The history of Isan (Thai: อีสาน, pronounced [ʔiː sǎːn]) has been determined by its geography, situated as it is on the Korat Plateau between Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. … The Thai king Vajiravudh reinvoked the ancient name, designating the northeast sector of the Rattanakosin Kingdom “Isan“.
Issan means, literally, “northeast” in the Thai language, derived from Sanskrit. Some etymologists say it was derived from Isanapura, the capital of the ancient Chenla kingdom. This northeast corner of Thailand is bordered on the north and east by Laos and the Mekong river, and the southeast by Cambodia. This has created, over the centuries, a unique culture that, while part of Thailand, maintains a distinct identity.
This territory has historical sites from the Bronze and Iron Ages thought to predate those found in the Middle East, and ancient cliff paintings showing that man established a culture and farmed rice here in very early times; this culture was altered and evolved through the many diverse Kingdoms who claimed it through the centuries.
The Dvaravati Kingdom, then the ancient Khmers, ruled the area up to the 13th century C.E., when there began an influx of Lao and Thai immigrants and settlers who would change the face of the population. The mark of the Khmer Empire can still be seen in Issan in the form of many ancient temples in their style.
Two in particular are especially well known due to their condition; Phimai and Phanom Rung are thought of as superb examples, and experience a very high volume of visitors both local and foreign.
The Kingdom of Siam became the predominant force in the area during the 17th century, and began forced migrations of certain populations to the area, especially Lao and Central Thai citizens, changing the cultural makeup of Issan slowly but surely. With the Franco-Siamese Treaties of 1893 and 1904, Issan became the recognized frontier between Siam and French Indochina.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Thai government began a program to assimilate the people and the cultures of Issan into the mainstream of Thai life. “Thaification” meant only the Thai language would be taught in schools, and used for all pubic communications, as the government attempted to submerge the ancient Lao and Khmer people, the majority of the population, in the then-current programs of the Thai government.
Today Issan is accepted as a part of Thailand by the people. This, however, does not mean that they necessarily have given up the old ways. Most of the people of Issan speak a variant of Lao, though all speak Thai also. In the southern area many still speak Cambodian, especially near the border. The ancient festivals and customs still hold sway, much to the delight of tourists who happen to come through, expecting the “tourist” Thailand they see everywhere else and finding, instead, a real, living culture very different from the normal tourist areas.
Issan is one of the few parts of Thailand where you can see first-hand much of the history of this part of the world which has not been re-packaged for commercial consumption, and you can feel the history through simple observation of the everyday people around you.