What is Isaan? Isaan is the North East of Thailand, a huge geographical region that looks like an elephant’s ear on the right hand side of the top of Thailand.
Isaan is a plateau, and most of the northern and eastern boundaries are formed by the Maekong River – one of the great rivers of the world. The plateau is very dry and prone to droughts. There are mountains (small ones) around the edges and within the plateau. This wiki map shows the main features.
Are you sure that’s how its spelt? Well, that’s how I spell it. But it is often shown as Isan or Esarn. Obviously its something else in Thai script.
Who lives in Isaan? There are over 21 million people in Isaan. Most of these are farmers mainly growing rice. Nearly 20 million of them speak Lao, which is a dialect of Thai. Its the same language as is spoken in Laos (but there are only 5 million Lao speakers in Laos!). The other major group is the Khmer speakers. There are about 1 million of them living around Buri Ram and Surin. Khmer is a different language, but I think most Khmer Isaan people speak some kind of cross between Khmer and Thai. (For my sins I have been married to a Lao Isaan and a Khmer Isaan lady in the past.) One thing you don’t often read about in articles about Isaan is that the people who live in the cities and towns are largely Chinese Thai. In other words, probably no more than a third generation from Chinese immigrants, but now fully integrated into Thai society. Most people in Isaan are poor. Very poor. For that reason Isaan forms a huge labour pool for Bangkok. You can be 90% certain in Bangkok that your taxi driver, the people you see mending the roads, and the women you see working in bars are from Isaan. As are most of the factory workers and construction workers. Similarly, huge numbers of Isaan people work aborad, often in the construction industry. Money from these people is flowing back into Isaan and the standard of living is rising. There is virtually no industry in Isaan, but there are good universities.
So it sounds like Isaan is just another region of Thailand? Well, maybe. But I think there is something special about Isaan. It is partly the scenery of bright skies and big horizons. But mainly it is the people. These people are friendly, generous, open, and have a great sense of humour. Their lives are often indescribably sad and difficult, but they squeeze the last bit of fun and pleasure from everything they do. The Lao language is a gentler version of Thai, and spending an evening in a Lao village you are surrounded by a hubub of people laughing and making bawdy jokes between the houses and across the streets. Wherever you are in Isaan you will see people. Working in the rice fields. Wading through ponds collecting frogs or plants to eat. Taking buffalo out to the fields. Walking to and from school. Walking along every road. Waiting for buses or local trucks. Filling up the markets. Always laughing.
What else is special about Isaan? Two things worth mentioning: food and music. Isaan food is sometimes spicy, often pungent and strong tasting. Key dishes are som tam, larb, sticky rice, and barbecued chicken. Most Isaan homes do not have cookers but use outside barbecues. Food is often eaten by hand with no cutlery. Isaan music is based on a rhythmic folk tradition with an emphasis on two instruments: the kaen and the saw. This has developed into a strident form of pop music. When I first visited Isaan in 1988 Lao music and food was looked down on by Bangkok people. Now Isaan food thrives across Bangkok, and the music rides high in the Thai charts. While a visit to an Isaan pop concert is great (complete with chorus lines of dancing girls in fluorescent costumes), I love to hear the deep sadness in some of the songs about homesickness and lost love.
Good place for a holiday then? Back in 1988 the Tourist Authority of Thailand almost actively discouraged people from visiting Isaan. “Nothing to see there” was the message! In part this was a hangover from the period when Isaan was a genuine centre of communist insurgents, who were only really persuaded to come down from the mountains in the early 1980s. As a result, I was the first white foreigner (farang) to visit my wife’s village, and I rarely if ever saw another foreigner in my travels in the region. There are tourist attractions. First and foremost are the khmer temples – as good as Ankor Wat, but smaller. Also the national parks are worth visiting, particularly Khao Yai. A lot of tourists transit through Isaan en route to Laos via the Friendship Bridge. And more and more people are simply enjoying a place where travel is easy, the hotels are decent, and you get a real insight into a full on no holds barred bit of true Asian culture.
OK, stop going on about it! There will be more, especially if my plans to spend a week in Isaan in April come off.