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. 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. Geographical features of the northeastern region comprise the flatland in the center, with rugged hills to the west and the south. The region is dominated by the Khorat Plateau, a gently rolling area of low hills and shallow lakes drained almost entirety by the Mekong River. Mountains ring the plateau on the west and the south, and the Mekong delineates much of the eastern rim. The north and west of the region is bounded by the Mekong River.
In Northeastern Thailand life moves at a leisurely pace. There are three distinct seasons. The cool interval, with clear warm days and cool nights, is from November to February. The hot dry extends from March through May. The rainy season normally begins in late June and tapers off in September or October. Northeast Thailand is arid and often plagued by droughts. The short monsoon season brings heavy flooding in the river valleys. Almost every year there are floods or drought or both. Unlike the more fertile areas of Thailand, the Northeast has a long dry season, and much of the land is covered by sparse grasses. 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. Season periods: 1) Summer – February to April; 2) Rainy – May to October; 3) Winter – November to January;
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 Mekong flows past much of the northern and eastern edge of the region, enabling cultivation in several provinces. Most of Thailand’s jasmine rice, or Hom Mali, is produced in the region. The weather can be quite cold in winter and hot and dry in the long summer months.
The Northeast covers an area of 168,854 square kilometers, and is comprised of 19 provinces: Amnat Charoen, Buri Ram, Chaiyaphum, Kalasin, Khon Kaen, Loei, Maha Sarakham, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nong Bua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Roi Et, Sakon Nakhon, Si Sa Ket, Surin, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani, and Yasothon. Mukdahan, Nong Khai, and Nakhon Phanom share the border with neighboring Lao PDR.
See Separate Article NAKHON RATCHASIMA AREA OF NORTHEAST THAILAND: COWBOYS, ELEPHANTS AND KHMER RUINS factsanddetails.com ; NORTHEAST THAILAND: OLDEST BRONZE-AGE CULTURES AND CITIES NEAR LAOS factsanddetails.com MEKONG RIVER THAILAND factsanddetails.com
People and Culture of Northeast Thailand
Northeast Thailand 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 Lao speakers. They are called Lao Isan, Northeastern Tha or Thai Lao (See Below). They have their own styles of music and are regarded as the best silk weavers in Thailand. 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.
In the Northeast many people 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.
People in Northeastern Thailand uphold their monthly merit-making event, known as Hit Sipsong, or the Twelve Rites, when people in communities come together to make merit, representing their deep faith in Buddhism, with the chance for a communion which contributes to a strong community. A famous festival of the region is Phi Ta Khon, or the Ghost Festival, based on a belief that originated in the Great Final Life of the Lord Buddha. When Prince Vessantara (the Buddha in his previous incarnation),who later became king, and his wife Matsi were returning to their city after a long exile, wild animals and ghosts from the forest formed a procession to follow them; they were known as phi tam khon, the ghosts following people, and phi ta khon at present. Festival-goers joining the procession wear headdresses made of woven rice steamers, decorated with carved coconut peels. Phi Ta Khon is held during Bun Luang, the Great Merit-making Festival, to pay homage to the guardian of the city, and as the biggest merit-making event of the year. The masks and headdresses worn in the festival represent the local wisdom of the Isan people. The festival is also fun-filled, in line with the character of the Northeasterners.
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. 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.
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]
The Red Shirts are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They draw their ranks from the populous and impoverished masses in the countryside, who live mostly in northern and northeastern Thailand. After Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister in 2008 the “Red Shirts” became a major political force in Thai politics. On Thailand’s red white and blue flag, the red stands for nation, blue is for the monarchy and white is for Buddhism. The political pressure group at the heart of the Red Shirts is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD.
Chang Noi wrote in The Nation: “The red movement has two main streams - hardcore Thaksin enthusiasts, and a broader audience that supports democracy and opposes military intervention in politics. Thaksin had won support in the Northeast and upper North among people who felt pandered to and empowered as never before. After the coup, they protested through community radio, and resisted military intimidation. [Source: Chang Noi, The Nation, May 4, 2009~]
“In parallel, anti-coup protests in the capital attracted a few thousand activists, mainly veterans of the democracy campaigns of 1973-6 and 1992. In February 2007, Thaksin loyalists tried to set up a cable TV network to rival ASTV but were blocked. Following the Yellow Shirt's example, they then took their campaign onto the street. In June, they announced a "united front", combining the democracy activists and Thaksin loyalists under one umbrella. Over the following months, they campaigned for the rejection of the junta's constitution. After the 2007 election, the movement became dormant but was revived in the following May to counter the PAD rallies. As governments were toppled, parties banned, ministers removed and more coups threatened, the movement attracted more support among people who felt democracy was under threat, including many who had earlier supported PAD. ~
“When the movement initiated mass rallies in October 2007, the audience included quotas bussed down by pro-Thaksin ex-MPs from the North and Northeast, along with growing numbers of walk-ins from the capital. In his early phone-ins, Thaksin talked mainly about himself, but soon switched his theme to reflect the changing weighting in the audience. He began to speak about "full democracy" and railed against its enemies.~
“In January 2008, the movement founded D-Station on the model of ASTV. In March it launched a mass protest in Bangkok and provincial centres. The appearance of the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts is the most dramatic change in Thai politics in three decades. At the core of both is the rebirth of the civil society activism of the 1990s. The big innovation of these movements was to break the state's grip on the electronic media and so gain the means to recruit mass support through political broadcasting. ~
“Of course, in the background is Thaksin's money and ambition on one side, and military power and meddling on the other. But this should not be allowed to obscure what these movements stand for. Thai politics is often criticised for being dominated by small, self-serving cliques of businessmen and generals. Both these movements want to move beyond. Their main enemy is not each other, but the old, old politics desperate to resist this challenge. ~
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."
