thai way of interacting, behaving, and thinking, and ultimately assimilated into the Thai identity as evidenced in the case of the Chinese-Thai. Through positive interactions, changes voluntarily occur on the part of the migrants, who gradually discard certain stereotypic manner and behaviour of their migrant parents (for example, the Wok wek woi wai loud and blunt manner of the Chinese) and adopt the contrasting Thai soft-spoken polite manner, and so on. This internal subjective assimilation at the cognitive-affective level provides the sold base for successful assimilation. This subjective-affective assimilation is further facilitated by structural assimilation , whereby a fully assimilated person can work his way up in any social, political or administrative position with no discriminative barrier. One can find, tracing through the backgrounds of all the powerful position holders, a number of different ethnic backgrounds.

The Thai and Other Tai-Speaking Peoples

Speaking of the "Thai" actually means speaking about members of the Tai-Kadai language family, which consists of six subgroups, defined by their geographical settlement: 1) Western Thai (Shan); 2) Southern Thai (Siamese) ; 3) Mekong Thai (Lao, etc); 4) Upland Thai ("Coloured" Thai); 5) Eastern Thai (Nung, etc); 6) Kadai (Li, Kelao, Laqua). This way we can find many members of this language family in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The core Thai--the Central Thai, the Northeastern Thai (Thai-Lao), the Northern Thai, and the Southern Thai--spoke dialects of one of the languages of the Tai language family. The peoples who spoke those languages--generically also referred to as Tai--originated in southern China, but they were dispersed throughout mainland Southeast Asia from Burma to Vietnam. It was conventional in the 1980s to refer to Tai-speaking peoples in Thailand as Thai (same pronunciation) with a regional or other qualifier, e.g., Central Thai. There were, however, groups in Thailand in the late twentieth century who spoke a language of the Tai family but who were not part of the core population. [Source: Library of Congress]

Although the four major Tai-speaking groups taken together clearly constituted the overwhelming majority of Thailand's population, it was not entirely clear what proportion of the core Thai fell into each of the regional categories. Among the reasons for the uncertainty were the movements of many who were not Central Thai in origin into the Bangkok area and its environs and the movement of Central Thai, perhaps in smaller numbers, into other regions as administrators, educators, technicians, bureaucrats, soldiers, and sometimes as settlers. The Central Thai, of generally higher status than the general populace, tended to retain their identities wherever they lived, whereas those from other regions migrating to the central plain might seek to take on Central Thai speech, customs, and identity.

Although politically, socially, and culturally dominant, the Central Thai did not constitute a majority of the population and barely exceeded the Thai-Lao in numbers, according to a mid-1960s estimate. At that time, the Central Thai made up roughly 32 percent of the population, with the Thai-Lao a close second at about 30 percent. The Thai-Lao were essentially the same ethnic group that constituted the dominant population of Laos, although they far outnumbered the population of that country.

In terms of language and culture, both the Northeastern Thai and the Northern Thai were closer to the peoples of Laos than to the Central Thai. Speakers of the Tai language of Kham Mu'ang (known as Yuan in its written form) made up the majority of the population of the 9 northernmost provinces from the Burmese-Lao border down through the province of Uttaradit, an area of about 102,000 square kilometers. Highly independent, the Northern Thai lived mainly in small river valleys where they grew glutinous rice as their staple food. The Chakkri Dynasty continued to maintain a court in Chiang Mai, the largest city of the North, which the Thai people looked to as a major religious and cultural center.

Generally, before the trend toward homogenization of dress, language, and forms of entertainment fostered by modern communication, there were regional differences in costume, folklore, and other aspects of culture among the Thai people. The continuing retention of these differences into the 1980s seemed to be a function of relative remoteness from Bangkok and other urban areas. Of some importance, according to observers, was the tendency to cling to, and even accentuate, these regional differences as symbols of a sense of grievance. The number of persons belonging to groups other than the core Thai was difficult to specify precisely, whether membership in those groups was defined by language, by other features of culture, or by an individual's self-identification. Part of the problem was the Thai government's policy of promoting assimilation but not encouraging the active collection of data on Thai ethnicity. Government statistics on aliens, tribal minorities, and refugees were more readily available, although sometimes disputed by both scholars and the groups in question.

