While Isaan, the Northeast, is inhabited by almost two-thirds of the country’s population, it is the poorest and perhaps most misunderstood region in Thailand. People from Isaan have formed a massive Thai diaspora, as many have migrated to urban areas, abandoning farms and fields for factories and other professions, and bringing along their much-loved rustic, spicy cuisine and vibrant cultures. But culture can be the cause of confusion in contemporary Thailand, where Isaan can carry a negative connotation. Yet there’s more to “Turning right at Saraburi” than one thinks.
For decades, Isaan has been widely viewed as the land of country bumpkins—unsophisticated, poorly-educated people, undeveloped rural areas, droughts, famine, and so on. In reality, this part of the country was the cradle of civilization. Archaeological sites at Baan Chiang in Udon Thani and Pha Dtaem in Ubon Ratchathani are evidence of prehistoric human settlements, and the kingdoms of Funan, Chenla, Angkor, and Isaanpura prospered here long before Siam was born. The Lan Xang Kingdom—present-day Laos—also ruled Upper Isaan. So why are urban Thais, who are likely descendants of these great civilisations, condescending towards their rural counterparts?
Historically, Isaan wasn’t part of Siam. For centuries, the Siamese called it “Laos” and its people “Laotians,” which, in turn, made Thais feel superior. The word “Isaan,” originally from Pali and Sanskrit, is another name for Shiva, the protector of the northeastern direction in Hinduism. It was coined when the sub-regions were combined during King Rama V’s reign, joining Thailand. People from this region 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 Srisaket. These cultures have richly influenced the whole of the land.
With its wide-ranging landscapes from the banks of the Moon, Chi, and Mekong, to the peaks of Phu Ghradueng, Phu Paan, and Phu Luang, Isaan’s massive plateau is abundant in resources. It is greener than stereotypes suggest. Its national parks are spectacular, especially in the dry season, when fog and wildflowers bloom. Glorious temples with colourful folksy paintings, shiny glass mosaics, and stunning stupas adorn the towns and countryside. Ruins of Khmer temple complexes amaze visitors of how far Angkor expanded its empire. Vernacular art and crafts confirm a legacy of living culture. For textile lovers, this is paradise. My favourite silks are from Isaan, especially Lower Isaan provinces such as Surin. Indigo-dyed cotton from Sakon Nakorn comes in the most beautiful blue and is so supple that it’s considered “Thai pashminas.” Phrae Wah, intricately woven by the Phu Thai, is dubbed “the Queen of Thai silk.”
As for the food, who doesn’t like barbequed chicken, larb, and sticky rice? Seemingly simplistic, the cuisine’s balance of flavours and use of spices and herbs never fail to please the palate. “Saeb Ee-lhee,” meaning very delicious in the local tongue, catches on every Thai’s lips. Still, 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 dtum the main ingredient, papaya, comes from Central America, making it but one of many hybridized Thai foods.
To current Thai aesthetic sensibilities, the characteristics of Isaan looks aren’t deemed attractive. Most people from Isaan tend to have darker complexions, flatter nose bridges, and angular facial structures as opposed to the fairer skin and oval-shaped faces of Northern Thais or Chinese descendants. But to the trained eye, their pointy cheek bones and honey-hued complexions are sensual and exotic. The square chin lines derive from Khmer lineage, as seen in the Apsaras on the Angkor Wat walls. For proof of Isaan beauty in modern times, look to Rojjana Phetkanha, a supermodel from Ubon Ratchathani who became the face of a Chanel perfume in the 90s.
Sounds of Isaan dialects can be compared to the tunes of local instruments. I was once told that the higher pitch of the Upper Isaan tones mimics the scales of the khaen, a kind of tall and compacted pipe, whereas the deeper and harsher airs of the Lower Isaan voices play well with the ponglaang, a vertical wooden xylophone from Kalasin. On radio stations across Thailand, Isaan folk music, such as mohr lum, plays with regularity, its popularity as wide-reaching as the dry season sunshine.
Most Thais misjudge Isaan people as lazy, unskilled, and stupid, akin to buffaloes. However, they are truly hard-working, brave, and kind-hearted. In 1979, Kampoon Boonthawee from Yasothorn won the first S.E.A. WRITE Award for Thailand with his autobiographical novel, “Loog Isaan” (A Child of the Northeast). It was subsequently made into an award-winning film. On its first page, he wrote the most touching dedication I’ve ever read: “For my mother who is illiterate.” Tears ran down my face as I finished the phrase. And that’s the pride of Isaan.
Photo by Maitree Siriboon