Monday, May 24, 2010

A Closer Look Into Isaan

I live in the Northeast Region of Thailand, also known as Isan. This is a large region of Thailand with important cultural traditions and it also contributes to the agriculture of Thailand in a big way. When thinking of Thailand most people think of the beach, Bangkok and a certain Roger's and Hammerstein film. There is much more to be learned about. Here is some information from Wikipedia on the place that I now call home, Isan:

Isan's 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.

Isan 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 that accompanies almost every meal rather than plain rice, as well as fiery chiles. Popular dishes include tam mak hung, 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 versions which temper the extreme heat andsourness favoured in Isan for the more moderate Central Thai palate.

Conversely Central Thai food has become popular in Isan, but the French and Vietnameseinfluences 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, crickets,silkworms and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these animals as delicacies or snacks. Food is commonly eaten by hand using the sticky rice pressed into a ball with the fingers as a tool. Soups are a frequent element of any meal, and contain either vegetables and herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork or a mixture of these. They are eaten using a spoon and chopsticks at the same time.

The traditional dress of Isan is the sarong. Women's sarongs most often have an embroideredborder 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, a money and document belt, as headwear for protection from the sun, as a hammock or as a bathing garment. Isan is the main centre for the production of Thaisilk. 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, 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, particularly mor lam, 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.

he 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.[5] 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 secular 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).

Mor lam needs a special mention as its festival-type production which is very commonplace in Isan, has not been exported to other regions. Although it is a very exciting affair, not being on the tourist trail it is largely ignored by foreign visitors. When the locals speak of mor lam (pronounced mor'ram with stress on the second syllable), one will often hear them say pai doo morram (lit. 'go see mor'ram'). They are referring to the most common form of evening entertainment in the region. Somewhere, in a village within easy reach, there will be a mor lam festival on a Friday or Saturday evening. Usually, the rock-festival sized stage is constructed either in a temple compound or on a sports field. Thousands of people will sit on mats on the ground and watch the fun-filled program of variety entertainment. The traditional music and song is accompanied by extremely colorful choreography, executed by a group of up to fifty female (and some male katoey) dancers. The fantastic costumes are changed several times throughout the program, and the transitions are bridged by often raunchy gags, slap-stick comedy, and speeches by local dignitaries. A mor lam festival is a family affair and the area is surrounded by food and drink stalls.

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 is from Khon Kaen.

Marriage and courtship in Isan still mainly follows strict tradition, especially in rural areas, and most young women are married by the time they are 20 years old. Many girls, in spite of the legal requirement, marry as young as fourteen to escape poverty, as usually marriage is associated with a dowry paid by the husband to the bride's family. A dowry will not normally be less than 40,000 Thai baht, and according to the status of the bride and/or her family, can often greatly exceed 300,000 baht. Isan women rarely have boyfriends until they meet the man whom they will eventually marry, and tradition requires that the betrothal is then announced. Younger fiancées will be chaperoned, usually by a female friend, brother or sister while in the company of their future husband. The wedding ceremony usually takes place in the bride's home and is normally officiated by one or several monks or a respected village elder who has been a monk. Young couples are increasingly registering their marriages at the city hall, which they can do if they are over 17. The extended family system is still very much the traditional social structure in Isan, with newly wed couples often living with in-laws or building a home on the family compound or farmland. It is not unusual however, for many women to remain single until much later. Tradition demands that the youngest or only daughter continues to live at home to take care of her parents. They are then only free to marry when both parents are deceased. There is also the tradition that a woman should 'marry up' in status. If the woman is tied to an occupation in a rural area as a farm or business owner, teacher, or similar profession, finding a suitable husband and one who is prepared to relocate is often not easy.

Water buffalo are a regular feature, even in the suburbs, being walked to and from the fields at dawn and dusk. Although rarely used nowadays for working the land, they are considered an important status symbol. The current value (2010) of one head of buffalo is about 20,000 Thai baht (2010: USD 620).