Central Thai

A number of linguistic scholars mark the reign of King Narai (1657-88) as the point when the Central Thai (or Ayutthaya Thai) dialect was established as the standard to which other forms or dialects were compared. Central Thai was the required form used in modern Thailand for official, business, academic, and other daily transactions. From Ayutthayan times, Central Thai borrowed words from Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. Thailand still maintained a court language called Phasa Ratchasap, although King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) encouraged the use of Central Thai. Similarly, Pali, the religious language, although still used, gradually was being replaced by Central Thai for many ceremonies and writings. Although the Thai Royal Academy was the final arbiter of new words added to the language, post-World War II Thai has been influenced heavily by American English, especially in the area of science and technology. [Source: Library of Congress]

Increasingly, Central Thai was spoken with varied fluency all over the country as the education system reached larger numbers of children. Nevertheless, regional dialects (or their local variants) remained the language of the home and of the local community. Learning Central Thai is not a simple matter. The dialects of the four regional components of the core population are only mutually intelligible with difficulty. There are lexical and syntactic differences as well as differences in pronunciation.

Differences in dialect were sometimes an irritant in relations between those whose native tongue was Central Thai and persons from other regions. On the one hand, if persons migrating from other regions to Bangkok spoke their own dialect, they might be treated with contempt by the Central Thai. If, on the other hand, such persons failed to speak Central Thai with sufficient fluency and a proper accent, that, too, could lead to their being treated disrespectfully.

Dominance of Central Thai Culture in Thailand

At the heart of regional and ethnic relations in Thailand is the social, linguistic, and political dominance of the Central Thai—descendants of the subjects of the premodern kingdoms of the Chao Phraya floodplain. The Central Thai are defined as those who considered central Thailand their birthplace or the Central Thai (Standard Thai) dialect their first language. With the advent of increased migration, modern communication, and education, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use language to determine place of origin. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the past, the government took the position that all Tai people should be accorded all the rights, privileges, and opportunities that went with being a citizen. In the 1980s, members of non-Tai minority groups were being afforded similar rights, and efforts were being made to incorporate them into the Ekkalak Thai. The higher a person's aspirations, however, the more thoroughly he or she needed to assimilate into Central Thai culture. Thus, most of the representatives of the government were either from Central Thailand or had absorbed the perspective of that region.

In the past, some Thai governments put great pressure on the various Thai peoples to forsake regional customs and dialects for "modern" Central Thai culture. By law the Central Thai dialect was taught in all government schools, and all who aspired to government positions, from village headman on up, were expected to master Central Thai. Nonetheless, because local dialects remained the medium of communication in schools, markets, and provincial government offices, differences between the Central Thai and other dialects survived. The Central Thai tended to see other Thai as both different and inferior. In turn, the latter saw the Central Thai as exploiters. Inevitably, many non-Central Thai sometimes felt inferior to the Central Thai, who represented progress, prestige, wealth, and national power.

In the 1980s, however, there was a rebirth of the study and teaching of local languages, especially Lan Na Thai in the North and also the Southern Thai dialect. Efforts were also made to expose all Thai to the different cultures and traditions of the various regions through regional translation and art programs. At the same time, Central Thai became more readily accepted as a second language. The success of the national identity programs could be explained in part by the Thai literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia.

Large Thai Minority Groups in Thailand

The “Pak Tai” and Southern Thai live in 14 different provinces in southern Thailand. There are about 5 million of them. They have traditionally been wet rice cultivators and cattle breeders. Although most of them are Buddhists, more than one million are Muslims. They speak a variety of Tai dialects often referred to as dambro. See Separate Section for more on them.

The Lao Isan are essentially Lao that live in northeastern Thailand Also known as the Northeastern Thai, Thai Lao, Isan, Issan or Isaan, they are mostly Buddhists who speak a Lao dialect of the Thai language, which is also spoken by lowland Lao in Laos.See Separate Section for more on them.

