The term Isaan is quite confusing for several reasons. The first is its spelling, although this is a common
problem with languages that do not use the same script, so Isaan can be spelled with a 'E' or an 'I' and with a
double 's' or a double 'a'. The second is the location of Isaan, which is usually described as the north-eastern
region of Thailand, despite the fact that it is clearly slap bang in the middle of Eastern central Thailand.
Isaan is bordered by Laos to the north and east, where the Mekong River flows and Cambodia to the south. The
Mekong and its basin is a unique ecosystem with huge 10 foot catfish and river dolphins to give but two
Isaan is mostly mountainous, although there is the huge Khorat Plateau to the south. The word 'Isaan' is said to
be derived from the Pali or Sanskrit meaning 'north-east direction', which it is if you are in Bangkok or south of
it, but hardly anywhere else.
The majority of the population have some relationship with Laos or Cambodia, but call themselves 'Isaan People'
or 'Isaan Thai People'. Their language is more than a dialect of Thai, but most Thais can understand most of it, if
they try, but cannot speak it.
Isaan also has its own cuisine, which is generally regarded as the hottest food in Thailand, which already
pretty hot by any standards. Sticky rice and insects play a prominent role in Isaan food as does fermented fish
(bpala) and somtam, both of which are now widely available throughout Thailand.
Traditional Isaan music is also distinctive with its infectious pounding rhythm and vibrato voice. It is no
wonder that Isaan dance is also distinctive and different. There are a number of important Bronze Age sites and
caves where artefacts have been found that may predate those of Mesopotamia.
Historically, the region was under Cambodian domination until about the 13th Century, when Laos became
predominant until Siam took over in the 17th Century. This state of affairs led to riots and rebellions, but was
ratified in 1909, when Isaan was confirmed as Thailand's buffer zone between them and the French in Indochina.
Thailand began a concentrated effort to make the people of Isaan feel Thai in the middle of the 20th century.
Isaan is an important part of Thailand, but it remains the poorest region in the country.
It is approximately a little larger that the area of England and Wales combined and Thailand faces the same
impossible, uphill struggle that the English had when they tried to make Welsh people forget that they were
School education in the region is now in Thai, which is also what the English government did to the Celts of
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. People will never forget repression like that, because it is unnecessary.
If Thailand is not careful, they will face decades or even centuries of resentment, as the English have done and
indeed are still doing. You cannot try to deprive a people of its culture and expect to be thanked for doing it,
history has provided this lesson in countless examples, although some classes of people never learn.
Isaan is a very friendly place and different from anywhere else in Thailand, although that can be said for all
the diverse regions that make up the wonderful Land of Smiles that is Thailand.
by +Owen Jones