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 Home > About Thailand > Subdivisions of Thailand > Regions of Thailand > Isan

Isan

Pak Isan (also written as Isaan, Issan, or Esarn; Thai/Isan อีสาน) is the northeast region of 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.

Agriculture is the main economic activity, but due to the socio-economic conditions and hot, dry climate output lags behind that of other parts of the country. This is Thailand's poorest region. The main language of the region is Isan (which is similar to Lao), but Thai is also widespread and Khmer is spoken in the south. Most of the population is of Lao origin, but the region's incorporation into the modern Thai state has been largely successful. Prominent aspects of Isan culture include mor lam music, muay Thai boxing, cock fighting and the food, in which sticky rice and chillies are prominent.


History

Isan has a number of important Bronze Age sites, with cliff paintings, artifacts and early evidence of rice cultivation. Bronze tools, such as found at Ban Chiang, may predate similar tools from Mesopotamia. The region later came under the influence first of the Dvaravati culture and then of the Khmer empire, which left temples at Phimai and Phanom Rung.

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.

Geography

Isan covers 62,000 square miles (160,000 square km). It is roughly coterminous with the Khorat Plateau, which tilts from the Phetchabun mountain range in the west of the region (the location of several national parks) down towards the Mekong River. The plateau consists of two main plains: the southern Khorat plain 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 Phan mountains. The soil is mostly sandy, with substantial salt deposits.

A satellite image of Isan: the borders with Laos and Cambodia can be seen due to the greater deforestation within IsanThe Mekong 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.

Rainfall is unpredictable, but is concentrated in the rainy season from May to October. Average annual precipitation varies from 2000 mm in some areas to 1270 mm in the southwestern provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Buriram, Maha Sarakham, Khon Kaen and Chaiyaphum.

The other seasons are the cool season from October to February, and the hot season from February to May.

Economy

Agriculture is the largest sector of the economy, generating around 22% of the Gross Regional Product (compared to 8.5% for Thailand as a whole). 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: in 2002 average wages were the lowest in the country at 3,928 baht per month (the national average was 6,445). The region's poverty is also shown in its infrastructure: eight of the ten provinces in Thailand with the fewest physicians per capita are in Isan (Sisaket has fewest, with one per 14,661 in 2001; the national average was 3,289); it also has eight of the ten provinces with the fewest hospital beds per head (Chaiyaphum has fewest, with one per 1,131 in 2001; the national average was 453). The region also lags in new technology: there was only one Internet connection per 75 households in 2002 (national average one per 22 households).

Many Isan people seek higher-paying work outside the region, particularly in Bangkok, where they fill many of the worst paid and lowest-ranking jobs. Some of these people have settled permanently in the city, while some migrate to and fro. Others have emigrated in search of better wages.

Demographics

Isan's total population as of 2000 was 20,825,000. 40% of the population is concentrated in the provinces of Khorat, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. These provinces surround the four major cities of the same names; as of 2000, their populations were: Udon Thani 220,493; Khorat 204,391; Khon Kaen 141,034; and Ubon Ratchathani 106,552. However, as of 1996 only 6.3% of the region's population lived in municipal areas. Khon Kaen was the most urbanised province (with 12.4% in municipal areas), and Roi Et the least (2.8%). Thus, the population is still largely rural, but concentrated around the urban centres.

Most people are of Lao origin, although the distinction between the Lao and Thai ethnicities is often blurred. Although there are certain physical features which are more prominent in the Lao, the distinction is primarily one of culture and language. The main language of the region is Isan (which is similar to Lao). Thai is also widespread and Khmer is spoken in the South. The number of speakers of Isan has been estimated at between 15 million and 23 million, the majority of these being in Isan. Most of these also speak standard Thai, generally more fluently the younger they are. The Khorat dialect, spoken by around 400,000 people, occupies a linguistic position somewhere between Isan and standard Thai.