The Yuan are a Tai-speaking group that dominates the Chiang Mai region of northern Thailand. There are about 6 million of them. There also a few thousand in Laos. Also known as the Lanatai, Lao and Youanne, Youon and Yun, they have traditionally had more in common with the Lao—their northern Pali-language, their Buddhist customs, their script, their polite terms and temple architecture—than the Thais. The Yuan have largely been assimilated into Thai society but still maintain string connections with the Mekong regions and the Lao. The Yuan differ from the Lao of northeastern Thailand in that they tattoo their abdomens and their dialect is different. It is often sometimes said that Northern women are the most beautiful and people the friendliest and most polite in Thailand.

Small Thai-Speaking Groups in Thailand

Of the more than 85 percent of the country's population that spoke a language of the Tai family, only a small fraction constituted the membership of the half-dozen or so ethnic groups outside the core Thai. These groups lived in the North or Northeast and were often closely related to ethnic groups in neighboring countries. [Source: Library of Congress]

In Thailand, the largest of these Tai-speaking minorities were the Phutai (or Phuthai) of the far Northeast, who numbered about 100,000 in the mid-1960s. There were also many Phutai in neighboring Laos. The Phuan and the Saek, also in the Northeast and with kin in Laos, were similar but much smaller groups. Whereas all other Tai languages spoken in Thailand belonged to the southwestern branch of the family, that spoken by the Saek belonged to the northern branch, suggesting a more recent arrival from China.

The Khorat Thai were not considered Central Thai, despite their close resemblance in language and dress, because they and others tended to identify them as a separate group. The Khorat Thai were said to be descendants of Thai soldiers and Khmer women.

The Shan (a Burmese term) in the North were part of a much larger group, the majority of whom lived in Burma, while others lived in China. Different groups of the Shan called themselves by names in which the term Tai was modified by a word meaning "great" or something similar. The Thai called them Thai Ngio or Thai Yai. Also in the North were a people called the Lue, estimated in the mid-1960s to number less than 50,000. Like the Shan, they resided in greater numbers elsewhere, particularly in southern China.

The Lao Theung—a group that lives mostly in Laos but has some members in Thailand—have traditionally lived in villages with around 100 households. Most are surrounded by rice fields, swamps, ponds, plains and secondary forests. Villages tend to be about five kilometers apart. Houses are usually 1½ meters above the ground s built on piles or stilt. The homes of the poor have bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Those that can afford it get metal roofs and wood walls and floors.

Isan (Tha-Lao)

The Tai-speaking peoples of Northeast Thailand and the Khorat Plateau are known as the Thai-Lao, Isan, Lao Isan or Northeastern Thai. Essentially Laotians of Thai origin, they speak Isan, which is extremely close to the standard language of Laos, located across the Mekong River from Northeast Thailand. The northeastern region is also called Isan in the Thai language and sometimes spelled Isaan.

According to Lonely Planet the 19 northeast provinces that make up Isaan are Thailand’s forgotten backyard. The guidebook states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.” Padung told the Star that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region. “And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said. The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields. The region is also know for the ghost masks from the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments.

Poverty in Northeast Thailand

The Northeast is the most populated and poorest of Thailand’s four regions. It is home to a third of Thailand’s 67 million people. The culture and language are strongly influenced by their Khmer and Lao counterparts, Most of its people are Isan (Lao) speakers. The Isan have their own styles of music and are regarded as the best silk weavers in Thailands. Many are subsistence farmers or poor workers for sugar growers, who are either heavily in debt or barely get by. Many have been forced into debt by corrupt village headman, working in cahoots with wealthy landowners, using unscrupulous methods.

