Lao Isan

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Lao Isan

ETHNONYMS: Northeastern Thai, Thai Lao


Identification. The Lao Isan speak the Lao dialect of the Thai language, live in northeastern Thailand, and are predominantly Buddhists.

Location. Northeast Thailand is composed of seventeen provinces situated between 14° and 18° N and 101° and 106° E. The region is cut off from the rest of the country by two low escarpments, the Phetchabun to the west and the Phanom Dong Rak to the south. The region is dominated by the Khorat Plateau, a gently rolling area of low hills and shallow lakes drained almost entirely by the Mekong River via the Mae Nam Mun and its tributary, the Lam Nam Chi. The north and east of the region are bounded by the Mekong River, across which lies Laos. The short monsoon season brings heavy flooding in river valleys, but the dry season is long and the prevailing vegetation is sparse grass.

Demography. Northeast Thailand is the most populated of Thailand's four regions, despite problems with farming in the area. The population for 1989 was estimated as 18.8 million, with an average density of 180 persons per square kilometer. Lao speakers constitute the majority of the population but there are sizable numbers of Central Thai speakers in the urban areas, where large Chinese or Sino-Thai populations are also found. There are Thai-speaking minorities in the region, including the Phutai, the Lao Phuan, the Saek, and the Khorat Thai, who are said to be descendants of Thai soldiers and Khmer women. In addition, the region has non-Thai-speaking populations of Khmer and Vietnamese.

Linguistic Affiliation. Lao Isan speak a dialect of the Thai language, which is said to belong to the Tai-Kadai Family of languages. This dialect is the same as that spoken by the lowland Lao of Laos. It is a monosyllabic and tonal language with a script that is similar to Central Thai. Thai from other regions of the country are said to have difficulty understanding Lao Isan.

History and Cultural Relations

The Lao Isan live in one of the most archaeologically rich areas of Southeast Asia. Farming has been carried out in the region for approximately 5,000 years. Some of the earliest evidence of the use of bronze anywhere in the world has been found in Udon Thani Province in the northern part of the Khorat Plateau. The Lao made their presence known in the region in the fourteenth century a.d. with the founding of the kingdom of Lan Chang, which straddled both sides of the Mekong and extended its power north to Yunnan and west to the northern Thai kingdom of Chiengmai. This kingdom dissolved in the early eighteenth century into a number of competing kingdoms including Luang Prabang, Champasak, and Vientiane. The latter two kingdoms controlled parts of what is now northeast Thailand. Champasak had tributaries on the Mun and Chi rivers in what is today a part of Ubon Ratchathani and Roi Et provinces. Vientiane, meanwhile, is thought to have controlled territories in present-day Loei, Nong Khai, and Nakhon Phanom provinces. The Siamese of Ayutthaya had taken control of Nakhon Ratchasima in the seventeenth century. From the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries the Siamese, from their new capital at Bangkok, fought a series of wars with Champasak and Vientiane, eventually defeating these two Lao kingdoms and absorbing the Khorat Plateau and most of Laos as outer provinces within the Siamese kingdom. Luang Prabang became a tributary vassal of the Siamese kingdom. This situation changed with the arrival of the French in Indochina, beginning with their control of Cochin China in 1862. By 1904 Siam had ceded all of the Lao areas on the left bank of the Mekong River to France and established the boundary that exists between Thailand and Laos to the present day.

During most of the nineteenth century, Siam administered the northeast as tributary outer provinces. Local politics decided the rulers of those political units and the Siamese king only asked for tribute and allegiance. With the growth of colonial powers in the region, the Siamese kingdom sought closer control over the northeast and from the late nineteenth century on replaced local "lords" with government officials appointed from Bangkok.


