Where is Isaan?
The Isaan region covers about 1/3 of the country of Thailand. It is bounded by the Mekong River to the north and east, and by high hills or mountains to the west and south. (see map of Thailand)
Who Are the Isaan?
Isaan (E-saan) can refer to either the name of the Isaan people, their language or the northeast Thailand region. There are about 20 million Isaan people, most of them living in Northeast Thailand. The Isaan are known throughout Thailand as people who want to live life to the fullest. They are seen as a hardworking, hard playing, and hard luck people who have a sturdy sense of independence in spite of being looked down on by some from better off regions of the country.
What Do the Isaan Believe?
Along with most Thai people from other parts of the country, most Isaan believe that "to be Thai is to be Buddhist." More than 95% of the Isaan identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists, but most do not have a deep understanding of Buddhist doctrine. Most know of and wish to follow the Five Precepts of Buddhism for the lay person (Don't kill, steal, lie, drink alcohol, or commit adultery) and often attempt to "make merit" by giving offerings to the monks or money to the local temple.
In reality, however, the type of Buddhism practiced by many Isaan people is actually a mixture of animism (spirit worship), Buddhism and Brahmanism. It is believed that spirits inhabit many natural objects such as large trees and the ground and that offerings to the spirits are periodically necessary to insure they do no harm.
What About the History and Culture of the Isaan?
The Isaan are mainly descended from Laotian migrations beginning in the about the 15th century. Isaan people speak a variation of the Lao language known as "Isaan". Due to the Central Thai government's policy of requiring all national schools to teach in Central Thai, most Isaan people have at least some ability to speak, read and write Central Thai, although most speak their Isaan language in the home.
The Isaan region has remained the poorest part of Thailand, largely due to poor soil and climate for farming. But despite the relatively unfertile soil, agriculture remains the mainstay of the Isaan economy. Around 90% of the population is engaged in farming. More than half of the rice grown is the glutinous variety (sticky rice) preferred by the people of Isaan. The northeast has about 60% of Thailand's water buffalos, which are used in farming.
Maw Lom music is indigenous to Lao/Isaan culture. It is traditional music which uses a bamboo instrument, the khaen, and incorporates Isaan forms.
One marked characteristic of the Northeasterner is a sturdy sense of independence. This trait is demonstrated by the unusually high proportion of people who are self-employed, owning and operating their own farms. Isaan people also place a high value on having fun, and are considered warm and cheerful people.
What About Their Daily Lives?
The major occupation of the Isaan is rice farming, but they are also employed as taxi drivers, construction workers, and beauticians, and professionals such as teachers, doctors, and government workers. Particularly in the provinces of Khon Kaen, Roiet, Surin, and Korat, they are well known for their silk weaving skills, making an especially beautiful type of silk known as "mud mee".
The agriculture of the Northeast is primarily rain-fed. This means that there is a drastic reduction in the demand for labor during the dry season. Unemployment can then reach 30-40% of the Isaan labor force. The unemployed often deal with this problem by moving outside of Isaan to look for work. Many Isaan families rely heavily on funds sent back from these outside jobs. However, with the economic crash throughout Thailand and Asia, many Isaan are unable to find work.
Most meals include sticky rice as the staple, along with vegetables and usually some type of protein. Many green plants are eaten, including many varieties unknown to Westerners. Hot chili peppers are incorporated into many dishes, as well as garlic, coriander, mint, and dill. Fermented fish (often raw) contributes protein but can also be a source of parasites. Other proteins include chicken, beef, pork, fish, frogs, field crabs, insects, iguanas, field rats, and other animals.
How Can the Isaan Truly Experience Life to the Fullest?
Jesus said, "The thief comes to steal and to kill and to destroy: I come that they might have life, and that abundantly." (John 10:10) For the Isaan to truly experience life to the fullest, they must recognize and accept Jesus Christ as the giver of life. Although there are some Isaan Christians, they constitute less than 1% of the 20 million Isaan people. Many Isaan people either have never heard the gospel or have such a limited understanding of it that they think that Christianity is "the foreigner's religion." Isaan people need to see that following Jesus helps them to be more Isaan in the best, most desirable sense. As believers, they can delight in the reality of their high status as children of God in spite of what others may think of them; they can be truly free because they are free from the burden and penalty for sin, and they can truly feel peaceful and fun-loving because they no longer live in fear of evil spirits.
Many Great Commission Christian groups are currently working to reach the Isaan with the gospel. Some of the strategies currently being employed to target the Isaan include:
Map detailing the percentage of Christians in Northeast Thailand by District.
Other Links to Information About the Isaan
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