About 80 percent of Isaan people farmers or farm workers. Many are employed by sugar cane barons and motorbike is regarded as a symbol of wealth. Incomes, education levels and health standards are lower than elsewhere in the country. Thais from outside the region tend to regard those from the Northeast as slow, backward and ignorant. It has traditionally been ignored by national-level politics. Many of the migrants to Bangkok are Northeasterners who have come there in search of opportunities. With wages in Bangkok being 12 times higher than those in the Northeast it is no surprise that one out of every six Thais works there is from the Northeast. Many are young people, both men and women that engage in menial or physical labor-related jobs and send money back home. “Most Isaan people have very little education, so they get the dirty jobs (housemaid and construction work) that no one else wants to do. They’ve become the driving force that keeps things moving,” the Isan cartoonist Padung Kraisri told The Star.

Philip Golingai wrote in The Star, “The people's poverty is also compounded by a high birth rate. And their plight gets more difficult with each generation, as a family owns only one or two rai (1,600 sq m) of rice field to distribute among numerous children, explained Padung. So, like Noo Hin, when the children get older they have to migrate to bigger towns, especially Bangkok, to earn money. And in general, Bangkokians have a negative perception of northeasterners such as most bargirls are from Isaan. [Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, March 24, 2007]

Children were discovered in the Northeastern village of Baan Bor that subsisted almost entirely on two types of dirt: baked clay and in luang, soft layers of earth that are produced by termite-infested wood. There are also stories about families in the Northeast who are proud their daughters working as prostitutes in Bangkok because of material possessions such as televisions, DVD players and refrigerators, plus new concrete houses, that there money has allowed them to buy.

Northeast Thailand

Northeast Thailand is known to the Thais as Isan, or Isaan. It embraces the large Khorat plateau and the mountains, national parks and rolling farm land on it. The least known as least traveled part of Thailand, its is also, in the eyes of many experienced travelers, the most authentically Thai and most interesting part of country. Old traditions remain alive in part because of lack of development. Even though the region is rich in folklore, friendly people and Angkor-Wat-style Khmer temples (Northeast Thailand contains the largest set of Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia) less than five percent of foreign tourists that visit Thailand venture there.

Northeast Thailand occupies about a third of Thailand and is composed of 17 provinces. It is cut off from the rest of the country by two low escarpments: the Phetchabun to the west and the Phanom Dong Rak to the south. The region is dominated bu the Khorat Plateau, a gently rolling area of low hills and shallow lakes drained almost entirety by the Mekong Rover. The north and west of the region is bounded by the Mekong River.

Northeast Thailand is arid and often plagued by droughts. The monsoon season is short but there is often flooding. Almost every year there are floods or drought or both.The farming is poor. The soils are “thin” and their water retention is poor. The prevailing vegetation is stunted trees and sparse grass. Even so the region accounts for 36 percent of Thailand’s rice production. Much of the rice is glutenous (sticky rice), the variety favored by the Lao. Much of the Khorat is unsuitable for agricultural but has good pastures and lots of cattle and water buffalo are raised here and cowboy culture is very much alive.

The typical winter climate of the northeastern region of Thailand is usually windy and cool, dissimilar to the damp cool of the north. The main exception to this is the provinces near the Thai-Laos border. These provinces are known for their mist in the winter, especially around lovely Nakorn Panom.

History of Northeast Thailand

The Northeast has long history. Farming has been practiced for around 5,000 years. The world’s first Bronze Age culture was found here. The region is freckled with ancient burial grounds, tanks and weirs. In the A.D. first millennium powerful civilizations with advanced irrigation methods occupied the area but were gone by the early second millennium, when it was dominated by the Angkor-based Khmers. In the 14th century it was part of a Lao kingdom, which partly explains why so many Lao live here now, and was fought over by Lao and Thai dynasties. By the 19th century much of what is now Laos was a Siamese tributary state. The Siamese ceded that area to the France in 1862.

The Thai government began a program of assimilation in the early 1900s that downplayed the region's distinct identity in schools and government administration. Music became a way for northeasterners to assert this identity. Until the mid-20th century, the Isan people felt they belonged to the Lao ethnic group. Isan writer Kamsingh Srinok told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "We have been looked down upon and controlled by the central government throughout our history."

