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NorthEast - Isan / Lanxang / Lan Sang

The area known as Isan, in the Northeast region of Thailand, comprising the vast Korat Plateau, has been inhabited since prehistoric time, as evidenced in dinosaur fossils found in Kalasin Province, the Ban Chiang archeological site in Udon Thani Province, and the Ban Prasat archeological site in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. Throughout this wondrous region, traces of human civilization can be found, from Stone Age, Bronze Age, through Funan, Isan Pura or Chenla, up to the 11th century of the Buddhist Era (6th century A.D.) when the Khmer Empire was at its height, extending throughout the region, with Angkor in the east.

By the 1400s, three sizable kingdoms had emerged in the territory that later became modern Thailand: Ayutthaya (Siam) in what is now central Thailand, Lanna (Chiang Mai) in what is now northern Thailand, and Lan Xang (or Lan Sang) ranging from the Khorat Plateau into present-day Laos. All three were of mixed ethnicity, but each nurtured local dialects of Tai that eventually developed into three distinct languages. The Isan region is largely coterminous with the Khorat Plateau of northeastern Thailand, a low-lying sandstone platform noted for its thin and acidic soils, wet-season floods, and dry-season droughts. Considering its meager environment, Isan is densely settled; its twenty million people form roughly a third of Thailand’s population.

The idea that the redshirts should “go back to Laos” is rooted in the fact that the language of Isan is a dialect of Lao. Diet, music, and assorted cultural practices further link the people of Isan to neighboring Laos. Standard Thai-speakers from the core area of Thailand often look down on Lao culture as rustic and inadequately refined. The people of the area that was once Lan Xang not only maintain their cultural differentiation (see language map above), they also remain opposed to the country’s political establishment, based in central Thailand.

Thailand’s north-eastern region, widely known as Isan, is a well defined geographical area. The origin of the topographical name of Isan lies in the cosmology of Hinduism. The proper noun “Isan” is a variant of the word “Isuan”, which itself is derived from the Sanskrit name of Shiva, Iswara. The logical link between the name of the Hindu deity, known as Shiva or Iswara, and the vernacular name of Thailand’s north-eastern region, Isan, is embedded in the Hindu cosmology, where Shiva is the regent of the northeastern quarter of the world.

Northeast Thailand (Isan) forms Thailand's largest minority. Isan region of Thailand is a culturally distinctive, geographically contiguous area where a large proportion of the Thai population resides. It is also the most economically disadvantaged region of Thailand. The Tai-speaking peoples of the Northeast, known as Thai-Lao or Isan, live on the Khorat Plateau. Throughout much of northeast Thailand (Isan), Lao is the dominant local language. Bangkokians look down upon the northeastener as a rustic bumpkin who cannot even speak "proper" Thai; he therefore ?nds it difficult to identify with them.

Today, however, central and official Thai is rapidly becoming the dominant language throughout Isan. Some fear that Thailand may become monocultured and its citizens may lose their diversity in languages and culture. In the early years of the 21st Century the northeast was changing relatively slowly, with much of the region’s population choosing lifestyle benefits, such as closeness to family and community and the Isan culture, over the higher incomes associated with out-migration, manifest in relatively low out-migration given the level of regional economic disparity.

People in the northeastern region have their unique dialect, known as Thai Isan or the Isan language, which bears a close similarity to the Lao language. The Isan language represents the people of the Northeast with its colorful style, wit, and straightforward expressions. It is classified as one of the six Lao dialects, namely Vientiane Lao, found in Chaiyaphum, Nong Bua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Khon Kaen, Yasothon, and Udon Thani; northern Lao, spoken in Loei, Uttaradit, Phetchabun, Khon Kaen, Chaiyaphum, Phitsanulok, Nong Khai, and Udon Thani; northeastern Lao, spoken in Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, and Nong Khai; central Lao, used mostly in Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, and Mukdahan; southern Lao, spoken in Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, Si Sa Ket, and Yasothon; and western Lao, the dialect of Roi Et, Kalasin, and Maha Sarakham. Moreover, some Thais in southern Isan use Khmer, the Cambodian language, in their daily life.

Lao cuisine is the cuisine of the Lao ethnic group of Laos and Northeast Thailand (Isan). Lao food is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines. The staple food of the Lao is sticky rice. Galangal and fish sauce are important ingredients. The Lao national dish is laap (sometimes also spelled larb), a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of greens, herbs, and spices. Another characteristic dish is tam mak houng (som tam in Thai), green papaya salad. Lao food differs from neighboring cuisines in multiple respects. One is that the meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served un-dressed on the side. Another is that savory dishes are never sweet. "Sweet and sour" is generally considered bizarre and foreign. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. There is asaying in cuisine, "van pen lom; khom pen ya," which can be translated as, "sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy."

The region is a plateau physically separated from Bangkok and the rest of the nation by a mountainous escarpment consisting of the north-south trending Thiu Khao (mountain range) Phetchabun and the east-west aligned Thiu Khao Phanom Dongrak. At the right-angle junction of the two ranges, some 75 miles northeast of Bangkok, the elevation is over 4,000 feet; the average elevation throughout the mountains is about 2,000 feet. These mountains are formidable obstacles to surface movement either from the lowlands of central Thail and/or from locations in southeast Thailand, such as the port area of Sattahip. Villages on the plateau were long isolated from oner another. Although the monotonous, almost ?at surface offers few physical obstacles to road building, other than streams which must be bridged, until recent decades many of the estimated 15,000 villages were connected to one another or, to distant roads only by oxcart tracks that may become almost impassable in the rainy season.