There is a substantial Khmer minority, concentrated in the southern provinces.
Other languages spoken in Isan are as follows:

Language Family Speakers Distribution
Aheu Mon-Khmer 750 Sakon Nakhon
Eastern Bru Mon-Khmer 5000 Sakon Nakhon
Western Bru Mon-Khmer 20,000 Mukdahan, Amnatcharoen, Ubon
Northern Khmer Mon-Khmer 1,000,000 Surin, Sisaket, Buriram, Khorat
Kuy Mon-Khmer 300,000 Buriram, Surin, Sisaket, Ubon, Roi Et
Nyahkur Mon-Khmer Unknown Khorat, Chaiyaphum
Nyaw Tai-Kadai 50,000 Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom
Nyeu Mon-Khmer Unknown Sisaket
Phu Thai Tai-Kadai 156,000 Nakhon Phanom, Ubon, Kalasin, Sakon Nakhon
Phuan Tai-Kadai Unknown Udon, Loei
Saek Tai-Kadai 11,000 Nakhon Phanom
So Mon-Khmer 55,000 Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, Kalasin
Tai Dam Tai-Kadai 20,000 Nong Khai, Khorat, Loei (plus Saraburi )
Yoy Tai-Kadai 5,000 Sakon Nakhon

As in the rest of Thailand, the population is almost exclusively Theravada Buddhist, although this is combined with elements of animism.

Culture

Isan's 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.

Isan 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.

A khene player wearing an Isan men's sarong and pakama
A musician wearing an Isan women's sarong

A khene player wearing an Isan men's sarong and pakama
A musician wearing an Isan women's sarongConversely 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, 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.

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. The large jar or ohng (โอ่ง) to the left of this house is used for storing water.

The library of Tung Sri Muang temple, Ubon Ratchathani, illustrates the typical style of Isan.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. The large jar or ohng (โอ่ง) to the left of this house is used for storing water.The people of Isan celebrate many traditional festivals, such as the Bun Bungfai Rocket Festival. This fertility rite, originating in pre-Buddhist times, is celebrated in a number of locations both in Isan and in Laos, but most vigorously and most famously in Yasothon province. Other Isan festivals are the Candle Festival, which marks the start of vassa in July in Ubon and other locations; the Silk Festival in Khon Kaen, which promotes local handicrafts; the Elephant Round-up in Surin; and the bangfai phayanak or Naga fireballs of Nong Khai.

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.

The process of Thaification has diluted somewhat the distinctive character of Isan culture, particularly in the cities and in provinces, such as Khorat, which are closest to the Central Thai heartlands and which have been under Thai rule the longest.

Communications

Isan has two railway lines, both connecting the region to Bangkok. One runs east from Khorat, through Surin to Ubon; the other runs north through Khon Kaen and Udon to Nong Khai.

There are 15,000 km of highway, centred on the Thanon Mitraphap ("Friendship Highways") built by the United States to supply its military bases in the 1960s and 1970s. A road bridge (the Saphan Mitraphap or Friendship Bridge) connects Nong Khai to Laos near Vientiane.

There is little traffic using the Mekong river, as rapids and variable flow make navigation difficult.
There are airports at Khorat, Khon Kaen, Ubon, Udon, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Roi Et and Buriram.

Administration

Isan returns 136 of the national parliament's 400 constituency MPs. Preliminary results from the 2005 election indicated that the Thai Rak Thai party had taken 126 of these seats, with six for Chart Thai and two each for the Democrat party and Mahachon.

Isan is divided into 19 provinces, although the south-western province of Nakhon Ratchasima is considered by some to be more closely connected with Central Thailand.

  • Amnat Charoen (อำนาจเจริญ)
  • Buri Ram (บุรีรัมย์)
  • Chaiyaphum (ชัยภูมิ)
  • Kalasin (กาฬสินธุ์)
  • Khon Kaen (ขอนแก่น)
  • Loei (เลย)
  • Maha Sarakham (มหาสารคาม)
  • Mukdahan (มุกดาหาร)
  • Nakhon Phanom (นครพนม)
  • Nakhon Ratchasima (นครราชสีมา)
  • Nongbua Lamphu (หนองบัวลำภู)
  • Nong Khai (หนองคาย)
  • Roi Et (ร้อยเอ็ด)
  • Sakon Nakhon (สกลนคร)
  • Si Sa Ket (ศรีสะเกษ)
  • Surin (สุรินทร์)
  • Ubon Ratchathani (อุบลราชธานี)
  • Udon Thani (อุดรธานี)
  • Yasothon (ยโสธร)

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