Isan also written as Isaan, Isarn, Issarn, Issan, Esan, or Esarn; from Pali ऐशान aiśāna or Sanskrit ऐशान aiśāna “Northeast”) consists of 20 provinces in the northeastern region of Thailand. Isan is Thailand’s largest region, located on the Khorat Plateau, bordered by the Mekong River (along the border with Laos) to the north and east, by Cambodia to the southeast and the Sankamphaeng Range south of Nakhon Ratchasima. To the west it is separated from northern and central Thailand by the Phetchabun Mountains.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, northeastern Thailand has been generally known as Isan, while in official contexts the term phak tawan-ok-chiang-nuea (ภาคตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ; “northeastern region”) may be used. The term “Isan” was derived from Isanapura, the capital of the Chenla Kingdom. The majority Lao-speaking population of the region distinguish themselves not only from the Lao of Laos but also from the central Thai by calling themselves khon Isan or Thai Isan in general. However, some refer to themselves as simply Lao, and academics have recently been referring to them as Lao Isan or as Thai Lao, with the main issue with self-identification as Lao being stigma associated with the Lao identity within Thai society. The Khmer-speaking minority and the Kuy people (“Soui”), who live in the south of Isan, speak Austroasiatic languages and follow customs more similar to those of Cambodia than to those of the Thai and Lao, who are Tai peoples.
The main language is Isan, which is a dialect of the Lao language. Currently written with the Thai alphabet (instead of the slightly different Lao alphabet), Isan belongs to the Chiang Saeng and Lao–Phutai language groups, which along with Thai are members of the Tai languages of the Tai–Kadai language family. Thai is also spoken by almost everyone and is the language used in education as official language, however only in Nakhon Ratchasima Province use Khorat dialect, which is a dialect of the Thai language as main language. Khmer, the language of Cambodia, is widely spoken in areas along the Cambodian border: Buriram, Surin and Sisaket. The Lao Isan people are aware of their Lao ethnic origin, but Isan has been incorporated as a territory into the modern Thai state through over one hundred years of administrative and bureaucratic reforms, educational policy, and government media. Despite this, since the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in the January 2001 elections, the Lao Isan identity has reemerged, and the Lao Isan are now the main ethnolinguistic group involved in the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt movement” of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Several Thai prime ministers have come from the region.
Prominent aspects of Isan culture include mor lam (Thai: หมอลำ), an indigenous folk music, muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย) boxing, cock fighting, and celebratory processions (Thai: กระบวน). Isan food, in which glutinous rice (Thai: ข้าวเหนียว, khao niao) and chili peppers are prominent, is distinct from central Thai cuisine, though it is now found throughout the kingdom. Sticky rice is a staple of northeastern cuisine and it accompanies most meals.
Isan’s culture is predominantly Lao, and has much in common with that of the neighbouring country of Laos. This affinity is shown in the region’s cuisine, dress, temple architecture, festivals, and arts.
Isan food has elements most in common with Laos and is somewhat distinct from central Thai cuisine. The most obvious difference is the consumption of sticky rice that accompanies almost every meal rather than non-sticky long-grain rice. French and Vietnamese influences found in Lao cuisine are absent in Isan. Popular Lao dishes that are also staples in Isan include tam mak hung, or in central Thai, som tam (green papaya salad), larb (meat salad), and kai yang (grilled chicken). These dishes have spread to other parts of Thailand, but normally in versions which temper the extreme heat and sourness favoured in Isan for the more moderate central Thai palate. Conversely, central Thai food has become popular in Isan. The people of the Isan region in Thailand, a mixture of Lao, Vietnamese, Khmer, Mon, Cham, and other Tai groups, famously eat a wide variety of creatures, such as lizards, frogs, and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms, and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these creatures as delicacies or snacks. Food is commonly eaten by hand using sticky rice pressed into a ball with the fingers of the right hand. Soups are a frequent element of any meal, and contain either vegetables and herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork, or a mixture of these. They are eaten using a spoon and chopsticks at the same time.