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 discrimination against the people of Isan from non-ethnic Thais of Chinese descent.[citation needed] Even though many Isan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, many hold lower-status jobs such as construction workers, stall vendors and tuk-tuk taxi drivers, and discriminatory attitudes have been known to persist with many Thai-Chinese inhabitants. Nevertheless, Isan food and music have both been enthusiastically adopted and adapted to the tastes of the rest of the country.

The process of Thaification has diluted somewhat the distinctive character of Isan culture, particularly in the cities and in provinces, such as Khorat, which are closest to the Central Thai heartlands and which have been under Thai rule the longest.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Here is an article from today's New York Times regarding the current situation in Thailand. You might detect a tone of sadness and uncertainty, as I did and I definitely think that is the major sentiment of most Thais as everyone in this country is left reeling from the recent events.

After Days of Rage in Thailand, a Weary Calm

BANGKOK — Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared on Friday that order had been restored across Thailand and that it was time for reconciliation, even as the country remained under a state of emergency and a military cordon continued to encircle the central commercial district of the capital.

“We recognize that as we move ahead there are huge challenges ahead of us, particularly the challenge of overcoming the divisions that have occurred in this country,” Mr. Abhisit said in a televised speech, adding that he would initiate “an independent investigation of all the events that have taken place during the protest.”

After an outbreak of deadly rioting and arson by antigovernment protesters on Wednesday and Thursday, Bangkok was mostly calm on Friday. Thai financial markets remained closed for a special holiday declared by the central bank, public transportation was limited, many businesses were shuttered and an overnight curfew remained in effect for at least two more days.

Two months of tension and violence had ended with a whimper on Thursday as the last exhausted group of protesters filed out of a Buddhist temple where they had taken refuge, bewildered and frightened, some in tears.

As they shuffled past a smear of blood on the ground that told of the recent fighting, a line of female police officers in black berets comforted them, touching their shoulders and murmuring: “Don’t be afraid. You’re safe now. Have a safe journey home.”

But it felt, after a political convulsion unlike anything anyone here has seen, that Thailand’s future was anything but safe.

“It was tragic,” said Anusart Suwanmongkol, a senator who supports the government. “Yesterday was the most tragic day in my memory, in Thai history. Nobody gained anything. Nobody won. The country lost.”

“This is the worst crisis Thailand has had, ever, probably — maybe World War II — and where we go from here I don’t think anybody knows,” said Charles Keyes, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has devoted much of his life to the study of Thailand.

“My understanding of what I have learned over the years here has really come into question,” he said. “I question all the things I’ve learned about this country.”

After weeks of stalemate, the military on Wednesday forcibly dispersed the protesters, known as red shirts, who had occupied Bangkok’s prime commercial quarter since early March, setting off an eruption of violence and arson that took at least 15 lives.

The clashes on Wednesday and Thursday, along with four years of acrimonious political combat, have exposed rifts and resentments in Thailand that have smoldered under a surface of smiles and a virtue the Thais call “cool heart.”

The country’s divisions and enmities have only deepened. Nothing has been resolved. The battle for power between social classes and between the politicians who manipulate them continues.

An early election promised by Mr. Abhisit is off the table after protest leaders rejected it last week and vowed to fight on. Most of the leaders were arrested Wednesday as the final battle for the protest site began, and there seemed to be no one left with whom the government could negotiate.

As the last of the protesters boarded buses to their homes in the countryside, leaving behind the ruins of their rally site and the smoking shell of a burned-out mall beside it, an antigovernment Web site urged them to fight on, saying, “You are your own leaders now.”

Hopes for a peaceful election, whenever it comes, seem faint, and in an increasingly polarized and violent political arena, it seems unlikely that the loser will accept the results.

Antigovernment sentiment has hardened in the northeast and north of the country, to where many of the protesters were returning Thursday.

Political opportunists have harnessed their yearnings into a powerful political movement, indoctrinating government opponents on community radio and in the amplified speeches of the protest stage, with a new vocabulary of exploitation about “serfs” and “aristocracy.”

The frightened protesters, who had cowered in the temple amid gunfire and explosions, were heading home with new grievances and hatreds.