The villages in the northeast tend to be clusters of houses intersected by narrow lanes. An average village contains 90 to 100 households. Villages are about 4 to 5 kilometers apart and are often connected by roads or pathways. The villages are surrounded by rice fields, swamps and ponds, grassy plains, and secondary forests. As in the rest of Thailand, locally named villages are often divided administratively by the system of districts, subdistricts, and hamlets devised by the central government. Housing is usually wooden or bamboo, with thatch or corrugated-iron roofs. As in most of Thailand, houses are raised off the ground on stilts 1.5 meters high. A village may have one or two shops selling general goods such as cigarettes, candy, matches, and produce. Now Bangkokstyle cement houses can be found scattered throughout the region as money from migrant workers from the Middle East is spent on elaborate houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The northeast has the highest incidence of poverty in Thailand; 50 percent of Thailand's poor live in the northeast. The region has poor soils with low fertility and poor water-retention capabilities. Yet it accounts for approximately 36 percent of the national rice production and more than 90 percent of the kenaf, a product closely related to jute (1971/72 figures). Rice is the main crop of the region and most of this is glutinous rice, a japonica variety much favored as a staple by the people of the northeast. Of all rice production in the region, 78 percent is of the glutinous variety (1970 figures). Most of the glutinous variety is consumed locally and the nonglutinous rice is marketed in Bangkok. The other major crop is kenaf, which competes with jute; its market is subject to the success or failure of the jute crop in India and Bangladesh. Kenaf is sold by the farmers in the major centers of Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani, cities that are in the center of the major growing areas. Three-quarters of the kenaf is exported. The third-largest crop is maize, although it is limited by poor soils and unreliable rain. Maize is grown mainly in the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima and Sisaket. It is marketed through Nakhon Ratchasima to Bangkok for export. Other crops in the region include cotton, sugarcane, peanuts, and cassava, but these cash crops are more productive in other parts of the kingdom.

The northeast excels, however, in the production of cattle and buffalo. A large part of the Khorat Plateau is unsuitable for crop production, but the low hills and open forests, with their abundant grass for pasture, have allowed north-eastern farmers to raise cattle and buffalo for additional farm income. Approximately 40 percent of the kingdom's cattle and 55 percent of the water buffalo are raised in the north-east. Cattle are marketed through dealers who sell them to slaughter houses, 20 percent of the annual production going to slaughter houses in Bangkok. Buffalos also are sold to dealers who then sell them to slaughter houses, 60 percent of which are in Bangkok. This pattern of farmers selling to dealers and not slaughtering animals themselves is partly related to Buddhist beliefs about bad karma arising from the killing of large animals.

Manufacturing is very limited in the region. Most employment is in textile production, followed by food, beverage, tobacco, wood, and furniture production. Food (rice milling) plays a dominant role in the industrial economy.

Industrial Arts. The northeast is well known for silk and cotton textiles, woven by women. Lately these woven items have been the object of various projects seeking to revive "traditional crafts" in the region. In Nakhon Ratchasima Province there is a thriving pottery industry that probably goes back to the time of the Ayutthayan Kingdom. Today this craft is in decline. Recently, some domestic and foreign companies have moved into the region with the object of utilizing the relatively cheap labor resources for manufacturing and agribusiness projects.

Trade. Villages may have a small retail shop or two, selling manufactured items and prepared foods. Often these are operated by village families with a better-than-average income. Usually women are involved in small trading enterprises, often selling vegetables and fruits in the village or prepared food at temple fairs. In some cases, village men become involved in the cattle and buffalo trade. Larger trading operations involving rice and other agricultural products are usually carried out by Chinese or Sino-Thai traders from outside the village.

Division of Labor. Both men and women work in farming, men doing the heavier work such as plowing and clearing of forests. Generally, men and women share the other duties of farm work, such as planting, harvesting, and weeding. Women weave cloth in the off season. Typically, men fish and they build and repair housing.

