In January of this year the American news station CNN rated Isaan as one of the top places to visit in 2017. It stated: “Those looking for a piece of Thailand that’s still largely unexplored by the international market should head for the Northeast region.” The news item went on to say that “it’s impossible to see it all in one visit so you’ll have to pick and choose”, which is an apt warning. The area referred to as Isaan consists of 20 separate provinces, and almost two-thirds of Thailand’s population resides here. Unfortunately, however, it remains the poorest, and perhaps most misunderstood region in the kingdom. But the influence of Isaan can be felt throughout the Kingdom, as the people from these various regions have formed a massive diaspora—many migrating to Thailand’s urbanized areas after abandoning farms and fields in favour of factories.
The undeveloped rural areas that make up much of Isaan are subject to all sorts of hardships—droughts, famine, and so on—and the inhabitants are sometimes written off as country bumpkins, often viewed as unsophisticated and poorly-educated. However, this part of the country was the cradle of civilization, as archaeological sites at Baan Chiang in Udon Thani and PhaDtaem in Ubon Ratchathani have shown.
In the history of Siam, Isaan only recently became a part of the kingdom, when the sub-regions joined Thailand during King Rama V’s reign. People from this area represent a diversity of ethnicities, mixing sub-groups of Tais, Laotians, Mons, Khmers, and, of course, Chinese, as well as minorities such as the Suai or Kui, who are elephant mahouts in Surin and Sisaket. These cultures have, in turn, richly influenced the rest of the country.
Isaan is also much greener than its stereotypical image of desolate, dustblown farming communities. In fact, its national parks are spectacular, especially in the dry season when the wildflowers bloom. Art and crafts thrive here as well, and textile lovers actively seek out silks from the lower Isaan provinces, as well as indigo-dyed cotton from Sakon Nakhon. On radio stations across Thailand Isaan folk music, such as molam, plays regularly, and when it comes to food the delicacies from this region are among the kingdom’s most popular staples. Seemingly simplistic, they balance flavours and spices in a miraculous culinary collage, although some dishes, such as pla raa and pla jaew (fermented fish), soup nhor mai (spicy soup of fermented bamboo shoots), and ant larvae salad, are only for acquired tastes. Interestingly, in som tum, the ubiquitous spicy papaya salad, the main ingredient—papaya—comes from Central America, making it but one of many hybridized Thai foods.