“We have been poor for hundreds of years, even thousands of years, and they are living in fancy resorts and mansions,” said Srirasa Reungrat, a middle-aged woman from Chiang Rai in the north, as she stood at the back of the temple Thursday morning. “They have been doing this to us for a long time.”

The bodies of six people killed the day before were laid out on mats beside her, with small offerings of noodles, cups of water and incense sticks at their feet, as a coroner with rubber gloves poked and prodded at their wounds.

In fact, the social conflict in Thailand is more complex than a simple uprising of the poor. This is a society built on harmony, and until politicians hardened the divisions, the pressure for change was less confrontational.

Thailand’s rural people are not serfs. They have been called some of the most comfortable poor people in the world. The economic boom of the 1980s brought them paved roads, electricity, brick houses, television sets, motorbikes, cellphones and factory jobs. Political analysts now call them “post-peasants” and “middle-income peasants.”

But as their standard of living rose, the wealth of the well-to-do in Bangkok rose faster, and the aspirations and resentments of the lower classes grew.

They underwent a process known here as ta sawang, or a “brightening of the eyes” — an awakening, a realization of a truth they had not recognized.

When their eyes brightened, they focused in many cases on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, whose genius was to recognize this untapped electoral bloc, to answer some of its needs with low-cost health care and financial assistance, and to secure its support.

Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and lives abroad, evading a conviction for corruption. But he stays in touch with supporters through audio and video messages and a flow of fatherly messages on Twitter. He remains the single most influential political personality in Thailand; many see him as the master manipulator of the protests.

“Don’t forget that the two most important weapons in modern-day politics are money and the media,” said Mr. Anusart, the pro-government senator, “and unfortunately the other side are the masters of both.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Heat, Politics, and Ruins

Though I may sound like a broken record, it has been HOT here in Thailand lately. Yes, I grew up in the humid high temperatures of Virginia and Tennessee, but Thailand takes things to whole different level. There is no respite. Cold water showers, cooling powder and sitting in front of the fan all help, but take away just one of these elements and I am left dripping yet again.

Powering through the hottest couple of weeks in recent history, I was looking forward to a trip to Bangkok to supervise the newest members of the Volunteer Action Committee, as my tenure is now over. Because of the tense political situation, we were asked to take day buses to Bangkok and proceed with caution, staying in certain parts of the city for the duration of our time. Meeting up with good friends after my daylong bus ride, I could hardly tell anything was different from usual in the city. That quickly changed.

As it got dark we discovered that the rest of the committee had been asked not to come into Bangkok and that the meeting would be cancelled. When we wanted to order food to be delivered for dinner, we found that road blocks prohibited such a purchase, and when we finally met with Peace Corps staff the next day we were asked to leave Bangkok as quickly as possible.

Heather and I hopped on a van and headed out to meet Porscha in the ancient city of Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand and about an hour outside of the city. Since we had come all that way, we figured we could make the most of our weekend and see some sites.

After checking into our sublimely air conditioned room we headed out for burgers and promptly felt better about everything. We spent the weekend eating amazing food, including some of the best Italian I have ever had, studying for the GRE, playing games, lounging by a pool, and having good talks. We were also able to take a tour of the ancient city through the guesthouse where we were staying. To beat the heat the tour began in the early evening and continued after dark as the temples, ruins and restored areas were lighted.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the city of Ayutthaya:

The Ayutthaya historical park covers the ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya, Thailand, which was founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1350 and was the capital of the country until its destruction by the Burmese army in 1767.

In 1969 the Fine Arts Department began with renovations of the ruins, which became more serious after it was declared a historical park in 1976. The park was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1981. According to "Tourism Asia," thirty-three monarchs including King Rama IV governed from Ayutthaya.

It was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767. Ayutthaya was friendly towards foreign traders, including the Chinese, Vietnamese (Annamese), Indians, Japanese and Persians, and later the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French, permitting them to set up villages outside the city walls. In the sixteenth century, it was described by foreign traders as one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the East. The court of King Narai (1656–1688) had strong links with that of King Louis XIV of France, whose ambassadors compared the city in size and wealth to Paris.

