An Overview of Thailand

General information and specific details on northeast Thailand

Thailand is an enchanting Buddhist Kingdom with a unique past. As a more detailed background to your holiday in Thailand, this page aims to give further details on the Kingdom as a whole, and more specifically on the Northeast of the country, where Gecko Villa, your vacation house, is situated.

Thailand: some basic facts

Area: 514,000 sq km
Provinces: 76
Land boundaries: total: 4,863 km
Bordering countries: Burma 1,800 km, Cambodia 803 km, Laos 1,754 km, Malaysia 506 km
Languages: Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects
Ethnic groups: Thai 75%, Chinese 14%, other 11%
Religions: Buddhism 95%, Muslim 3.8%, Christianity 0.5%, Hinduism 0.1%, other 0.6% (1991)
Capital: Bangkok
Head of State: King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)
Government type: Constitutional monarchy
Timezone: GMT/UTC + 7
The basic monetary unit in Thailand is the Baht which is divided into 100 satang. The following coins and notes are currently in use; coins: 1, 2, 5, and 10. 
Bill notes: 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 Baht.
Electricity operates on 220 volt and 50 cycles throughout the country.
Thailand has a tropical Climate with three seasons; hot (March to May), Green (June to October) and Cool (November to February). Average temperatures are 82 F, ranging, for example, in Bangkok, from 95 F in April, to 63 F in December.d

The history of Thailand

Thailand, or Siam as it was called until 1939, has never been colonised by a foreign power in history, unlike its southern and south eastern Asian neighbours. Despite periodic invasion by the  Burmese and the Khmers, and brief occupation by the Japanese in WWII, the kingdom has never been  externally controlled for long enough to dampen the Thai's individualism.

The earliest civilisation in Thailand history is believed to have been that of the Mons in central Thailand, who brought a Buddhist culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the 12th century, this met a Khmer culture moving from the east, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya culture moving north, and citizens of the Thai state of Nan Chao, in what is now southern China, migrating south. Thai princes created the first Siamese capital in Sukhothai and later centres in Chiang Mai and, notably, Ayuthaya.

The Burmese military invaded Siam in both the 16th and 18th centuries, capturing Chiang Mai and destroying Ayuthaya. The Thais expelled the Burmese and moved their capital to Thonburi. In 1782, the current Chakri dynasty was founded by King Rama I and the capital was moved across the river to Bangkok. In the 19th century, Siam remained independent by deftly playing off one European power against another.

The 20th century brought great change to Siam. Modern Thai history begins with the military coup of 1932, which shifted power from the king to a coalition of military and elected officials. In 1939, the country changed its name from Siam to Thailand. During WWII, the Thai government sided with the Japanese. After the war, Thailand was dominated by the military and experienced more than twenty military coups and military countercoups interspersed with short-lived experiments with democracy. Democratic elections in 1979 were followed by a long period of stability and prosperity as power shifted from the military to the business elite.

Recent decades have seen a parade of governments elected under what some have called "supermarket democracy", amidst a politically more polarized society.

Getting along in Thailand

       Do:

  • Be respectful of HM The King and HM The Queen. They are respected deeply by the Thai people.
  • Always be respectful of Buddhism. Dress correctly in Temples (wear sleeves, do not wear short pants etc.). Don't sit on Buddha images if you want to be photographed.
  • Always be respectful of the elderly, in every situation. If you are bargaining at the market with a seller who is obviously older than you, or if you are bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver who is older than you, do this in a polite way, with a smile on your face.
  • Use the "wai" - a greeting where you press your hands together.
  • Learn at least a few words of Thai: the effort will again be very much appreciated.
  • Be respectful of the country's ecology in the mountains and on the beaches.

    Do not:
  • Point at people or things with your feet. This is considered as highly impolite, as the feet are considered as the most inferior parts of the human body. Do not sit on the floor of a Temple with your feet pointing at a Buddha Image!
  • Touch anybody on the head, the "highest" part of the body.
  • Be too familiar in public, even if you are married. These things are considered very impolite in Thailand.
  • Shout or raise your voice in public (to anybody). If you want to argue with your wife or with your children, do this in the privacy of your hotel room and not in public!
  • Dress in an overly casual Western "holiday" style when in town: no shoes or shirt etc. Thais judge others on what they wear and how they wear it.

