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.
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. 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. 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.