Isaan: Northeast Thailand
Isaan is the Northeast area of Thailand. The people of the area are bi-lingual and bi-cultural. The second language-culture of most of the population is Laotian. There are also pockets of Khmer (Cambodian) culture.
The overall population is about 25 million and the area represents about a third of Thailand.
Even though the vast majority of Isaan people are farmers (about 85%), the soil is poor. Farmers are dependant on rainfall to grow their crops, but rain in Isaan is highly unpredictable. While the average annual rainfall is about 48 inches, the area suffers from frequent droughts or flooding. Water buffalo are still used for farm work but small tractors are becoming more common. Farm implements are fairly rudimentary.
To supplement their incomes, many farmers (especially the women) weave silk, make baskets or do other handicrafts. Men often make fishnets by hand.
Isaan is the poorest area of the country. The average per capita income is about $400 per year and 70% of the population is classified as poor. In spite of this, the people themselves are happy and friendly.
The people of Isaan have maintained, to a large degree, their own culture. This is predominantly Laotian but there are pockets of Khmer culture as well.
About 95% of the population practice Buddhism but it is strongly influenced by animism and belief in assorted spirits.
While major roads are satisfactory, roads leading to villages are often in poor condition, sometimes not paved, and require a large or four wheel drive vehicle to negotiate.
Telephone lines to cities and towns are modern but villages often don't have lines and cell phones frequently can't make a satellite connection.
About 95% of villages have electricity.
Thai style toilets with a septic system are found in most village homes.
Water is gotten from hand dug wells or collected from rainfall in large ceramic jars.
Gas is used for cooking in most towns, but villagers usually use charcoal or firewood.
The primary food of Isaan people is sticky rice which is eaten with the fingers. This is supplemented with various other dishes. In addition to standard Thai vegetables, the leaves of many trees are eaten as are most water plants. These dishes often have a large amount of chili pepper, making them extremely spicy.
Protein foods are the most expensive and for this reason eaten the least. Beef is seldom part of the menu. Fish, pork and chicken are fairly common and often eaten in small pieces mixed with a fried dish of some kind. Other sources of protein are snakes, frogs, rats and many types of insects.
Essentially no calcium is found in the diet since milk, cheese and other dairy products are not used. Many older women suffer from osteoporosis as a result of this.
There is no distinction between the dishes eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Spicey stir friend vegetables with sticky rice are just as likely to be eaten in the morning as in the evening. Water, not milk, coffee, carbonated beverages, beer or other drinks that must be purchased, is the drink of choice with meals.
Twelve years of schooling is mandatory throughout Thailand. Many, however, don't go nearly that long. The vast major of Isaan people finished grammar school at best.
One obstacle to a good education is finances. The people are poor and for most families, offspring start work at a young age. There are also expences involved with education. All children, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are required to wear uniforms. However, many can't afford them. Some families with two childdren, for example, can only afford one uniform. They buy a large size and it is shared between the children. Thus, one child must be absent every other day.
Another problem is transportation. Most villages have a grammar school near enough for the children to walk to. Often though, the high school is in the nearest market town which can be many miles away over poor roads.
The method of education is primarily rote learning. Individuality and creative thinking are not encouraged. While the government has made some progress in educational reform and encourages innovation and student centered learning, it has not caught on with most schools.
The group mentality of the educational process is symbolized not only by the mandate to wear uniforms, but with regulations requiring, for example, very conservative hair styles. For instance, boys are required to have a buzz cut that is virutally shaved on the sides. Girls are not allowed to have long hair.
Home and Family
Old fashioned Isaan houses are made of wood and stand on stilts. Some, unable to afford such housing, live in tiny wooden shacks or in framed houses covered with tin sheeting.
Villages are clusters of houses near rices paddies and other crops. Isolated farm houses are almost unheard of, mostly because there is still a strong belief in spirits -- not all of them benign. The farm villages symbolize the strong group and communal nature of rural Thai society.
Children are very much the center of the family. Thais, not caring to be alone, usually stick together in groups of family members and neighbors, somewhat segregated by gender. There is a lot of sharing, caring and pretty much of an open door policy.
Clothing is becoming more westernized, especially among the young. Many however, once married and resettled in the village, return to traditional Thai clothing, including sarongs for women, pa kao ma for men and the all purpose mor hum Thai farmers' clothing.
Farm villages have no health care professionals. As with high school, medical facilities are located in the nearest market town which is usually not easy to get to. These medical facilities are pretty basic.
Provincial centers have more up to date hospitals but the best health care is found in large cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which have world class facilities.
A person's social stutus is determined by age, gender and occupation. The elderly are respected for their wisdom and accorded respect. While men have a higher social stutus, in reality, women are the backbone of the country and in no way looked down on. Monks have the highest social status. Doctors and teachers are also highly regarded. The King and the royal family are greatly revered and rightly so, because they have done a great deal for Thailand.
For a map of Thailand showing all the provinces in both Thai and English, click here.