Isan is a region comprised of 20 provinces on the Khorat Plateau in north-eastern Thailand. Despite being the largest of Thailand’s four regions, it receives very few visitors from abroad, partly because of its different climate and partly because there are no beaches here.
If you are looking for something away from the beaten path during your stay in Thailand, Isan is a great option. Data from 2017 show that Isan got less than 3% of Thailand’s total tourist income in that year. This number isn’t just low due to a lack of tourists, but also because the more high-priced accommodations, restaurants and resort facilities tend to be located elsewhere.
A majority of Thailand’s rural poor lives in Isan, and even though Isan is home to one-third of Thailand’s population, the region only accounts for about 11.5% of the national GDP. Also, it only receives 5.8% of the national budget, while Bangkok – home to just 17% of the national population – gets a whopping 72% of the budget. (Data published in 2016.)
The economic situation in Isan has prompted many from the younger generation to migrate to other parts of Thailand, especially to the cities and tourist towns, in search of work.
Isan is roughly160,000 km2 in size, which is roughly half the size of Norway. It is bordered by the Mekong River to the north and east, where the Mekong River forms Thailand’s border with Laos. South-east of Isan is Cambodia. Geographically, Isan is separated from the rest of Thailand by the mountain ranges Sankamphaeng and Phetchabun.
As mentioned above, the famous Mekong River forms Isan’s border to Laos. The Mekong’s main Thai tributary is the River Mun, which rises in the Khao Yai National Park. Another important Thai tributary is the River Chi, which runs through central Isan before making a southward turn and joining Mun in the Sisaket Province. Together, the Mun and Chi rivers drain the southern Khorat Plain.
The northern Khorat Plain is drained by the rivers Loei and Songkhram. The River Loei is a small tributary to Mun, and it flows north through the Loei Province. The River Songkhram flows east through the provinces Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, and Nong Khai.
The northern and southern Khorat Plains are separated from each other by the Phu Phan Mountains.
Unlike to the southern and central Thailand that most tourists experiences, Isan isn’t always warm. The climate here can be quite harsh, sometimes even with frosty temperatures as cold air comes flowing in from China.
This doesn’t mean that Isan is always cold. It’s just that the climate is more dramatic here, with a greater difference between the warmest and the coldest temperatures. The top temperature record from Isan is 43.9 °C, a temperature measured in Udon Thani. The lowest temperature record is −1.4 °C, recorded at the Sakhon Nakhon Agro Station.
Rainfall is typically concentrated to the rainy season, from May to October. In the early parts of the rainy season, you can expect heavy but short showers. Eventually, the showers will grow longer, and it is not uncommon to have rains from late afternoon and throughout the night.
The average annual precipitation vary significantly depending on location within Isan. Some areas get less than 1,300 mm in an average year, while others get 2,000 mm or more. The south-western provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Buriam, Maha Sarakham, Khon Kaen, and Chaiyaphum receive less rain than the rest of Isan.
The rainy season is followed by the cool season, which lasts until February.
The hot season runs from the end of the cool season to the onset of the rainy season in May. The warmest month is April.
As mentioned above, Isan is separated from the rest of Thailand by mountain ranges, and the effects of this separation is noticeable in many different ways – including language.
The main language in Isan is not Thai, but the Isan language, which is a dialect of the Lao language. Linguistically, the inhabitants of Isan have much stronger ties to Laos on the other side of the Mekong River than to Thailand. Also, in south-eastern Isan, along the border to Cambodia, you can find a lot of people who have Northern Khmer (a dialect of the Khmer language) as their primary language.
Standard Thai is the language used for official matters in Isan, and a very large part of the Isan population either have Thai as a second (or third) language or at least understand Thai. Also, Khorat Thai exist in Isan, a dialect of Thai that holds a linguistic position somewhere between standard Thai and Lao.
The Phu Kradueng National Park
The Phu Kradueng National Park is located in Isan’s Loei Province. You can read more about this park here.
Agriculture in Isan
Agriculture accounts for over 20 percent of the gross regional product in Isan, which makes it the largest single sector of the economy here. As a comparison, agricultural output account for 8.5% of the gross national product for Thailand as a whole.
So, agriculture is important in Isan, but large tracts of the region is very complicated to farm due to recurring droughts and/or floods, and soil that is highly acidic, saline and deprived of nutrients.
The main crop in Isan, accounting for roughly 60% of the cultivated land, is sticky rice, which thrives in flooded environments. Often, a farmer can manage to get two harvest of sticky rice per year here.
To become less dependant on sticky rice, Isan farmers are increasingly diversifying by adding crops such as sugarcane and cassava. Silkworms for silk production are also raised in Isan. In the Nong Khai Province along the Mekong River, pineapples, tobacco and tomatoes are grown as cash crops.
The main animals raised for food in Isan are cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks, and fish.