World War II precipitated a political crisis during which a number of northeastern politicians rose to political prominence, capped by inclusion as ministers in the postwar government of Pridi Phanomyong. Following the return to power of Phibun Songkoram in 1948, these northeastern leaders were viewed as subversives, were arrested, and died under conditions that clearly suggested that they had been murdered on orders of high governmndnt officials. The political tensions thus created, coupled with a growing awareness among northeastern villagers of their conditions of poverty, lent considerable credibility to the appeals for support initiated by legal and illegal leftist movements. These movements were viewed with considerable concern by the Thai government instituted following a coup against Phibun led by Sarit Thanarat in 1957. In the late 1950s the Thai government began to devise policies to deal with what was termed "the northeastern problem." The "problem" was conceived of as rooted fundamentally in conditions of under-development.

Cultural differences and, frequently, very parochial loyalties, in addition to the physical isolation of the area, seemed to be paramount in the failure of the plateau population to identify with the central govemment. The environment of central Thailand, particularly that around the great urban center of Bangkok, came as a cultural shock to the many peasants from the northeast seeking temporary work in the city. In contrast, the peasant who seeks temporary work in Laos encounters a culture, society,and language much like those of his home community. Thus in some ways his identi?cation is easier with the Lao than with the central Thai.

Although the peasant in the northeast tended to relate to the Lao, it seems more realistic to characterize both his cultural identity and loyalty as localism, which was often defined by the village. By the 1960s such attitudes were being discouraged by Thai Government programs, such as radio broadcasts, which encouraged the villager to transcend local orientations and to identify with wider segments of the northeast. As a consequence of these efforts, a sense of regionalism epitomized by the term "isan" was appearing. Isan denoted to the Thai that which was distinctly associated with the northeast, as contrasted to the interests and goals of central Thailand. This cultural affinity led to some ill-organized separatist movements in the past, and in the 1960s to the fear in Bangkok that Communist elements would try to exploit these sentiments to undermine the control of the central government over the Khorat Plateau.

In the 1960s Communist insurgency in parts of northeast Thailand — the Khorat Plateau — was the latest development in along history of political disatfection between the people of the northeast and the central government in Bangkok. Communist exploitation of this disaffection was attempted as early as the late 1920’s, when branches of the Vietnamese Communist Party were established in the towns of Nong Khai and Khon Kaen. Since then subversive activity waxed and waned and was repressed repeatedly by the central government. Armed insurgency increased markedly in late 1964 and early 1965, after two Chinese Communist-oriented Thai front groups - the “Thailand Independence Movement” (TIM) and the “Thailand Patriotic Front” (TPF) - were formed in Peking. Thai insurgents were indoctrinated in Communist China and trained in North Vietnam.

Three factors had traditionally fostered the development of dissidence in northeast Thailand: 1) the physical isolation of the region from the remainder of Thailand in contrast to its relatively easy accessibility to Laos, 2) the failure of much of the population to identify with the central government in Bangkok, and 3) the relative poverty of a rural population living in a precarious agricultural environment.

Once the weakest in Thailand, 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 developed one of the best transportation systems in Asia, which facilitated internal migration as well as communication with Bangkok. Government programs did have the effect, during the 1960s and into the 1970s, of bringing about marked changes in the lives of peoples in northeastern Thailand. An excellent system of roads was constructed and transportation of persons and goods, often by locally-owned vehicles, rose dramatically.

The World Bank still found in 1976 that a quarter of the Thai population lived below the absolute poverty line. Moreover, those livinq in poverty conditions were found to be concentrated in rainfed agricultural villages in northeastern and, to a lesser extent, northern Thailand. In the words of the World Bank report: "nearly three-quarters of all poverty households -- about 8 million people -- are in the rural North and Northeast, most of them farmers growing rice under rainfed conditions." The relative poverty of the rural peoples of northeastern Thailand was even more striking than the incidence of absolute pover -in the region. In 1977 the average per capita in the northeastern region was 2,240 baht, a figure that did represent modest increases when comnared to the average per capita income figures of 1,663 baht for 1970 and 1,121 baht for 1960. The increase in income among northeasterners was, however, in no way comparable to that experienced by peoples elsewhere in the kingdom and especially in Bangkok. Taken as a percentage of the average per capita income of Bangkok, average per capita income of the northeastern region declined from 29 percent in 1965/69 to 14 percent in 1977. 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.

Northeasterners are known as sincere and witty people. They constantly face drought and floods, and survive through faith and pragmatism. Their culture is a mixture of Thai, Lao, and Khmer traditions. The Isan Thais are known for their silkweaving skills, particularly mudmee silk, and for khit, a raised embroidered border textile made famous around the world. In addition, fine architecture with influences from the ancient Khmer Empire can be found at archeological sites in various provinces in the Northeast.

The performing art of the Northeasterners is lively and funfilled, such as the soeng, using various implements from the daily lives of the sticky-rice eaters as part of the show, such as soeng kratip (a dance with steamed rice containers), soeng sawing (fish traps), or soeng yae khai mot daeng (sticks for digging out eggs from ant nests). Along with being very entertaining, the dances provide insight into the traditional lifestyle of the people of Isan.

A well-known Isan performance is mo lam, with male and female experts reciting stories to the tune of folk instruments played in ensembles, especially the reed pipe instrument, kaen; the one-string instrument, phin; and the wooden xylophone with the bars tied together in a row, pong lang. The pong lang is widely used in folk song recitation, folk dances, and other performances.

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 people also 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.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:01 ZULU