Demographics of Isaan

Isaan is the Northeast of Thailand, with about 22 million people. The every day language for most people is Isaan, except for over 1 million Khmer. Isaan is closely related to Thai. The educational, official, and media language is Thai. The younger generation is fluent in Thai.

Isaan is poorer than Central Thailand, because it consists of a plateau that holds less water than the fertile plains of especially Central Thailand, and because it used to have limited connections to the rest of the world. The inhabitants of Isaan are closely related to the Lao people in Laos, and speak basically the same language. The Isaan have a strong regional identity within Thailand, that they hold on to even after moving to other parts of the country.

Many of the Isaan are migrant workers. Some are seasonal workers and come back for planting and harvesting the rice. Others are permanent migrants working in Bangkok and other industrial areas. Many Isaan work for stints as labourers overseas in e.g. Taiwan, Singapore, and Israel. Tens of thousands of Isaan women have married foreigners and are living abroad.

Within Thailand, the Isaan are noted for eating everything. Herbs and leaves from around the house provide the needed vegetables, and e.g. beetles, lizards, and red ant’s eggs are common parts of Isaan dishes.

About 90% of all people in Isaan are living in villages. Around each village paddy fields can be found. Planting rice is an important part of Isaan culture, and it is a matter of pride for the Isaan to eat rice from their own land. Other important cash crops are casave, sugar cane, and eucalyptus trees.
There are four cities with over 100,000 people in Isaan: Nakhorn Ratchasima, the largest city and closest to Bangkok; Khon Kaen, most central and having the most educational opportunities in Isaan; Udon Thani in the North and Ubon Ratchathani in the southeast of Isaan.

The Isaan are staunchly Buddhist. Life in the village centers around the Buddhist temple. Many women wait in front of their house every morning to offer food to the monks. Village festivals always take place in the temple grounds. Any ceremony is incomplete without the presence of some monks. At the same time, animist practices are widespread and are not seen as conflicting with the Buddhist religion.