Land Tenure. Despite the poverty of the region, land tenancy in the northeast is relatively low, about 10 percent of all households (1980). The vast majority of households has access to land, although land distribution is uneven and farm size is small (average 1.75 hectares). Opening new land is no longer an option, and growing populations may be absorbed by urban parts of Thailand, Bangkok in particular.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin groups are recruited on the basis of bilateral descent and are kindred-based. Villages are interlinked through various kinship relations and have been described as a gathering of kin.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology is classified as Hawaiian with cousin terms distinguishing relative age rather than sex. In fact, relative age for Ego is distinguished for all collaterals. Kin terms are extended to nonkin.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage in the northeast begins with a period of courtship initiated by the young couple. This may involve intervention by the parents at any point. Before the marriage takes place, the couple seeks approval from both sets of parents. Thus marriage can be interpreted as a matter of choice given the courtship pattern, but seen as arranged given the desire to have parental approval. Typically, the parents with fewer resources have less control over their children's marriage choices. Since villages are made up of kin, marriages are often exogamous with regard to the village. Ordinarily a newly married couple moves in with the wife's family and lives there until the next daughter gets married, in which case the first couple sets up its own household. Marriage is not a religious event in Buddhism, but Buddhist monks may be invited so that the couple and their relatives acquire religious merit. The event is sanctioned by the community of kin in a ritual that reinforces the importance of respect for age and the parental generation.

Domestic Unit. The family or household consists of those people who share meals and farm cooperatively; normally, they occupy a single house. The domestic cycle of matrilocal residence followed by separate residence means a family will be nuclear or extended at different points in time. Characteristically, a village will have around 65 percent nuclear households and the rest extended at any one time. But a majority of the households are participating in a cycle where married daughters bring their husbands into the family for a length of time. Eventually the last daughter, with her husband and children, lives with her parents in the natal home without setting up a separate household. In some cases, wealth (usually in land) permitting, sisters with their husbands and children live in compounds of three or four households surrounded by a wooden or bamboo pallisade. The sisters' parents remain in the natal household until their death, supplying parental leadership for the group of domestic units. Each household in the compound is a separate domestic unit.

Inheritance. Because of the pattern of setting up domestic units, in which a man moves in with his wife and her family, the parental generation tends to pass land through daughters. A son is expected to marry a woman with rights in land from her parents. Although sons may receive some land from their parents, most land is passed to women. However, as land gets scarce and the opening of new plots in uncultivated areas is virtually impossible, more land is being passed to sons because of the concern of parents about the viability of farming for the new family.

Sociopolitical Organization

Northeast Thailand is part of the kingdom of Thailand, a constitutional monarchy.

Social Organization. Village social life is threaded together by a series of hierarchical patron-client relationships. Relative age, wealth, education, and occupation all play a role in determining relative status among individuals. Because of this personal style of social organization it is difficult to form long-lasting groups in village communities that are not based on a particularly charismatic, skilled, or respected individual. Monks, especially abbots of monastic communities, can hold a particularly high status in village life. This is because villagers have respect for Buddhism and the monastic organization, and a high regard for educated persons. Abbots are usually relatively well-educated or have other skills that win respect. Such individuals can be important in the formation of groups, as many development agencies have found.

Political Organization. As in the rest of Thailand, the seventeen provinces of the northeast are divided into districts, which are made up of municipal areas and subdistricts (tambon ). Each subdistrict is made up of numbered hamlets, which usually crosscut locally named villages. Heads of hamlets and the tambon are elected, although the process for election can vary from village to village. Both men and women are now eligible for election to these village offices. The district head is a bureaucrat appointed by Bangkok, as is every other official up to the provincial governor. Thailand has an elected form of parliamentary government, so that villagers also have the opportunity to elect representatives to the national assembly in Bangkok.

Social Control. Buddhism provides guidelines for villagers' behavior, as typified by the five precepts for the laity: refrain from taking life, from stealing, from illicit sexual activity, from speaking falsely, and from consuming inebriating substances. Gossip and clustered housing provide other means of social control. The open houses permit neighbors to be aware of each others' activities. Additionally, traditional headmen do have the prerogative to fine villagers for breaking customary regulations. These rules usually deal with unacceptable intimate contact of men with unmarried women.