In the 20th century people from the northeast were involved in uprisings against the central government . Some were “men of merit” rebellions led political-religious leaders who claimed they had magical powers. Ho Chi Minh lived in Khorat and Udon Thani in the late 1920s and a number of Indochinese Communist Party leaders fled to Isan from laos in the 1940s giving a boost to Communist Party of Thailand . In the 1960s, Communists who fought against the Thai government had a lot of support here. The northeast also has a long tradition of gangsters and thugs enforcing the will of corrupt politicians an businessmen. At the same, the northeast is also known for its meditation centers for monks.

The Northeast's economy started to improve somewhat in the 1970s because of irrigation and energy projects, such as the construction of the Khuan Ubon Ratana (Nam Phong Dam). Moreover, because the Northeast was the location of several United States military bases during the Second Indochina War (1954-75), the region had one of the best transportation systems in Asia, which facilitated internal migration as well as communication with Bangkok. Historically, this area relied heavily on border trade with Laos and Cambodia; in 1987 the Thai government permitted increased Laotian border commerce and lifted a ban on the export of all but 61 of 273 "strategic" items previously barred from leaving Thailand. Also, traditional handicrafts, e.g., silk weavings and mats, increasingly were being sold outside the region to produce extra income. Still, approximately 82 percent of the region's labor force was involved in agriculture.

Things in Isan changed even more dramatically in 2001, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power. Tetsuya Tsuruhara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Thaksin launched unprecedented measures to aid the poverty-stricken Isan people, including the introduction of an inexpensive medical service system that requires patients to pay only 30 baht (about 92 cents), an easy-to-borrow system of agricultural funds and promotion of a "one village, one product" campaign. Thaksin declared in 2004 that an Isan household with a monthly income of 3,000 to 4,000 baht would see its income increase to 10,000 baht within five years. These initiatives were motivated by populist politics to gather votes with minimal fiscal outlay. But the Isan people found "hope" instead of "fate [in the face of poverty]." One leading intellectual was shocked when a farmer he met in Isan said, "I revere Thaksin more than [Thai] King Bhumibol [Adulyadej]. Thaksin gave us money." [Source: Tetsuya Tsuruhara, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 6, 2007]

Northeasterners also formed the core of the Red Shirt movement that were behind violent protests in Bangkok in 2010. Dustin Roasa wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When red-shirt activists began pouring into Bangkok in the spring of 2010 to demonstrate against the government of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, they defiantly blasted luk thung and mor lam from massive speakers.The leaders also held massive fundraising concerts that poured money into the movement. "During these concerts, red shirt leaders would sing old songs but would change the lyrics to be political," said James Mitchell, a researcher at Macquarie University in Australia who studies Thai popular music. Isan identity and the red-shirt movement are now nearly indistinguishable, Mitchell said. But as a wave of cultural pride and political consciousness has swept the northeast, resentment toward the red-shirt movement has grown in Bangkok in the wake of the death and destruction caused by the riots. [Source:Dustin Roasa, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2012]

Luk Thung and Mor Lam Music

Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. It has traditionally been regarded as rural, peasant music while “luk grung” has traditionally been regarded as urban, rich people music. Luk thung means “child of the field.” It is often the music you hear blaring from tinny speakers in taxis in Thailand. It recent years luk thung has been embraced by a wide audience and is particularly popular among the middle class. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

Luk thung features thumping drums and pulsating organ riffs. It developed in the 1940s as a fusion of “pleng chiwat” (“songs of life”) folk music, Hollywood and Broadway show music, and Malay pop music and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Over the years luk thung has been influenced by mambo and Latin music, yodeling-style American country-western, Japanese enka, and electronic music.

Early luk thung celebrated romantic love in a rural setting and focused on the lives of ordinary country people and their poverty and hard lives. The lyrics often tell the hard-luck stories of peasant farmers, prostitutes, truck drivers, railway workers, day laborers and street vendors. The words and singing style in luk thung are often very sexually suggestive.

Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's northeastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen, also known as khene.