"Isan" or northeast Thailand

Isan (also written as Isaan, Issan, Esan or Esarn) is the northeast region of
Thailand
. It is located on the Khorat Plateau, bordered by the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the south. To the west it is separated from Northern and Central Thailand by the Phetchabun mountain range.

Agriculture is the main economic activity, but due to the socio-economic conditions and hot, dry climate output lags behind that of other parts of the country. This is Thailand's poorest region.

The main language of the region is Isan (which is similar to Lao), but Thai is also widespread and Khmer is spoken in the south. Most of the population is of Lao origin, but the region's incorporation into the modern Thai state has been largely successful. Prominent aspects of Isan culture include mor lam music, Muay Thai boxing, cock fighting and the food, in which sticky rice and chillies are prominent.

The history of Isan

Isan has a number of important Bronze Age sites, with cliff paintings, artefacts and early evidence of rice cultivation. Bronze tools, such as found at Ban Chiang, may predate similar tools from Mesopotamia. The region later came under the influence first of the Dvaravati culture and then of the Khmer empire, which left temples at Phimai and Phanom Rung.

After the Khmer empire began to decline from the 13th century, Isan was dominated by the Lao Lan Xang kingdom. Thereafter the region was increasingly settled by Lao migrants. Siam held sway from the 17th century, and carried out forced population transfers from Laos to Isan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Franco-Siamese treaties of 1893 and 1904 made Isan the frontier between Siam and French Indochina.

In the 20th century a policy of "Thaification" promoted the incorporation of Isan as an integral part of Thailand and de-emphasised the Lao origins of the population. This policy extended to the use of the name "Isan" itself: the name is derived from that of Isana, a manifestation of Shiva as deity of the north-east. The name therefore reinforces the area's identity as the north-east of Thailand, rather than as a part of the Lao world. Before the 1960s, the people of Thai Isan were simply labelled Lao and wrote in the language in the Lao alphabet before the central government forcibly introduced the Thai alphabet and language in schools. Most Isan people now speak the Isan language which is closely related to Lao language.

The geography of Isan

Isan covers 62,000 square miles (160,000 square km). It is roughly coterminous with the Khorat Plateau, which tilts from the Phetchabun mountain range in the west of the region (the location of several national parks) down towards the Mekong River. The plateau consists of two main plains: the southern Khorat plain is drained by the Mun and Chi rivers, while the northern Sakon Nakhon plain is drained by the Loei and Songkhram rivers. The two plains are separated by the Phu Paan mountains. The soil is mostly sandy, with substantial salt deposits.

The Mekong forms a large part of the border between Thailand and Laos to the north and east of Isan, while the south of the region borders on Cambodia. The Mekong's main Thai tributary is the Mun River, which rises in the Khao Yai National Park near Khorat and runs east, joining the Mekong in Ubon Ratchathani Province. The other main river in Isan is the Chi River, which flows through central Isan before turning south to meet the Mun in Sisaket Province. The smaller Loei and Songkhram rivers are also tributaries of the Mekong, the former flowing north through Loei province and the latter flowing east through Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom and Nong Khai Provinces.

The average temperature range is from 30.2 C to 19.6 C. The highest temperature recorded was 43.8 C in Udon Thani province, the lowest 0.1 C in Loei province.

The economy of north east Thailand

The Isan people have for centuries eked out an austere existence on generally inhospitable land in less than favourable conditions as substance-level agrarians and pastoral hunter-gatherers whose ancestors inhabited the area before them. As a result, this indigent farmer-class people have learned to make do with what they have, within the confines of their own sub-economy, and have developed a resilient love of life that belies their predicament.

Agriculture is the largest sector of the economy. Rice is the main crop (accounting for about 60% of the cultivated land), but farmers are increasingly diversifying into cassava, sugar cane and other crops. Many farmers still use water buffalo rather than tractors. The main animals raised for food are cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks and fish.

Despite its dominance of the economy, agriculture in the region is extremely problematic. The climate is prone to drought, while the flat terrain of the plateau is often flooded in the rainy season. The tendency to flood renders a large proportion of the land unsuitable for cultivation. In addition, the soil is highly acidic, saline and infertile from overuse. Since the 1970s, agriculture has been declining in importance at the expense of the trade and service sectors.