Conflict. Northeast Thailand has been involved in opposition to the central authorities several times during the twentieth century. When Siam first asserted bureaucratic control over the area early in the century, there were the "men-of-merit" rebellions by politicoreligious peasant leaders. They often claimed magical powers in their opposition to Bangkok. By the 1960s, the northeast was known as a region where Communist rebels were widely popular among sections of the peasantry. In more recent times, the northeast has been part of the ongoing political conflict in Thailand typified by the gangster-style murders of political and business rivals. Thailand has the second-highest murder rate in the world. Villages in the northeast have a long tradition of acquiescence to naklaeng, or toughs in local gangs, who enforce political decisions made by powerful and/or wealthy community members. Villages were traditionally abused and/or protected by such gangs.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of northeast Thailand. The monastic organization in the region is linked to the central monastic authority in Bangkok. Practices are similar throughout Thailand.

Religious Beliefs. The Lao Isan differ in belief and practice from other Thai. Perhaps the most distinctive Lao Isan practice is the bunbangfai, the Rocket Festival. Monks and others prepare rockets to be fired off to pay respect to guardian spirits before the coming of the monsoon rains. Another major festival is that of bunphrawes, based on the story of the penultimate reincarnation of the Buddha. Although the story is known throughout Thailand, this festival has been the major annual festival in Lao Isan villages. As among other Theravada Buddhists, the Lao Isan gain merit by presenting gifts to the monastery and having their sons ordained as monks for short periods.

Religious Practitioners. A large majority of men become monks for some period during their lives. Ideally, ordination takes place when the man is twenty years old. This allows his parents or other close relatives to obtain the merit of this action and prepares the man for marriage and domestic life. The northeast is particularly well known for its monastery retreats for meditation. Monks from the northeast have reached the highest levels of the monastic hierarchy. Many Bangkok temples are inhabited and led by monks from the northeast. The monastic system has been an avenue for advancement for many men from the poorest part of the country. In addition to monks, there are paahm or Brahmans, who carry out lifecycle rituals; diviners, who are concerned with spirit-affliction; guardian-spirit mediums and intermediaries; and exorcists.

Ceremonies. The annual ritual cyle is coordinated with the agricultural cycle and is as follows: songkran, the New Year festival at the end of the dry season, on 13 to 15 April; wisaka bucha, the day of birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, in May at the beginning of the rainy season; bunbangfai, the Rocket Festival, in May-June; khao phansa, entering the Vessa or Rain's Retreat, in July; bun khao saak, making merit for the spirits of the dead, in September; ok phansa, leaving the Rain's Retreat, in October; kathin, the presentation of robes to the monks, in October-November; bunphrawes, the making of merit for the recitation of the Prince Vessantara story, in February-March.

Arts. The northeast has artistic patterns similar to those in other parts of Thailand. For example, there are similarities in tattooing, architecture, design, and sculpture. There are, however, some distinctive features of northeastern art. In musical repartee, the Lao Isan have a tradition of playing the reed instrument called kaen. Many of the woven materials are also distinctive in the use of the ikat method of resist-dye technique (mat mii ) and supplementary weft (phaa khit ).

Medicine. The Western biomedical system is well established in Thailand through provincial hospitals and publichealth clinics. The northeast region, however, has the fewest hospitals per capita and the fewest doctors per capita. Villagers often prefer traditional herbal medicines and massage to hospital visits. Rituals such as bai sir sukhwan, where the soul is "tied" back into an ill or disturbed person, are important forms of healing.

Death and Afterlife. Given the importance of death in Buddhist thought, the funeral is the most important rite of passage in northeastern Thai villages. Buddhist monks officiate and it is the only rite of passage recognized as a solely Buddhist ritual. Death marks the passage of the life-force into the next life, whether that be in hell, in heaven, or on Earth as animal, spirit, or human. The funeral procession and cremation are overseen by monks. Buddhist laity participate in rituals of transferring merit to the dead, while monks chant their blessings.

See also Central Thai; Lao


Donner, Wolf (1978). The Five Faces of Thailand: An Economic Geography. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Keyes, Charles F. (1967). Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Data Paper no. 65. Ithaca, N.Y.

Mizuno, Koichi (1978). "The Social Organization of Rice-Growing Villages." In Thailand: A Rice-Growing Society, edited by Yoneo Ishii, 83-114. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Tambiah, S. J. (1970). Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. London: Cambridge University Press.