Mor Lam develop out of all-night festival music that features singing battles between men and women. Similar to music from Laos, it played by small groups of musicians singing and playing the “khaen” (bambo mouth organ), “chin” (temple-style bells) and “phin” (2-4 string guitar). Popular mor lam artists include Banyen Rakgan, Jintara Poonlarp and Chalerphol Malaikahm.

Red Shirts and Isan Music

Dustin Roasa wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “in Thailand's fractured politics, Isan music is closely associated with the red-shirt political movement, which Bangkok'spro-monarchy yellow shirts — who like the revivalists tend to be educated, urban and middle class — blame for riots that killed at least 90 people in the spring of 2010. Isan accounts for roughly one-third of Thailand's land area and population and remains one of the country's poorest regions. The Thai government began a program of assimilation in the early 1900s that downplayed the region's distinct identity in schools and government administration. Music became a way for northeasterners to assert this identity. [Source: Dustin Roasa, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2012]

“When red-shirt activists began pouring into Bangkok in the spring of 2010 to demonstrate against the government of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, they defiantly blasted luk thung and mor lam from massive speakers. The leaders also held massive fundraising concerts that poured money into the movement. "During these concerts, red shirt leaders would sing old songs but would change the lyrics to be political," said James Mitchell, a researcher at Macquarie University in Australia who studies Thai popular music.

“Isan identity and the red-shirt movement are now nearly indistinguishable, Mitchell said. But as a wave of cultural pride and political consciousness has swept the northeast, resentment toward the red-shirt movement has grown in Bangkok in the wake of the death and destruction caused by the riots. Siangsukon is sensitive to these tensions but says that his motives are purely musical, not political. "I don't care if an artist sings for the red-shirt movement," he said. "If the music is good, I'm open-minded to it."

Isaan-Themed Cartoon

Cartoonist Padung Kraisri has made a name for himself for his character Noo Hin. Padung uses his creations to portray the people of Isaan. Philip Golingai wrote in The Star, “ The most famous maid in Thailand is Noo Hin, a 15-year-old girl who manages to perform her household chores while hunting down lizards to eat and rescuing her employer from an evil supermodel. The naïve and cheeky maid en-thralls about a million Thais who follow her comical adventure toiling for her 19-year-old filthy-rich and busty employer, Khun Milk.[Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, March 24, 2007]

“Noo Hin is a cartoon character created by Padung Kraisri, a 47-year-old cartoonist from Ubon Rat-chathani in Thailand. In 2006, the popular Thai comic strip, Noo Hin, was fleshed out into a blockbuster movie, Noo Hin: The Movie. For Padung, Noo Hin is the embodiment of Isaan. Her characteristics – honest, diligent and yet naïve in a positive way – reflect the Isaan people. And with her very square nose, and dark skin, she has the typical look of Isaan people, the cartoonist noted, adding: “But the Isaan people are cute in a certain way.”

“Milk, her Bangkok-based employer, is beautiful and sexy, while Noo Hin is diminutive and plain. “Most good-looking people come from Bangkok. But I did not have the intention to portray Isaan girls as not so good-looking. “It is just the way I drew Noo Hin,” explained Padung.

Non-Tai Minorities

Besides the Tai-speaking minorities, there were a number of peoples speaking languages of other families (although increasing numbers were acquainted with a Thai dialect, especially Central Thai, if they acquired the language in school). Some--such as the Khmer in the eastern portion of the country, the Karen in the northern and western parts of Thailand, and the Malay in the South--found themselves within the boundaries of Thailand as a consequence of conflict and shifting borders. [Source: Library of Congress]

Others, such as many of the hill peoples, were relatively recent migrants from China and the Indochinese Peninsula. They found their way to the peripheries of Thailand either in search of land or to escape political turmoil. Groups entering Thailand that had been minorities in their countries of origin, as hill peoples typically were, became more or less permanent residents of Thailand, although still largely unassimilated. Others, particularly the Mon, who lived in the central region, became substantially integrated.

The groups of Vietnamese who had arrived for various reasons from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries varied in the extent to which they were rooted in Thailand. Some groups of Khmer, refugees from political turmoil in their own country since 1975, were also recent arrivals in Thailand. Finally, there were the Chinese. Of the estimated 6 million in Thailand in 1987, most could be differentiated by the region of China from which they came, when they had arrived, and the extent to which they had been assimilated into Thai society.

