isaan people group
isaan people group
The following selections are from sources that many Farangs living in — or intimately familiar with — Isaan would probably declare are dated, yet the oldest of the texts may only be from 1996. Changes are coming so swiftly, some of what is below sounds even to me as if it is describing a Thailand of a half-century or more ago.
The Northeast region of Thailand, known as Isaan, is home to the second largest people group in the country. In Thai, Isaan refers to the people, the dialect and the land area of the Northeast. One can be Isaan, speak Isaan and be from Isaan. The Isaan region includes 170,218 square kilometers, about one third of the country’s total area. In 1997 the population of Isaan was 21,086,501 or 35% of Thailand’s total population.
[Thailand Covenant Church]
Isaan are a hard working, good-natured people of Laotian descent. They are in the process of acculturation to the predominate Central Thai culture, but for the most part they still form a distinct cultural group as evidenced by the use of their own language, their eating habits and their distinct social class.
[Thailand Covenant Church]
Introduction / History
The Northeastern Tai, also known as the Lao Isan, are dispersed throughout seventeen provinces in northeastern Thailand. This area takes up nearly one third of Thailand’s total land mass. It is basically a flat arid plain known as the Khorat plateau with infrequent rainfall and few natural resources. The region is noted for its archeological relics and monuments dating back to Khmer influence under the Angkor wat regime.
Many of the present day residents of the Khorat plateau were forcibly relocated to this hostile region over a period of a hundred years from the Lan Chang Kingdom in what is now the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. Later the people, the region and their language was labeled by Siamese kings as Isan, the Pali word for northeast. Even though this region is now fully incorporated into Thailand and all residents are Thai, the Lao Isan language, unique diet, ritual and culture continues to thrive among this people group.
What are their lives like?
Most of the Northeastern Tai are farmers dependent primarily on rain-fed agriculture. Major crops are paddy rice, cassava and sugar cane. Like other Tai groups, they also raise cattle. Availability of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish varies with the seasons. Agricultural production remains low, due to the relatively dry climate and the saltiness of the soil. Although agriculture and industry is hindered by the shortage of water and internal infrastructure for transportation, the Northeastern Tai are still able to produce their world famous mud-mee silk.
For the most part the Northeastern Tai are organized into small villages which are part of subdistricts, under district control. The majority of the population lives in villages near their surrounding farmland. Village and district leaders are elected locally. Districts come under the governance of the province structure. Governors are appointed by the central government. Each province has a number of representatives in the parliamentary government correspondent with its registered population. Isan has the highest population statistics for all of rural Thailand and therefore the majority of the rural voting population of the country is located in Isan.
The Northeastern Tai are well known for their friendliness and openness. They are family and community oriented, which makes them generally non-competitive and easy-going.
Because northeastern Thailand frequently suffers from drought, the people who live there are often thought of as poverty stricken. Yet, the Northeastern Tai have become an urban, industrial labor force, and many of them have found jobs as factory workers in the larger cities and overseas. Although the Northeastern Tai may be more developed economically than the Northern and Central Tai, public education and better communication lines in the northeastern area have brought some measure of improvement in the last generation.
What are their beliefs?
More than half of the Northeastern Tai are Theravada Buddhist. They follow the teachings of Buddha (the “enlightened one”) and seek to eliminate suffering and improve their future by gaining merit in their present lives. Ultimately, they are in pursuit of nirvana, or perfect peace. They believe that merit can be acquired through feeding monks, donating to temples, and frequently worshipping in the temples. Traditionally, young men enter a Buddhist monastery once in their life as a short-term monk to make merit for their parents or family members.
Many of the Northeastern Tai continue to practice their traditional ethnic religions particularly for important rites of passage. They combine Buddhist teachings with folk religious practices, seeking help through the worship of spirits and venerated objects.
The Isaan People
The Isaan people are a gentle people of Laotian decent who inhabit northeast Thailand. They have resisted the Central Thai pressure to give up their culture by both protesting and fighting. When the government took away all forms of their writing, they continued to maintain their Lao dialect without writing, and it continues strong to this day. Recent Isaan protests have brought a more conciliatory tone from the government, but the general attitude of both the government and the church is that the Isaan should settle down and become Central Thai in culture. Nonetheless, the Isaan have a distinct language, social class and eating habit.
They cherish their “sticky rice” as a staple and eat it with every meal. All their meals are the same and consist of rice with all manner green plants, along with fermented fish. Protein is not affordable, so it is often lacking in the diet.
The Isaan have never had much wealth, but the shift from their past communal farming style to a cash based society has done much to promote selfishness. A common solution to the poverty they face in the villages is to send their children to the city in order to make money to send back. This separates the family and introduces the children to many sorrows.
