Isan (sometimes also spelt Isaan) is an area that covers most of the eastern and some of the north-eastern part of Thailand. It is a hot, dry, arid area mainly given over to agriculture, despite the obvious difficulty of the terrain, and its population of some 20 million people makes up almost a third of the country’s total population.
Traditionally it is the poorest of the regions in Thailand, and many of its people leave to find better jobs elsewhere. So it is not unusual to discover that the Bangkok taxi driver, who is taking you to your hotel, actually has his roots in Isan. In recent years, though, it has also shown its potential political clout, as the “red shirt” movement has much of its base in the area.
Isan is ethnically somewhat different from much of the rest of the country. It is a Lao culture, although the locals will distinguish themselves from people in neighbouring Laos by referring to themselves as “Thai Lao”. The area also has its own native language, though universal education across the country has ensured that knowledge of the Thai language is widespread, and most everyone will speak the language, albeit with a pronounced “eastern” accent.
Efforts are being constantly made to upgrade the area’s image, and bring it into the mainstream of Thai culture. Farmers in the area now proudly boast of their modern agricultural equipment. The water buffalo, the traditional beast of burden, which previously performed many important tasks in the fields, still has an honoured place in their culture, but these days they are kept mainly for show. There are also many centres of excellence where modern agricultural techniques are developed.
Although principally an agriculturally based area, there area some significant urban areas. The largest of these is Udon Thani, which in the 1970s was the home of a USAF air base (which was handed over to the Royal Thai Air Force in 1976). It still though has a tradition of English speaking far in advance of anywhere else in the area. It is principally a commercial city strongly related to the requirements of the surrounding countryside, but substantial potash deposits have been discovered in the area, and the future prosperity of the town may well be based upon mining this product.
Other significant towns include Khon Kaen (home of the biggest university in the region), Nakhon Ratchasima, more commonly called Korat, a city with some interesting sites such as the Thao Suranee monument, and Ubon Ratchathani, which is known for its annual candle festival every July. This marks the beginning of the rainy season retreat for the Buddhist monks in the area.
You can also get the true feel of the region by visiting smaller towns like Surin (a town with a lot of history – finding a local guide who speaks English may not be easy, but it is a very worthwhile experience if you can), and the market town of Roi Et. In the latter town you can find one of the highlights of any trip to Isan – the Phra Phuttha Rattanamongkhon Mahamuni, the tallest standing image of the Buddha anywhere in Thailand.
Buddhism is the most widely practised religion in Thailand – some 84% of the population are practising Buddhists. In Isan, the percentage is considerably higher than that though. You will find temples in all the towns and villages in the region, some magnificent, some remarkably modest, but all indicative of the population’s commitment to their beliefs. One of the most impressive temples in the area can be found at Mahasarakham – a superb structure built in white marble.
The food of Isan has spread beyond the area to much of the country, but the really authentic flavours of the various dishes are not always successfully reproduced elsewhere. Sticky rice is a staple food here, and the accompanying dishes tend to be hot, sour and very spicy – chilis being another staple part of the diet. Particularly recommended are Som Tam (Papaya Salad), Larb Moo (Spicy Pork Salad), Gai Yaang (Barbecued Chicken) and Kao Pad Esan (Isan style fried rice).
One of the typical features of Isan culture is the Morlam. This is a mixture of traditional singing, dancing, slapstick comedy and occasional off-colour humour. Versions of this can be seen in other Thai cities – many Isan natives will perform at shows in Bangkok for example – but these tend to be more like variety and talent shows, and lack something of the authenticity that you get in its cultural heartland.
The most commonly practised sport here is Thai boxing – Muay Thai. The rituals and accompanying music are quite special, and the fights are often fierce and uncompromising. The most successful boxers make an excellent living from the sport.
Transport throughout the area is principally conducted by road – cars and buses providing the connections between towns, while in the urban areas you find the peculiarly Thai type city bus – the Songthaew. There are two major railway lines also in the area, which connect with Bangkok, one passing through Korat and Surin, and terminating in Ubon Ratchathani; the other passes through Khon Kaen and Udon Thani to the town of Nong Khai, and from there a few kilometres further over the border with Laos.
This is still one of the most underdeveloped areas in Thailand, and has at times the feel of a developing rather than a developed country. It is though an area that will contrast sharply with anything that you will experience elsewhere in Thailand, and the people are friendly and welcoming. Learn to appreciate their culture, treat them with dignity and respect, and you will come to fully appreciate this very different part of the world.