Khmer in Thailand

Two groups of Khmer could also be distinguished--long-time inhabitants of Thailand and more recent arrivals. By the midfifteenth century, much of the western region of the Khmer Empire had come under the control of Ayutthaya. Many of the Khmer peoples remained in the area that had come under Thai domination. Five centuries later the protracted civil conflict in Cambodia, which began with the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime in 1975 and included the Vietnam-supported overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in 1979, led to the arrival at the Thai-Cambodian border of additional hundreds of thousands of Khmer. Some Khmer had crossed over into Thailand; many others might be expected to do so if several political obstacles were overcome.

Theravada Buddhists and wet-rice cultivators, the Khmer spoke a language of the Mon-Khmer group and were heirs to a long and complex political and cultural tradition. If long-term resident Khmer and Khmer refugees were both included, there were perhaps as many as 600,000 to 800,000 Khmer living in Thailand in the 1980s. Many of the long-resident Khmer were said to speak Thai, sometimes as a first language, and religious and other similarities contributed over time to Thai-Khmer intermarriage and to Khmer assimilation into Thai society. Newly arrived Khmer, however, were not yet assimilated.

The Mon

The Mon are an ethnic group that lives primarily in Myanmar but are also found in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. There are an old group that has been in Burma for over a thousand years and in Thailand at least 400 years and were largely independent and had a great empire until they were defeated by the Burmese in 1757. The Mon are also known as the Mun, Peguan, Talaing, Taleng, There about 1.5 million of them in Myanmar; 100,000 in Thailand and smaller numbers in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mon speak an Austroasiatic language in Mon-Khmer group and practice Theravada Buddhism like the Burmese and Thais. In Myanmar, most also speak Burmese. For many Mon Burmese is their first language. Although they have their own state in Myanmar and have been active in the ethnic insurgency against the Myanmar government they have largely been assimilated there.

The Mon have traditionally lived in villages in the lowlands and raised wet rice, sweet potatoes, pineapples and sugar cane and fished for consumption and money. Competition from Thai commercial vessels has caused Mon fishing to decline. The Mon are regarded as superb potters. Many still live in thatched roof houses without electricity. Many villages have a single ramshackle school with perhaps one teacher.

Mon History

The first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma were the Mon who were originally from China and settled in what is now northern Burma around the third century B.C. The Mon where a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma.

The Mon and were heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture and Asoka Buddhist kingdom in India.. They established the Dvaravati Kingdom (A.D. 6th to 11th century) and several centers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Dvaravatis controlled the Menam Valley area from the 6th or 7th century to the 11th century. They were ultimately defeated by the Thais who absorbed much of their culture.

Pegu (50 miles from was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya.

Mon in Thailand

Perhaps the first Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia, and the founders in the seventh century of the kingdom of Haripunjaya near present-day Chiang Mai, the Mon greatly influenced the development of Thai culture. Mon architecture dotted the North, where a number of temples were still inhabited by Mon monks in the 1980s. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Mon, also known as Raman or Tailaing, migrated from Burma during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. They were welcomed by the Chakkri rulers, and their religious discipline helped inspire the reforms made by King Mongkut (Rama IV, reigned 1851-68). The Mon who settled chiefly in the North and the central plain, e.g., at Nonthaburi, Ayutthaya, Lop Buri, Uthai Thani, and Ratchaburi, generally were wet-rice farmers who also had specialized skills such as pottery-making. They maintained a social organization similar to that of the Thai and other lowland cultures. Their villages were governed by Mon headmen, who in turn were responsible to district and provincial officers of Mon ancestry.

Although their language was related to Khmer, the Mon incorporated a large number of Thai words into their vocabulary. Moreover, language differences became less important as Mon children, educated in Thai schools, learned Central Thai. In the 1980s, some Mon still used their own language in certain contexts, but few did not know Thai. In general, the Mon were more integrated into Thai society than any other non-Thai group.