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.
Northeastern Thai Food
Northeastern dishes are usually eaten with sticky rice and are distinctively spicy-hot, with a tinge of saltiness and a low amount of water. Many of the dishes can be eaten with hands instead of flatware. The salty taste is obtained from fermented fish (pla ra), the spicy-hot taste from fresh and dry chilies, and the tangy taste from lime, olives, and sour tamarind (and in a particularly dry season, red ants are used).
The arid, infertile geographical condition affects the way people eat because it is difficult to find plenty of basic ingredients for food. The sources of ingredients for their dishes are found in forests and rivers, and in overgrown bushes near their homes, such as fish, some types of insects, and vegetables and plants. The region borders the Mekong and is fed by its numerous tributaries, the sources of fish. Condiments and the culture of consumption are influenced by the neighboring countries: Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Northeasteners have also devised ways to preserve foods to keep for future's use.
Most northeastern dishes are spiced with herbs for appealing aromas and flavors, in particular Laotian parsley, lemon grass, and kaffir lime, so they are not only tasty but also filled with vitamins and minerals that are high in nutrition and improve digestion. The three balanced flavors - salty, tangy, and sweet - are appetizing and they help reduce stomach discomfort and improve digestion; dishes like spicy bamboo soup, papaya salad, and hot and spicy fermented fish dip include a variety of herbs.
The Northeasterners served their meals in two different types of vessels, either on a glossy round tray with bright printed designs or on a woven rattan stool tray similar to the northern tok. Northeasterners like to roll the sticky rice into balls and eat it with their hands.
Northeastern Thai Dishes
As is true in Laos, sticky rice is also the staple food in the Northeast. It is often eaten with som tam – spicy papaya salad – grilled chicken, spicy Isan salad with meat, and with an indispensable ingredient, pla ra – preserved and fermented wild fish, a product of the Northeasterners’ ingenuity in food preservation. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]
Northeasterners are familiar with spicy food, especially the hot taste provided by herbs grown in the households, mixed with fish and shrimps caught in the rivers. Such natural foods with herbs are considered health food, as well. Pla ra (fermented fish) is an important condiment in the northeastern kitchen that shows a difference in the people's consumption habit. A northeastern meal almost always contains pla ra.
Northeasterners have several types of dishes: spicy and sour half-cooked minced beef with herbs, ground rice spiced with fermented fish juice, spicy and sour raw minced beef without ground rice, spicy and sour medium-rare grilled beef slices, spicy and sour cooked shallot dip, and spicy and sour vegetable soup with ground rice.
Well-known Northeastern Thai dishes include “kai yaang” ( grilled spices chicken) ad “som-tam” (spicy salad made with grated papaya, lime juice, fish sauce and chiles). Korat noodle “(kua mee") is made from rice. The noodle is thin and soft. It is usually eaten with som tum korat. Other popular Isan dishes are spicy bamboo shoot salad (“chaeo bong”, based on the preserved fish in pla ra, and “kaeng om” (spicy soup made of various vegetables, spices, and dill, and mixed with pla ra, without coconut milk).
Snack and desserts of the Isan people are similar to those originating in the North, with sticky rice and young rice as the main ingredients. They are simply made, such as “khao chi” and “khao pong”, ancient foodstuffs made of sticky rice. Khao chi is sticky rice laced with salt and grilled, while khao pong is steamed sticky rice, pounded and pressed into thin sheets before being grilled. Moreover, there are items made for religious functions, such as khao pradap din, kraya sat, and khao thip.
Tom Sab pork soup is a popular Northeast Thai dish. Kazuo Nagata wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Wow, that’s spicy!” The moment I had a mouthful of the Tom Sab soup at Kum Poon restaurant, which specializes in serving northeastern Thai dishes, I could feel perspiration building up on my brow. One of the most popular items at this Bangkok eatery, the soup is both spicy and salty, with a moderate hint of herbs. In addition to a variety of vegetables including onions and carrots, the soup also contains crispy pork ribs and such herbs as parsley, cicely and lemongrass. The soup tastes irresistibly spicy. Before I knew it, I had poured the soup from a small serving bowl into my cup over and over again. The soup is priced at 155 baht (about ¥490). Restaurant staffer Sau Temsau, 27, said proudly: “Tom Sab is spicy with a rich taste of chili peppers. Such a [spicy] taste is common in northeastern Thai dishes.” [Source: Kazuo Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 4, 2014]
Text Sources: Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020