The social history of this enigmatic region stretches back at least 5600 years, to the hazy days when the ancient Ban Chiang culture started tilling the region’s fields with bronze tools.
Thais employ the term ìsǎan to classify the region (phâak ìsǎan), the people (khon ìsǎan) and the food (aahǎan ìsǎan) of northeastern Thailand. The name comes from Isana, the Sanskrit name for the early Mon-Khmer kingdom that flourished in what is now northeastern Thailand and Cambodia. After the 9th century, however, the Angkor empire held sway over these parts and erected many of the fabulous temple complexes that pepper the region today.
Until the arrival of Europeans, Isan remained largely autonomous from the early Thai kingdoms. But as the French staked out the borders of colonial Laos, Thailand was forced to define its own northeastern boundaries. Slowly, but surely, Isan would fall under the mantle of broader Thailand.
Long Thailand’s poorest area, the northeast soon became a hotbed of communist activity. Ho Chi Minh spent 1928 to 1929 proselytising in the area, and in the 1940s a number of Indochinese Communist Party leaders fled to Isan from Laos and helped bolster Thailand’s Communist Party. From the 1960s, until an amnesty in 1982, guerrilla activity was rife in Isan, especially in the provinces of Buriram, Loei, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon. But growing urbanisation drew many peasants to the cities and the various insurgencies evaporated in the glare of Thailand’s boom years. Not everyone has benefited though, and the per capita income in Isan is less than one-third of the national average.