The Isaan are not adverse to taking up Western culture, but they resist Christianity as foreign. For them, as for other Thai people, to be Isaan is to be Buddhist. They seem interested in hearing about Christianity, but the possibility of conversion is not as welcome. They respond very favorably to those who make the effort to appreciate their culture and learn their language.
The Isaan are a hard working, good natured people of Laotian decent. They are in the process of acculturation to the predominate Central Thai culture, but they continue to form a distinct cultural group as evidenced by their own language, eating habits and their distinct social class. The Isaan farmers have often fought with the Thai government. In the past these farmers would get punished for such fighting, but more recently the government has shown more toleration. In any case, governmental concessions seem far away.
LANGUAGE / LITERACY INFORMATION
Occupations : 85% Rice farmers who depend on grain-fed agriculture. Other jobs include laborers, merchants, government employees.
Income Sources : Many rely on money sent from relatives working in Bangkok. Indebtedness is common as well. Tobacco and other cash crops are grown to augment rice crops.
Products / Crafts : The production of silk weaving and baskets involves a deep set division of the sexes. Traditionally, men have done the basket weaving, and women have made the clothes. The introduction of industrialized clothing has changed the demand for traditional methods, and women have shifted to growing lucrative cash crops. Yet they continue to weave with new time saving methods of production. This gives them the satisfaction of providing things for the family as well as selling at the market. Plastics have been introduced, but have bamboo continues to be used both because it is plentiful, and because it has a traditional appeal.
Trade Partners : Not known
Modernization / Utilities : Roads within the northeast are being improved. Primary schooling is available throughout the region. Clinical outposts are expanding to the smaller districts. Telephone lines are in all provincial capitols and many district towns. Over 95% of villages have electricity, and those with electricity manage to get refrigerators and TVs. Most homes have a toilet with septic tank. Most villagers still depend on hand-dug wells for drinking water, large rainwater tanks are also widely available. Bottled gas is available, but not widely used. Most cooking is done with charcoal or wood collected from fields.
LIVING CONDITIONS / COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT STATUS
Food : All meals are the same, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner. Men usually eat first, with everyone eating from common bowls which are placed on the floor, and afterwards they drink from a common dipper.
Rice is their staple. This is a sticky type which digests slowly and holds off hunger pangs. Most green plants are eaten, including many that are not considered food by others. Hot chili peppers react with these plants, making pleasant and sweet flavors. Fermented fish is added to meals, and can introduce parasites. Proteins are expensive and not much used, but include iguanas, snakes, lizards, toads, fish, snails, field crabs, birds, eggs, rats, mice, insects, chicken, beef, buffalo, pork, and sometimes dog.
Dairy products aren’t used, and osteoporosis is seen among many elderly women. Schools are starting to provide UHT milk to students to combat this problem.
Shelter : The scarceness of building timber results in homes being built from concrete blocks instead of the traditional raised wooden-post construction. Such homes are single story concrete post and block construction.
Clothing : Isaan men and boys wear casual western clothes with cheap plastic sandals. In the village men often they wear a “pakama,” which is a light cotton cloth of two meter length wrapped around the waist or head. This pakama can serve as a belt, hat, storage bag, swimming garment, or hammock. In the evening, after they bathe, they may wear it without a shirt.
Village girls prefer jeans and tee-shirts and sandals. Once pregnant, they often revert to the more traditional sarong. This sarong is a tube shaped cloth worn around the waist. Most women end up wearing this for the remainder of their lives, having silk versions for special occasions. Some women raise silk worms to make their own sarongs.
School children wear uniforms to school. This can be such a burden for poor people that they send their children to school on alternate days so that they can share their uniforms. Scouting outfits and gym suits can add to this burden, prompting wealthier schools to establish trust funds for clothes and books.
During rice planting season workers cover themselves completely to protect from the sun, and some wear ski masks year round.
Health Care : Preventative medicine is not emphasized. Most doctors make their money selling medicine such as shots and pills. Health care is better in cities than villages.
Water (Domestic / Agricultural) : Irrigation has been encouraged by the government, but farmers aren’t generally interested in increasing production beyond current levels. The combination of deforestation and irrigation has produced salinity problems due to the nature of the soil and the water table. Keeping the water table low is preferred because of salinity issues.
Energy / Fuel : unknown
Family Structures : Men marry into their wives’ households, staying several years with her family before building a new house often in the same compound. The youngest daughter usually looks after her parents in old age and inherits the property. Families tend to focus on the parent-child relationship, especially between the mother and children. Having male offspring is preferred, with the average family having two children. The government encourages this average of two children by offering free sterilization after the second child.
Neighbor Relations : Rural villages have changed dramatically in neighbor relations since moving from a barter society to a cash economy. Neighborhood groups used to work together to plant rice fields, but now farmers hire workers on a cash per day basis. This has reduced harvests and has prompted broadcast planting of crops.
