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 Laotian. Considered by some to be a dialect of Laotian, but written in the Thai alphabet, Isan is among the Chiang Seng and Lao-Phutai languages, which are members of the Tai languages of the Tai-Kadai language family. Thai is also spoken, with regional accents, by almost everyone. Khmer (the language of Cambodia) is widely spoken in regions near the Cambodian border (Buriram, Surin, and Sisaket). 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 the culture of Isan include the indigenous form of folk music, called mor lam (หมอลำ), Muay Thai (มวยไทย) boxing, cock fighting, and celebratory processions (กระบวน). Isan food, in which sticky rice (ข้าวเหนียว, khao niao) and chillies are prominent, is sufficiently distinct from Thai cuisine that it is considered unique. Sticky rice is a staple of Thai Northeastern cuisine, and it accompanies meals frequently.
Isan has a number of important Bronze Age sites, with cliff paintings, artifacts and early evidence of rice cultivation. Iron and 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, that had been established by Fa Ngum. Thereafter the region was increasingly settled by Lao and Thai 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 Iśāna (ईशान), a manifestation of Shiva as deity of the northeast, and the Sanskrit word for northeast. The name therefore reinforces the area's identity as the northeast of Thailand, rather than as a part of the Lao world. Before the central government forcibly introduced the Thai alphabet and language in schools, the people of Isan wrote in the Lao alphabet. Most Isan people still speak the Isan language which is closely related to the Lao language.
The 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 43.9 °C in Udon Thani, the lowest -1.4 °C at Sakhon Nakhon Agro Station.
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 rainy season begins with occasional short but heavy showers, eventually raining very heavily for longer periods almost every day, usually in the late afternoon or at night until it ends abruptly at the onset of the cool season.
The other seasons are the cool season from October to February, when the people sit outside around fires in the evenings, and the hot season from February to May with its sudden peak of high temperatures in April.
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). Sticky rice, the staple food of the region, is the main agricultural crop (accounting for about 60% of the cultivated land). It thrives in the poorly drained paddy fields, and where fields can be flooded from nearby streams, rivers and ponds, often two harvests are possible each year. Farmers are increasingly diversifying into cash crops such as sugar cane and cassava (manioc) which are cultivated on a vast scale, and to a lesser extent, rubber. Silk production is an important cottage industry and contributes significantly to the economy. The long, narrow fertile province of Nong Khai Province which stretches along the Mekong River is also noted for the production of pineapples, tobacco (which is dried, cured and shredded by the families before collection by the cigarette manufacturers) and tomatoes which are grown on an industrial scale, particularly around the town of Sri Chiang Mai.
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. Very few farmers still use water buffalo rather than tractors. Nowadays, the water buffalo are mainly kept by almost all rural families as status symbols. The main piece of agricultural equipment in use today is the 'rot tai na' (รถไถนา, lit. "vehicle plow field") colloquially referred to as 'kwai lek' (ควายเหล็ก, or "iron/steel buffalo"), or more generally by its manufacturer's name of "Kobota", a mini tractor comprising a small diesel engine mounted on two wheels with two long wooden or metal handlebars for control and steering. It is usually attached to a trailer or a plow. Buffalo are now mainly used for grazing on the stubble in the rice paddy which they in turn fertilize with their manure. The main animals raised for food are cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks and fish. 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 (Chaiyapum has fewest, with one per 1,131 in 2001; the national average was 453). Nevertheless, as in the rest of Thailand, all districts (Amphoe) have a hospital, and all sub districts (tambon) have a clinic providing primary health care. The introduction of the "30 baht" health card has dramatically changed the numbers of those attending hospitals for treatment, as it has meant that full health care is available to all who register for only 30 baht per visit. The few who can afford it travel to the modern private hospitals and clinics in the large cities for non urgent specialist consultations and care.
The region also lags in new technology: there was only one Internet connection per 75 households in 2002 (national average one per 22 households), [update needed] but by 2006 every district town (Amphoe) had at least one publicly accessible internet connection either in the local computer shop or in the district office. Extension of landline telephones to remoter areas not previously served has been largely superseded by the use of cell phones, primarily of the GSM format, which now cover the entire region with the exception of a few sparsely populated mountainous areas and large national parks. Many people, even the poorest and sometimes children, have cellular telephones, although they have no fixed-line telephone. The region also has the lowest literacy rate [source?] when compared with other region in Thailand. By the beginning of 2008 most of the amphoe (district towns of the provinces) had been provided with ADSL by the TOT, still leaving, however, the vast majority of the rural population dependent on dial-up connections - for those who have landline telephones - which are totally inadequate for the megabyte-hungry packages of data of 21st century information. Internet shops are now experiencing a boom for those able to get to them and are heavily patronized by primary and secondary schoolchildren who come not only to use the Internet but also to play on-line games, use VOIP, or just to use the computer and printing facilities. An increasingly significant number of customers in the Internet shops, particularly in the cities, are young ladies searching for future Western husbands on the numerous dating sites. Resident Western expatriates, and foreign tourists are also frequent customers. For those outside the district towns who require a serious use of the Internet in their homes, an iPstar broadband satellite connection is the only alternative; although four times more expensive than a DSL connection, it is far less reliable and suffers considerable down-time due to overloading, heavy cloud cover, and rain and despite - in theory - being ‘always on’, it often lacks the stability for streaming and clarity of VOIP.