Before Ayutthaya fell to a Burmese invasion, its vassals included the Northern Shan states of present-day Myanmar, Lanna (Chiang Mai, Thailand), Yunnan & Shan Sri (China), Lan Xang (Laos), Champa (Vietnam), and some city-states in the Malay Peninsula.[1]

According to foreign accounts, Ayutthaya was officially known as Siam, but many sources also say that the people of Ayutthaya called themselves Tai, and their kingdom Krung Tai or 'the Kingdom of the Tais'.

I am so glad that I got to see and explore the area. We had a great time taking photos, climbing the stairs of the tall wats and just being silly in general. We met some nice Italians on the tour with us, who were in Thailand to study Muay Thai. Though their English was not great, we took it upon ourselves to show them the hospitality that Thai people show us everyday in this country. We took them to the night market and ordered them authentic food…not too spicy of course. I left the group to scout out some weird looking, but delicious fruit and spicy papaya salad for everyone to try. I think they liked our recommendations and we joked that hopefully they would not get sick from the spiciness. We taught them some basic Thai to use at the markets and wrote some notes for them. All the while, Heather and Porscha and I joked that our Thai friends and communities would have been so proud of us.

From there the three of us headed out, determined to find an ice cream cake with which to celebrate Porscha’s upcoming birthday. Dairy Queen came through in the end and we ate the entire cake with spoons in our pajamas! It was the perfect ending to our amazing weekend.

Again because of political unrest, our travel plans changed as we learned we needed to be home by nightfall of Sunday night. Heather and I headed out at 5 am in order to make it home to the far reaches of Isaan in time. Once all volunteers on weekend travel had returned home, we were told that we should stay in our communities and only travel to the cities if necessary (i.e. banking or food). The tension in quickly spreading throughout the country and as of now there is no way to predict what will happen. It is a crucial, but difficult time for the system of governance in this country and I hope that it can be resolved in a timely manner. Most of all I hope that the violence stops. I am deeply saddened by the violence that has occurred as I now call this country my home. I know my friends and neighbors also feel this sadness.

I feel frustrated and anxious, and certainly tense. Though as I fell asleep last night, listening to the crickets compete with the songs of the neighbors karaoke machine, I found it hard to believe that I was anywhere but a beautiful and peaceful place.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I was recently asked to write a letter to the next group of PC invitees to Thailand that will be included in their "Welcome Packet". Here is what I wrote:

Dear Invitees,

If you are reading this letter then you have just had the thrill of receiving and opening your Invitation Packet. I hope you are smiling as much as I am, and if not go ahead and slap a silly grin on your face because you are headed to the Land of Smiles!

My name is Sarah Brooks and CBOD volunteer living in Isan, the Northeast region of Thailand. I have been living and working here just over a year but I remember receiving my invitation to serve in Thailand like it was yesterday. I’m sure that you are overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions and probably have hundreds of questions. Hopefully the packet and this letter will give you some more information.

My service so far has been full of education, fun, hard work and self-exploration. From the moment I arrived in Thailand I realized that this is a wonderful country to be assigned to. The people are amazingly hospitable and kind hearted; the food is delicious and the scenery beautiful.

At site my days consist of riding my bike, going to the office, visiting villages, health stations, schools and studying Thai. I have been able to complete many projects successfully because Peace Corps gave me the tools of language, cultural understanding and technical work skills during training. My experience has been unique because I have focused on doing projects in the schools.

My experience is made even more unique because I chose to live with a Thai family for the length of my service. I have a father and mother and an older sister that treat me as one of their own. At our house we have a self-sufficient farm, so that all of the rice, fruit, pork and fish that we eat comes right from the back yard! I always have someone to talk to, someone to practice Thai with and someone to ask advice from. My family gives me privacy when I need it and has adapted the house to some American ways by giving my own room, complete with an Internet connection.

Accepting an invitation to serve in Peace Corps Thailand has been just as rewarding as I hoped it would be. I have made wonderful friends and gained a second family in my time here. Not only have I learned about and gained practical experience regarding community development, but I have also learned how I can be a citizen of the world and help to empower the wonderful people of Thailand.

Sarah Brooks, CBOD 121