Vietnamese in Thailand

Three broad categories of Vietnamese are found in Thailand. The first are the descendants of persons who fled from political upheaval and persecution during the precolonial era in the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century. Most of them settled either in Bangkok or in the area southeast of it, and many of their descendants were absorbed into Thai society, although some still lived in villages that were identifiably Vietnamese. Many who came in the nineteenth century were refugees from anti-Catholic persecution by rulers in Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) before the French established political control over that area.

The second category consisted of persons who opposed the establishment of French domination over all Vietnam in 1884 and presumably expected their stay in Thailand to be short. With some exceptions, however, their descendants and those of other Vietnamese who came to Thailand in the first decades of the twentieth century remained. The earliest arrivals in this category, like their predecessors, mostly came to southeast Thailand. Later immigrants tended to go to the Northeast. The third category included those who fled from Vietnam between the end of World War II in 1945 and the consolidation of North Vietnamese rule over all of Vietnam in 1975. For those who came after the Second Indochina War had ended, Thailand was simply a way station en route to somewhere else, usually the United States.

In the mid-1970s, the number of Vietnamese in Thailand was estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000, most of them in the Northeast.

Most of the 40,000 to 50,000 Vietnamese who came in 1946 and shortly thereafter were driven from Laos by the French, who were then reimposing their rule over all of Indochina. More Vietnamese came later, and, like those who came in the 1920s and 1930s, they expected to return to Vietnam. Between 1958 and 1964 (when the intensification of the war in Vietnam inhibited their return), arrangements were made for the repatriation of Vietnamese to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and an estimated 40,000 left Thailand. Over the years a few families went to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The movements of this period, both voluntary and involuntary, left between 60,000 and 70,000 Vietnamese in Thailand, an undetermined portion of which were post-World War II migrants who could not or would not return to their homeland.


The Sakai is a jungle tribe that lives in the rain forests of southern Thailand and is on the verge of becoming extinct. Most of the Sakai live in the deep jungle on the border between the Phatthalung, Trang, and Satun provinces of Thailand. They are called Ngaw by Thais apparently because their frizzy hair and dark-skinned complexion reminds Thais of the Rambutan fruit (“ngaw” in Thai). [Source: Lonely Planet and seacanoe.net

The Sakai are believed to be the remnants of a Proto-Malay race that once inhabited all of Southeast Asia. They are sometimes grouped with the Semang (Orang Asli), a Negrito tribe that lives to the south in peninsular Malaysia. To some tThe commonly-used term Sakai is pejorative.

Hunting wildlife is the main task for their survival in the jungle. A cyclindrical mouthpiece made from bamboo stems and poison darts are the men's weapon for hunting. Meals are unscheduled. They eat when they are hungry and survive on foodstuff until they get it. They eat a root plant that is similar to a potato.

The Sakai live in the easily hand-made shelters called "Tub." Tub are made from palm leaves for structuring and are covered with banana leaves. The shape looks like a hut without room space or a pillar. There is just enough space under the roof for sleeping, cooking, and a fireplace, which is ignited all the time since they are afraid of the darkness. The shelters will be abandoned after a lack of food supply, or when they make the decision that their life is no longer safe there. Their reasons for moving on include: 1) Lack of food supply; 2) Death of someone in the tribe; and 3) The strange behavior of the Sakai during the evacuation: They initially use the toilet in a location far away from the Tub. However, they will eventually move closer and closer to their home over a period of a month. Once they reach the point nearest to the Tub, they will move. Because the Sakai is an itinerant tribe, we cannot specify where they are.

Fifty years ago, the Sakai used only one piece of red cloth to cover their body. Now they have adapted, and wear more modern clothing, like t-shirts. Some of the Sakai can speak the southern local Thai language, but most cannot write because they are not educated. Their accent sounds similar to the Sea Gypsy or Malaysian language. The government has tried education programs, but the Sakai cannot accept the rules and behaviour adaptation. The government has also made an effort to incorporate them into rubber plantation agriculture.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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