Take a moment to learn more about the precious Isaan people of Northeast Thailand.  If you are coming to live and work in Thailand, you should definitely know about the Isaan.

They make up a third of the population of this nation and are the back bone of farming and service industries in Thailand.

The Isaan people are a gentle people of Laotian decent who inhabit northeast Thailand. They have resisted the Central Thai pressure to give up their culture by both protesting and fighting. When the government took away all forms of their writing, they continued to maintain their Lao dialect without writing, and it continues strong to this day. Recent Isaan protests have brought a more conciliatory tone from the government, but the general attitude of both the government and the church is that the Isaan should settle down and become Central Thai in culture. Nonetheless, the Isaan have a distinct language, social class and eating habit.

They cherish their “sticky rice” as a staple and eat it with every meal. All their meals are the same and consist of rice with all manner green plants, along with fermented fish. Protein is not affordable, so it is often lacking in the diet.  Another famous dish of the Isaan is Som Tam which is a cold salad made from shredded green papaya, spicy chiles, sour fruits, fermented fish sauce, lime, as well as other ingredients. Many Isaan people eat Som Tam daily.

The Isaan have never had much wealth, but the shift from their past communal farming style to a cash based society has done much to promote selfishness. A common solution to the poverty they face in the villages is to send their children to the city in order to make money to send back. This separates the family and introduces the children to many sorrows.

The Isaan are not adverse to taking up Western culture, but they generally resist Christianity as foreign. For them, as for other Thai people, to be Isaan is to be Buddhist.  Their form of Buddhism is mostly a mixture of many different beliefs including the belief of territorial spirits and ancestor worship.  They seem interested in hearing about Christianity, but the possibility of conversion is not as welcome. They respond very favorably to those who make the effort to appreciate their culture and learn their language.

70% of people in the area speak the Isaan dialect as well as Central Thai.  The same percentage are able to read and write in Central Thai.  85% of Isaan people are rice farmers who depend on grain-fed agriculture. Other jobs include laborers, merchants, government employees.  Many rely on money sent from relatives working in Bangkok. Indebtedness is common as well. Tobacco, sugar cane, rubber trees, and other cash crops are grown to augment rice crops.

The production of silk weaving and baskets involves a deep set division of the sexes. Traditionally, men have done the basket weaving, and women have made the clothes. The introduction of industrialized clothing has changed the demand for traditional methods, and women have shifted to growing lucrative cash crops. Yet they continue to weave with new time saving methods of production. This gives them the satisfaction of providing things for the family as well as selling at the market. Plastics have been introduced, but bamboo continues to be used both because it is plentiful, and because it has a traditional appeal.

Roads within the northeast are being improved. Primary schooling is available throughout the region. Clinical outposts are expanding to the smaller districts. Telephone lines are in all provincial capitols and many district towns. Over 95% of villages have electricity, and those with electricity manage to get refrigerators and TVs. Most homes have a squat toilet with septic tank. Most villagers still depend on hand-dug wells for drinking water, large rainwater tanks are also widely available. Bottled gas is available, but not widely used. Most cooking is done with charcoal or wood collected from fields.

All meals are the same, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner. Men usually eat first, with everyone eating from common bowls which are placed on the floor, and afterwards they drink from a common dipper.  Rice is their staple. This is a sticky type which digests slowly and holds off hunger pangs. Most green plants are eaten, including many that are not considered food by others. Hot chili peppers react with these plants, making pleasant and sweet flavors. Fermented fish sauce is added to meals, and can introduce parasites.

Proteins are expensive and not much used, but can include iguanas, snakes, lizards, toads, fish, snails, field crabs, birds, eggs, rats, mice, insects, chicken, beef, buffalo, pork, and sometimes dog.  Dairy products aren’t used much, and osteoporosis is seen among many elderly women. Schools are starting to provide UHT milk to students to combat this problem.

The scarceness of building timber results in homes being built from concrete blocks instead of the traditional raised wooden-post construction. Such homes are single story concrete post and block construction.

Isaan men and boys wear casual western clothes with cheap plastic sandals. In the village men often they wear a “pakama,” which is a light cotton cloth of two meter length wrapped around the waist or head. This pakama can serve as a belt, hat, storage bag, swimming garment, or hammock. In the evening, after they bathe, they may wear it without a shirt.

Village girls prefer jeans and tee-shirts and sandals. Once pregnant, they often revert to the more traditional sarong. This sarong is a tube shaped cloth worn around the waist. Most women end up wearing this for the remainder of their lives, having silk versions for special occasions. Some women raise silk worms to make their own sarongs.

School children wear uniforms to school. This can be such a burden for poor people that they send their children to school on alternate days so that they can share their uniforms. Scouting outfits and gym suits can add to this burden, prompting wealthier schools to establish trust funds for clothes and books.

During rice planting season workers cover themselves completely to protect from the sun, and some wear ski masks year round.

Preventative medicine is not emphasized. Most doctors make their money selling medicine such as shots and pills. Health care is better in cities than villages.

Irrigation has been encouraged by the government, but farmers aren’t generally interested in increasing production beyond current levels. The combination of deforestation and irrigation has produced salinity problems due to the nature of the soil and the water table. Keeping the water table low is preferred because of salinity issues.

Men marry into their wives’ households, staying several years with her family before building a new house often in the same compound. The youngest daughter usually looks after her parents in old age and inherits the property. Families tend to focus on the parent-child relationship, especially between the mother and children. Having male offspring is preferred, with the average family having two children. The government encourages this average of two children by offering free sterilization after the second child.

Rural villages have changed dramatically in neighbor relations since moving from a barter society to a cash economy. Neighborhood groups used to work together to plant rice fields, but now farmers hire workers on a cash per day basis. This has reduced harvests and has prompted broadcast planting of crops.