Isan is the poorest region of Thailand: average wages are the lowest in the country. The region's poverty is also shown in its infrastructure: eight of the ten provinces in Thailand with the fewest physicians per capita are in Isan (Sisaket has fewest, with one per 14,661 in 2001; the national average was 3,289); it also has eight of the ten provinces with the fewest hospital beds per head (Chaiyaphum has fewest, with one per 1,131 in 2001; the national average was 453). The region also lags in new technology: there was only one Internet connection per 75 households in 2002 (national average one per 22 households).

Many locals seek higher-paying work outside the region, particularly in Bangkok, where they fill many of the worst paid and lowest-ranking jobs. Some of these people have settled permanently in the city, while some migrate to and fro. Others have emigrated in search of better wages.

The culture of north east Thailand

The indigenous 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.

The region's food is distinct from Thai and Lao cuisines, but has elements in common with each. The most obvious characteristics are the use of sticky rice rather than plain rice, as well as fiery chillies. Popular dishes include tammakhung, or in central Thai, som tam (papaya salad), larb (meat salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken). These have all spread to other parts of Thailand, but normally in bowdlerised 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, but the French and Vietnamese influences which have affected Lao cuisine are absent. The people of the region famously eat a wide variety of creatures, such as lizards, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, silkworms and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these animals as delicacies. Food, except soups, are commonly eaten by hand.

The traditional dress of Isan is the sarong. Women's sarongs most often have an embroidered border at the hem, while men's are in a chequered pattern. They are worn "straight", not hitched between the legs in Central Thai style. Men also wear a pakama - a versatile length of cloth which can be used as a belt, hat, hammock or bathing garment. Isan is the main centre for the production of Thai silk. The trade received a major boost in the post-war years, when Jim Thompson popularised Thai silk among westerners. One of the best-known types of Isan silk is mut-mee (aka mudmee), which is tie-dyed to produce geometric patterns on the thread.

The Buddhist temple (or wat) is the major feature of most villages. These temples are used not only for religious ceremonies, but also for festivals and as assembly halls. They are mostly built in the Lao style, with less ornamentation than in Central Thailand. Lao style Buddha images are also prevalent.

Isan houses are often built on stilts: the area underneath the house can be used as a living area, for storage or for keeping animals. Large jars or "ohng" are used for collecting and storing rainwater.

The people of Isan celebrate many traditional festivals, such as the Bun Bungfai Rocket Festival. This fertility rite, originating in pre-Buddhist times, is celebrated in a number of locations both in Isan and in Laos, but most vigorously and most famously in Yasothon province. Other Isan festivals are the Candle Festival, which marks the start of vassa in July in Ubon and other locations; the Silk Festival in Khon Kaen, which promotes local handicrafts; the Elephant Round-up in Surin; and the bangfai phayanak or Naga fireballs of Nong Khai.

The main indigenous music of Isan is mor lam; it exists in a number of regional variants, plus modern forms. Since the late 1970s it has acquired greater exposure outside the region thanks to the presence of migrant workers in Bangkok. Many mor lam singers also sing Central Thai luk thung music, and have produced the hybrid luk thung Isan form. Another form of folk music, kantrum, is popular with the Khmer minority in the south. Although there is no tradition of written literature in the Isan language, in the latter half of the 20th century the region produced several notable writers, such as Khamsing Srinawk (who writes in Thai) and Pira Sudham (who
writes in English).

Isan is known for producing a large number of Muay Thai boxers: as with Western boxing, kickboxing provides a rare opportunity to escape from poverty. Isan's most famous sportsman, however, is tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, whose family are from Khon Kaen.

The cultural separation from Central Thailand, combined with the region's poverty and the typically dark skin of its people, has encouraged a considerable amount of racism against the people of Isan from ethnic Thais; the novelist Pira Sudham wrote that, "Some Bangkok Thais... said that I was not Thai, but... a water buffalo or a peasant". Even though many Isan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, they are largely restricted to low-status jobs such as construction workers and prostitutes, and discriminatory attitudes persist. Nevertheless, the Central Thai perception of Isan is not wholly negative: Isan food and music have both been enthusiastically adopted and adapted to the tastes of the rest of the country.

Quick Contact Guide for Travel in Thailand and Udon Thani

Our updated telephone and website guide for airlines, hospitals, police services, health and more is a quick list of useful telephone numbers in both Udon Thani and across Thailand.