Many Isan people seek higher-paying work outside the region, particularly in Bangkok. Some of these people have settled permanently in the city, while some migrate to and fro. Others have emigrated in search of better wages. Rather than relocate as a family they usually leave their babies and school-age children in the care of relatives, friends or neighbours.
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 basically a dialect of Lao). Standard Thai is spoken by almost everyone and Khmer, the language of Cambodia is spoken in the southeast. The number of speakers of Isan has been estimated at between 15 million and 23 million, the majority of these being in Isan. The Khorat dialect, spoken by around 400,000 people, occupies a linguistic position somewhere between Isan and standard Thai.
Other languages spoken in Isan, mainly by tribal minorities, are as follows:
|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|
|Nyah Kur||Mon-Khmer||Unknown||Khorat, Chaiyaphum|
|Nyaw||Tai-Kadai||50,000||Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom|
|Phu Thai||Tai-Kadai||156,000||Nakhon Phanom, Ubon, Kalasin, Sakon Nakhon|
|So||Mon-Khmer||55,000||Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, Kalasin|
|Tai Dam||Tai-Kadai||20,000||Nong Khai, Khorat, Loei (plus Saraburi)|
There are 43 (2001) government vocational and polytechnic colleges throughout the region, several specialised training colleges in the private sector, and large colleges of Agriculture and Nursing in Udon Thani province.
Universities are located in the major cities of Khon Kaen (one of the country's largest), Ubon Ratchathani, and the smaller provincial capital of Mahasarakham. Some Bangkok based universities have a small campus in Isan, and Khon Kaen university also maintains a large installation on the outskirts of Nong Khai. For a full list of universities in Isan see the list of universities in Thailand. Most provinces have a government Rajabhat University, formerly Rajabhat Institute, traditionally a Teacher Training College.
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 that accompanies almost every meal rather than plain rice, as well as fiery chillies. Popular dishes include tam mak hung, 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 versions which temper the extreme heat and sourness favoured in Isan for the more moderate Central Thai palate.
Conversely 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, crickets, silkworms and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these animals as delicacies or snacks. Food is commonly eaten by hand using the sticky rice pressed into a ball with the fingers as a tool. Soups are a frequent element of any meal and contain either vegetables and herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork or a mixture of these. They are eaten using a spoon and chopsticks at the same time.
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, a money and document belt, as headwear for protection from the sun, as a hammock or as a 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.
They are mostly built in the Lao style, with less ornamentation than in Central Thailand. Lao style Buddha images are also prevalent.
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 secular 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).
Mor lam needs a special mention as its festival-type production which is very commonplace in Isan, has not been exported to other regions. Although it is a very exciting affair, not being on the tourist trail it is largely ignored by foreign visitors. When the locals speak of mor lam (pronounced mor'ram with stress on the second syllable), one will often hear them say pai doo morram (lit. 'go see mor'ram'). They are referring to the most common form of evening entertainment in the region. Somewhere, in a village within easy reach, there will be a mor lam festival on a Friday or Saturday evening. Usually, the rock-festival sized stage is constructed either in a temple compound or on a sports field. Thousands of people will sit on mats on the ground and watch the fun-filled program of variety entertainment. The traditional music and song is accompanied by extremely colorful choreography, executed by a group of up to fifty female (and some male katoey) dancers. The fantastic costumes are changed several times throughout the program, and the transitions are bridged by often raunchy gags, slap-stick comedy, and speeches by local dignitaries. A mor lam festival is a family affair and the area is surrounded by food and drink stalls. At home, people will often forgo on the evening's TV selection to watch CD, VCD and DVD recordings of mor lam festivals. Every family owns a CD/DVD player and a large screen TV, and the media, with Thai content, can be purchased very cheaply.
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.
Marriage and courtship in Isan still mainly follows strict tradition, especially in rural areas, and most young women are married by the time they are 20 years old. Many girls, in spite of the legal requirement, marry as young as fourteen to escape poverty as usually marriage is associated with a dowry paid by the husband to the bride's family. A dowry will not normally be less than 40,000 Thai baht, and according to the status of the bride and/or her family, can often greatly exceed 300,000 baht. Isan women rarely have boyfriends until they meet the man whom they will eventually marry, and tradition requires that the betrothal is then announced. Younger fiancées will be chaperoned, usually by a female friend, brother or sister while in the company of their future husband. The wedding ceremony usually takes place in the bride's home and is normally officiated by one or several monks or a respected village elder who has been a monk. Young couples are increasingly registering their marriages at the city hall which they can do if they are over 17. The extended family system is still very much the traditional social structure in Isan, with newly wed couples often living with in-laws or building a home on the family compound or farmland. It is not unusual however, for many women to remain single until much later. Tradition demands that the youngest or only daughter continues to live at home to take care of her parents. They are then only free to marry when both parents are deceased. There is also the tradition that a woman should 'marry up' in status. If the woman is tied to an occupation in a rural area as a farm or business owner, teacher, or similar profession, finding a suitable husband and one who is prepared to relocate is often not easy.
