Cracked earth: A journey through Thailand’s arid and impoverished Northeast

by Stephen Mansfield

“In a bad year, it is not only the plows that break, but the hearts too.” — Pira Sudham, “People of Isan”

The recorded history of Laos begins with the reign of the 14th-century Fa Ngum, a former exile at the Khmer court who not only succeeded in unifying his fragmented province, but expanded its territory into large areas of present-day northern and eastern Thailand.

Things are still done the old way in the northeastern Thai region of Isan, as they are in much of Laos.

By 1884, the French had already annexed Cochin China, established a protectorate in Cambodia and successfully concluded treaties establishing other protectorates in Tonkin and Annam. Laos was next in line. Control over Laos was secured in 1893 after the signing of a joint French-Siamese treaty giving the latter jurisdiction over all ethnic Lao living in a 25-km zone west of the Mekong River. Further treaties in the early part of the next century effectively left the whole of the Korat Plateau, with its population of ethnic Lao — more than three times that of French Laos — stranded in the new Siamese territories across the river. Today, large numbers of ethnic Lao still live in the northeastern provinces of Thailand, particularly Isan.

The first thing that strikes visitors to Thailand’s far Northeast — a vast plain of stunted trees, spindly tussocks and grazing water buffalo — is its dryness. It seems impossible that a landscape whose main features are salt pans, brackish ponds and devastated forests could support any form of animal or vegetable life, let alone human communities.

In fact, Isan is remarkably populous. By far the largest region of Thailand (accounting for a good third of the country’s landmass) as well as the most traditional, it is home to some 20 million people, many of them Lao-speaking. But life is not easy here. Most of Isan’s inhabitants are subsistence farmers who barely manage to eke out a living from the grudging earth.

The drought-ridden Northeast has the lowest annual per capita income and, despite four decades of rising health and education standards, the highest levels of child malnutrition in Thailand. In one notorious case, widely covered by the Bangkok press, children in the village of Baan Bor were found to be subsisting on a staple of local soil types: principally, mouthfuls of baked clay and din pluag, soft layers of earth that grow on termite-infested wood.

A large percentage of Isan natives live in or on the edges of reserved forest areas, but, lacking the legal right to tenure in a country where speculators, even now, are hungry for more land for development, they remain vulnerable. On typically scant evidence, local authorities have frequently had local forests officially declared “deteriorated.” When bribes and threats have failed to cajole villagers into parting with forest land that their families have depended on for generations, bulldozers have been brought in and trees swiftly leveled. Once cleared, the land is then sold off to outsiders keen to plant fast-growing trees and cash crops like eucalyptus, jute and tapioca.

One of the contributing factors to the breakdown of traditional Isan life — and one of the depressing realities of land seizure — is the corruptibility of village headmen and elders. Once held in high esteem as guardians appointed to act in the community’s best interests, many have been bought off by city speculators and local land barons. They have assisted in the selling off of public pastures vital to villagers as grazing areas for their cattle, or of tracts of forest that were once a valuable source for firewood, vegetables, wild fruit and herbal medicines and the habitat of animals. Headmen of the old caliber have become, in the words of one Thai writer, “rarer than water at the height of an Isan summer.”

Villagers who are young and healthy enough are often forced to seek work elsewhere: factory and construction jobs for the men, jobs in sweatshops or as domestic servants and prostitutes for the women. Migration has become such a fixture of Isan life now that it is seldom questioned anymore. The semi-desertion of many Isan villages is both a permanent and seasonal phenomenon. Landless villagers or farmers whose crops have been devastated by drought have little choice but to become wage laborers on Isan’s giant sugarcane plantations, many of which are in the hands of outsiders or absentee landlords. Villagers are picked up and transported to the fields by truck in January and brought back in April, hopefully a few thousand baht better off.

Sometimes, however, even modest expectations like this are thwarted, and villagers who become indebted to plantation owners for food and provisions end up having to return to the same fields the next year to repay the debt, in what looks set to become an endless cycle of penury.

The old adage that money corrupts is just as evident in Isan as it is in Bangkok. One sign of the degradation of village life and traditional values is the behavior of families whose daughters have been forced into prostitution in the capital. Once the young women start sending regular amounts of money back home, hunger and immediate poverty are eradicated and their parents’ old airy wooden homes are replaced with new concrete buildings that they proceed to fill with the mandatory status symbols — TV sets, refrigerators, stereos — that will give them an edge over their neighbors.

In an example of moral reasoning that would seem convoluted and paradoxical almost anywhere else, these houses, paid for by women who, with their parents’ endorsement, submit to the abuse of strangers are fast becoming what one writer describes as “evidence of a daughter’s virtue: her readiness to sacrifice herself, her gratitude to her parents and, more importantly, her success.”

If prostitution eats away at the fabric of traditional Isan village life and society, the strange case of bogus monks and nuns is even more disturbing, at least in the Thai moral and cultural context. Luring donations from pious Buddhists by posing as fake clerics has become a way of life for thousands of Isan men and women, many of whom have been arrested or identified in places as far away as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This peculiarly indigenous form of fraud may be one of the more bizarre schemes resorted to by Isan migrants over the years, but its root cause, as with everything else, is the need to overcome hunger and poverty.

Not everyone is prepared to accept that Isan’s problems are insurmountable. The people of Isan may be conservative and prudent by nature, but they are not unreceptive to innovation once something has been shown to work. Peasants disillusioned with the negligible benefits of contract farming and eager to establish parameters that will keep land speculators at bay, have found an alternative in so-called integrated farming.

In a typical case, fish ponds are dug in rice-fields to become part of the aquatic system of the paddies. During the planting season, the fish live in the flooded fields consuming insects that might otherwise damage the crop. At the same time, they help to fertilize the rice. Money is thereby saved on insecticide and fertilizers and the fish can be bred and eaten by farmers throughout the year. Fruit trees and vegetables are grown around the fish ponds. In successful cases, the cycle of debt and dependency, the curse of Isan farmers, can be broken or at least reduced.

In other villages, young people have used skills acquired in Bangkok and other cities to revive their communities and keep families from falling apart. In a book titled “Behind the Smile: Voices of Thailand,” Bangkok Post journalist Sanitsuda Ekachai documents the revived fortunes of Baan Don Han, an Isan village now known as a thriving gem-cutting center. Don Han’s rejuvenation began when several of its homesick and disaffected youngsters, all working in the same gem-cutting and polishing factory in the capital, decided to set up a similar business in their own village. The gamble paid off and today Don Han receives visitors and study teams from all over Isan, eager to duplicate the town’s success.

The problems faced by the people of Isan are no secret to the Thai public or, indeed, to the outside world. Nor have the human dramas that take place on the arid and ghostly plains of Thailand’s Northeast been lost on native writers. In works like Samruan Sing’s “Voices from the Thai Countryside,” Kampoon Boontawee’s “A Child of the Northeast” and Pira Sudham’s “Monsoon Country,” prominent Thai writers have not only provided glimpses of the customs and traditions of Isan, they have demonstrated how easy it is for the powerful and well-connected to prey on and oppress the weak and poor.