Rule / Authority / Selection : Central Thai policies have replaced the traditional Isaan system. Village headmen used to serve for lifelong appointments, but now they are elected for five year terms by the villagers.
Social Habits / Groupings : They are community oriented people, preferring long chats together. They dislike being alone Villages are surrounded on all sides by rice paddies. They live in clusters within the village, not on their fields.
Judicial System / Trial Punishment : Jails and prisons are brutal, and people may be tortured to secure confessions of guilt. It is the policy that people are guilty until proven innocent.
Crisis / Conflicts – History / Status : The central Thai government has maintained a long-standing policy of forcing the Isaan to adopt Central Thai culture. The Isaan have resisted by protests and fighting, and this has caused much bloodshed for them. The Central Thai burned all Isaan writing forty tears ago, and since then they only speak Isaan. Yet they have not lessened in their passion to maintain their language of their culture. It can be a traumatic experience for children when they start school, since they only hear Isaan at home and must learn Thai as a second language. The current government has been more conciliatory toward protesting Isaan farmers, but it does not appear that they are appeared to listen to the idea that the Isaan be less controlled form Bangkok.
Celebrations / Recreation : The Thai new year, called “Songkran, ” is the most notable festival. It occurs during the hot season. In the Lao tradition, it is supposed to be a time to visit elders and bless them with a sprinkling, but for young people, the three day celebration has become a time to douse others with buckets of water and then smear talcum on their faces. Another celebration is “Bun Bang Fai,” which combines elements of animism and Buddhism. The two day festival involves merrymaking and firing off rockets into the sky in order to bring rain.
Foot sports such as soccer, sepak-takra, and Thai boxing are preferred, being geared mostly for men and boys. Animal fights involving cocks and fish are popular, and usually involve gambling.
Art Forms : “Maw Lom” music is indigenous to Lao/Isaan culture. It is traditional music which uses a bamboo instrument, the “kaen,” and incorporates Isaan forms. This music has been modernized and made into an electrical, fast-paced version called “Maw Lom Sing.” It is considered the ultimate in popular Isaan music.
CHILDREN / YOUTH
Education / Type of Schooling : The education system is based on the English system. Village children are required to attend up to sixth grade. In the provincial capitols, children are required to attend up to ninth grade.
Labor / Tasks : Many children tend cattle and water buffalo; for some this chore can keep them from going to school. Girls help take care of younger children, and boys collect firewood and grass (to feed the cattle). Both boys and girls work plant and harvest rice as they get older.
Problems (Morality / Family / Insurrection / ect. ) : Rice farmers feel desperation when it comes to money. Young people are encouraged to go elsewhere to work, and they are expected to send money home. Young people may end up in debt, or get addicted to a number of things as they go to more urban settings. Some families send girls and boys to prostitution. This exposes them to the risk of AIDS, which has become a real problem in Thailand.
Greatest Needs :
- The goal of parents for economic improvement is sacrificing families. There needs to be a renewed commitment to solid values which will reinforce the family rather than separate it.
- Improved education is also needed for villagers, including training about sex education, AIDS awareness, and alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Village school teachers need better salaries, and students should be able to get scholarships.
- Improved nutrition is needed so that people get enough protein and calcium.
Religious Practices / Ceremonies : Prayer strings are used to bind people together symbolically. Although used in Buddhist ceremonies, some missionaries have adapted this practice for church use since it has deemed a cultural symbol. Praying with hands together is another such form that missionaries have adapted.
As some contrast, the following excerpts have been added in a post edit of April 12, 2012:
Image 2: A group of friends on a journey down an Ubon Ratchathani city street. Like the people grouping together on a journey in Image 2 above, we desire to serve WITH Isaan people and others that God chooses to bring …
Publish Date: 03/31/2012 13:58
Interview: Street Art Hits Khon Kaen. 2012 March 27. by The Isaan Record. An unlikely movement has taken root in the heart of Khon Kaen: street art. Here, a group of recent college graduates and former skateboarders are taking the city by surprise with the controversial artwork they are painting across the walls of city buildings. … I thought I should do something to bring art closer to people because our city, Khon Kaen, doesn’t have much in the way of [contemporary art] movements
Publish Date: 03/26/2012 18:33
National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are …
Publish Date: 03/01/2012 17:33
He finds an Isaan taxi driver to take him there. He seeks out Isaan people by dropping a few Isaan words and listening for the response. TJ has a lot of local pride for only living in Thailand for a year. rrrrrr! . Nana plaza is a disappointment to …
Publish Date: 04/05/2012 7:37
Meet the People of Isaan
Uploaded by isaanlife on Apr 30, 2011
http://isaan-live.com/ I have lived here for 16 years and have documented life, the people, festivals, religion and day to day life here for 12 years
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