Water buffalo are a regular feature, even in the suburbs, being walked to and from the fields at dawn and dusk. Although rarely used nowadays for working the land, they are considered an important status symbol. The current value (2006) of one head of buffalo is about 20,000 Thai baht (2006: USD 530).
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 discrimination against the people of Isan from non-ethnic Thais of Chinese descent. Even though many Isan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, many hold lower-status jobs such as construction workers and stall vendors and tuk-tuk taxi drivers, and discriminatory attitudes have been known to persist with many Thai-Chinese inhabitants. Nevertheless, 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.
As in the rest of Thailand, the population is almost exclusively Theravada Buddhist, although this is combined with elements of animism. The large cities have Christian churches, sometimes of several denominations. Many major district towns do however have a small Christian church or chapel, usually Roman Catholic, and there are others in rural areas serving pockets of this religion.
There are 15,000 km of highway, centred on the Thanon Mitraphap ("Friendship Highway") built by the United States to supply its military bases in the 1960s and 1970s. A road bridge (the Saphan Mitraphap or Friendship Bridge) jointly built by the Australian, Laos and Thai governments forms the border crossing over the Mekong River on the outskirts of Nong Khai to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, about 25 km away.
Most roads in Isan are paved. All major roads interconnecting the province capitals are in excellent condition for driving and most are centrally divided four or six-lane highways. Many roads connecting province capitals to larger district towns are also currently (2008) being widened to four lane highways with median strip. The paving on some very minor roads in the poorer districts may be navigable with difficulty due to large, deep potholes. Unpaved, graded roads link some of the smaller, remoter villages but they are comfortably navigable at normal driving speeds for wheeled vehicles. Most of the stretches of paved roads through villages are lit at night, many with powerful sodium lighting some of which are on independently solar-powered masts. Reflecting 'cats-eyes' marking the central line of two-lane roads are a common feature. Crash barriers are installed along the sides of dangerous bends and precipitous verges. Signposting is excellent and follows international style. Since 2002 (with the exception of some poorer sub-districts) all signs are bilingual in Thai and Roman script, although the spellings in Roman script may defy the logic of English pronunciation, and vary significantly.
The main highways have frequent, Western-style rest and refuelling stations which accept payment by major credit/debit cards. In 2006, all fuel stations sell 91 and 95 octane gasoline/petrol and diesel fuel, but LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) and NGV (Natural Gas for Vehicles) is very rare outside the cities of Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani.
Buses provide the mass transport throughout the region. All province cities are connected to Bangkok by daily and nightly, direct, air-conditioned bus routes. All district amphoe towns operate at least one similar nightly route to and from Bangkok. All towns and villages are interconnected with frequent services of songthaew (สองแถว, lit. 'two rows') a covered truck-style bus or covered pick-up trucks with bench seats in the cargo bed.
Taxi transport is not well developed, even in the very large cities where samlor (สามล้อ, lit. "three wheels"), three-wheeled motorcycle taxis similar to the Bangkok tuk-tuk, provide the mainstay of urban transport. The large cities do have some pick-up trucks operating on regular inner-city and suburban routes. Airports are served by collective vans which tend to be expensive for the local population and samlors for private hire.
There are airports at Khorat (no scheduled services due to its proximity to Bangkok), Khon Kaen (international), Ubon Ratchathani (domestic), Udon Thani (international), Nakhon Phanom (domestic, scheduled services), Sakon Nakhon (domestic, scheduled services), Roi Et (domestic, scheduled services) and Buriram (domestic, scheduled services). Domestic air travel between the capital and the region is well developed, particularly since 2002, and has become a viable alternative to rail, long-distance bus and self-driving. Fares are cheap and Udon and Khon Kaen which both opened brand new airport terminals in 2005 and 2006 respectively, are served by many daily flights and also have routes connecting other major destinations in Thailand with some companies operating wide-bodied aircraft. All domestic flights to and from Bangkok are currently (2008) operated out of Don Muang, the original Bangkok international airport.
There is little traffic using the Mekong, as rapids and variable flow make navigation difficult. Bridges are rare because of the high cost of spanning this very wide river, but there are a great many passenger and vehicle ferries. The Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong between the cities of Mukdahan (Thailand) and Savannakhet (Laos) was completed and officially opened for traffic on December 20, 2006. Some new bridges which still do not feature on '2005 Edition' maps have been built over smaller rivers and dams. There are also passenger and vehicle ferries operating across some large reservoirs.
Isan returns 136 of the national parliament's 400 constituency MPs. In the 2005 election the Thai Rak Thai party took 126 of these seats, with six for Chart Thai and two each for the Democrat party and Mahachon Party