Central Thai policies have replaced the traditional Isaan system of government. Village headmen used to serve for lifelong appointments, but now they are elected for five year terms by the villagers.

Isaan people are community oriented people, preferring long chats together. They dislike being alone. Villages are surrounded on all sides by rice paddies. They live in clusters within the village, not on their fields.  Some men will stay in simple gazebos in shifts in order to guard their fields during harvest season to ensure that they are protected.

Jails and prisons are brutal, and people may be tortured to secure confessions of guilt. It is the policy that people are guilty until proven innocent.

The central Thai government has maintained a long-standing policy of forcing the Isaan to adopt Central Thai culture. The Isaan have resisted by protests and fighting, and this has caused much bloodshed for them. The Central Thai burned all Isaan writing over 50 years ago, and since then they only speak Isaan. Yet they have not lessened in their passion to maintain their language of their culture. It can be a traumatic experience for children when they start school, since they only hear Isaan at home and must learn Thai as a second language. The current government has been more conciliatory toward protesting Isaan farmers, but it does not appear that they are ready to listen to the idea that the Isaan be less controlled from Bangkok.

The Thai new year, called “Songkran, ” is the most notable festival. It occurs during the hot season. In the Lao tradition, it is supposed to be a time to visit elders and bless them with a sprinkling, but for young people, the three day celebration has become a time to douse others with buckets of water and then smear talcum on their faces. Another celebration is “Bun Bang Fai,” which combines elements of animism and Buddhism. The two day festival involves merrymaking and firing off rockets into the sky in order to bring rain.

Foot sports such as soccer, sepak-takra, and Thai boxing are preferred, being geared mostly for men and boys. Animal fights involving cocks and fish are popular, and usually involve gambling.

“Maw Lom” music is indigenous to Lao/Isaan culture. It is traditional music which uses a bamboo instrument, the “kaen,” and incorporates Isaan forms. This music has been modernized and made into an electrical, fast-paced version called “Maw Lom Sing.” It is considered the ultimate in popular Isaan music.

The education system is based on the English system. Village children are required to attend up to sixth grade. In the provincial capitols, children are required to attend up to ninth grade.  Many children tend cattle and water buffalo; for some this chore can keep them from going to school. Girls help take care of younger children, and boys collect firewood and grass (to feed the cattle). Both boys and girls work plant and harvest rice as they get older.

Rice farmers feel desperation when it comes to money. Young people are encouraged to go elsewhere to work, and they are expected to send money home. Young people may end up in debt, or get addicted to a number of things as they go to more urban settings. Some families send girls and boys to prostitution. This exposes them to the risk of AIDS, which has become a real problem in Thailand.  Many feel that the front lines on the battle against human trafficking and prostitution in Thailand is in the provinces of the Northeast where many of the girls involved have been raised.

Generally, Isaan people seek some culture from the West, but this does not generally include Christianity. Schools and national media teach that to be a Thai is to be Buddhist.  Buddhism in Isaan is really animism (spirit worship) but it is still accepted by most all religious leaders with only a few exceptions.  Intellectualism has not been an effective strategy in reaching these “Folk Buddhists.”

Christianity is seen as a foreign religion by some and is virtually unknown by others.  In order to contextualize the Gospel, some cultural forms such as praying with hands together is something that workers have adapted in their worship meetings.  Others have used rice and a purple juice found locally for communion.  Local dance and music has been used in worship.  Some groups are encouraging Isaan believers to write their own worship music.  Ceremonies have been developed that incorporate Isaan culture and the Bible although they are not widely used.

Most of the over 20 million Isaan people have never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel, especially in their heart language.  Many churches in this area remain relatively small, traditional, and insular.  There is a clear clergy/laity distinction that makes it hard for the majority of the Church to be mobilized for ministry.  Politics and distrust keep many groups from working together to see more people reached with the Gospel.  Moral failure has stifled the growth and influence of many ministries.

A veteran missionary to Thailand has translated the book of Genesis and most of the New Testament into the Isaan language using Thai script, but the translation has yet to be widely distributed.  The 1932 Thai Bible is difficult to understand, and though the new translation being developed should help, it would be better to have a copy in their own language.

The Thai/Isaan people love receiving handouts, but written things create a dilemma. They find it difficult to relate to the old Thai translation, yet they don’t have their own language in writing.   Gospel Recording are available in the Isaan language in an MP3 format, but this is a difficult format to distribute in this area.  The Hope Project, by Mars Hill Productions, will have a translation available in the Isaan language using native speakers available in the fall of 2009.

The Jesus film and some other shorter evangelistic video presentations are available in the Isaan language and are being shown in local outdoor village outreaches by one known group working in the area.  New, updated, and affordable Gospel tracts and presentations are needed for both Thai and Isaan people

Few people have treated the Isaan like the unique people group that they are. They are nearer to Lao culture and language than to Central Thai, yet the attempt has often been made by both the government and the church to treat them as Central Thai. Most Christian resources are in Central Thai, yet the people really respond when Isaan is spoken. They need people who will focus on reaching them as the specific people group they are.

Most importantly, the Isaan people need more visionaries with a plan to develop a church planting movement among them as well as the sustained motivation to carry it out.  Effective Gospel resources in the Isaan language, ongoing evangelistic outreach, training in the principles of organic and simple church, releasing ministry to the masses, and more sustained teamwork between mission groups will help create the momentum needed for a movement to take root and spread throughout the whole region.

Information adapted, updated, and expanded from various online resources such as the Joshua Project, P. De Neui, J. Gustafson, R. Meyers, and Peoples of the Buddhist World by P. Hattaway as well as from current experiences working in this area.

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