In the north and east of the heartland of Isan, as Thailand’s northeastern region is widely known, lies the riparian belt flanked by the Mekong River. Between the northeastern and northern regions of Thailand, the former is exposed to the Mekong River at greater length and with a larger total area of tributary river basins. Further upstream, the three basins of the Ruak, Kok and Ing rivers equal less than nine percent of the downstream river basins that constitute Isan. Given the much greater length of the section of the Mekong River shared by Isan, the downstream riparian area is about four times larger than in the upstream, northern riparian area in Thailand. In fact, the whole of Isan is part of the Mekong River Basin. All its rivers have their source in its mountains, where forest cover absorbs and stores rainwater, and flow toward the huge Mekong River, with a total length of 4,425 kilometres the 9th longest river on earth and the 5th longest in Asia. The Mekong River is one of the four arteries of Mainland Southeast Asia. The others are the Irrawaddy River (2,090 km) and the Chao Phraya River inclusive of the Ping River (1,200 km), to the west, and the Red River (500 km), to the east.
The stark variation in terrain between the northern and southern sections of the river course has led to the distinguishing between the Upper and Lower Mekong Regions. The Mekong River and its tributaries rise in high, snow-capped mountains and flow in narrow valleys and through gorges, in the Upper Mekong Region. Near where it reaches the present border triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the Mekong River Valley begins to broaden. Toward the south, the downstream section widens into riverine plains and eventually into the vast alluvial plain with its delta. Isan is part of this Lower Mekong Region. This is the section of the main river basin where the Mekong River Secretariat, a consortium of riparian and Non-Asian partner country governments have been implementing numerous programmes of water resource development and related ventures.
The major sources of water in Isan are its mountain ranges, from which the rivers flow that ultimately empty into the Mekong River. Apart from the largest tributary of the Mekong River in Isan, the Mun River, and its large, secondary tributary, the Chi River, all other such rivers have their source in the riparian provinces of the Mekong River. Their sources are of two kinds, groundwater and surface water. Precipitation, largely rainwater, is best absorbed by forests in high mountains which cause rain clouds to discharge. The forest cover virtually sponges up most of the precipitation. Water, the source of life, is plentiful in mountain forests.
The mountains with the headwater areas of rivers which empty into the Mekong River dot the landscape unevenly. They cluster at highest density in the northwest of the riparian belt, are scattered along the river course bending toward the southeast, and form a watershed in the extreme south of Isan. The highest mountain of each massif as well as certain solitary mountains, geologically categorized as inselberg, may serve as the topographical coordinate.
In the west of the riparian belt, the northern-most reaches of the eastern flank of the Phetchabun Mountain Range, situated in present Loei Province, and the numerous mountains in the centre of this province pose a barrier to the river course in north-south direction and cause its bend toward the east. The western massifs in Loei Province are, in descending order by altitude of their highest peaks, Phu Hin Rong Kla, Phu Khat, Phu Plaek, Khao Khrok Ma Hon and Phu Ang Rang. The centrally located massifs include, arranged likewise, Phu Luang, Phu Ruea, Phu Pha Hat Thai, Phu Kradueng, Phu Pha Sat, Phu Ho, Phu Khao Yai, Phu Pueai and Phu Son Champa. Major rivers flowing from these mountain areas and emptying into the Mekong River include Huai Nam Man, Mae Nam Hueang and Nam Loei.
The elongated province of Nong Khai, stretched out alongside the Mekong River, is far less mountainous. From west to east, in parallel with the river course, are the massifs of Phu Pha, Phu Ya Ao and Phu Wua Lang Tham Po. The major tributaries of the Mekong River crossing this province rise in the mountains of the neighbouring provinces of Udon Thani and Sakon Nakhon. They are Nam Mong, Huai Luang and Nam Songkhram. The Songkhram River is the third longest river of Isan. It empties into the Mekong River in the neighbouring province of Nakhon Phanom.
The large plains and upland areas of Nakhon Phanom Province are bordered by the Phu Langka Klang massif in the north and the Phu Lan Chang massif in the south. Main rivers include Huai Thuai, Huai Bang Ko and Lam Nam Bang.
In contrast, the area of Mukdahan Province is largely mountainous and hilly. In its west are, in descending order of altitudes of highest peaks, the massifs named Phu Moi and Phu Lek Fai. Centrally located are the massifs of Phu Pham, Phu Mae Nang Mon and Phu Si Than. The south has the Phu Mai Sang, Phu Rasae and Phu Phaeng Ma massifs. Tributaries of the Mekong River include Huai Bang Sai, Huai Muk and Huai Bang I.
The Phu Rasae massif reaches into Amnat Charoen Province, with the Phu Kaset, Phu Phak Pueai and Phu Sing massifs in its middle. The main rivers are Huai Kaeo Maeng, Huai Thom and Lam Sebai. The latter river is one of those flowing either directly into the Mekong River upstream of its confluence with the Mun River, or into the Mun River. The others are Huai Phra Lao, Lam Sebok and Huai Tung Lung.
South of the Mun River, which together with the Chi River forms the largest river basin of Isan, is the western flank of the mountain range which forms a watershed. In northsouth direction lie the massifs of Phu Chan Daeng, Phu Yai, Phu Man Kaeo, Phu Chong Na Yoi and Phu Khi Suek, all in the eastern reach of the Dong Rak Range and situated in Ubon Ratchathani Province. The two main rivers flowing into the Mun River are the Lam Dom Yai and Lam Dom Noi.
These mountains with headwater areas and river basins broadening into the plain alongside the mighty Mekong River form the northern and eastern riparian belt of Isan.
Its area of some 65,000 square kilometres amounts to 38 percent of the total area of Isan and approximately equals the size of Sri Lanka. Also, the area of this belt is about four times larger than the combined area of the Ruak, Kok and Ing River Basins in the extreme North of Thailand.
Since time immemorial, the Mekong River was not a border, much less a barrier. What may seem to be an obstacle did, in fact, serve as the main artery of communication and transportation in the Mekong Region. Crossing the river was infinitely easier than covering comparable distances over land. In short, accessibility particularly of the riparian belt and of its immediate hinterland was easiest via the Mekong River.
Like in other parts of Isan, various fossils were found at some sites. The oldest, to date, are fossils of small corals stuck together in a slab. They are identified as LublinophyllumThailand, aged over 300 million years. This implies that the area of present Loei Province must have been under sea water. On a high plateau in the Phu Luang Plant and Wildlife Preserve, situated in the same province, dinosaur fossils aged 120 million years were found. In the mountains of Don Tan District, Mukdahan Province, petrified mollusc shells were excavated at a depth of 13 metres. They were identified as about 27 million years old and are worldwide the third such rare finding. Further south, in the Pha Taem National Park, located in Ubon Ratchathani Province, fossils of sea shells, pebbles, and grains enclosed in big stone slabs were found which are about one million years old.
Traces of human habitat were found in the four provinces of Loei, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen, and Ubon Ratchathani. These are, characteristically, prehistoric pictographs in mountain areas. Examples were found in the caves named Phaya Nakharat and Lai Thaeng in the Phu Pha Man National Park, which straddles Khon Kaen and Loei provinces. The cave of Fa Mue Daeng on the Pha Thoep Mountain, a cliff rather whose collapsed overhang created a cave-like enclosure, is the landmark of the Phu Pha Thoep National Park in Mukdahan Province. It has numerous prehistoric pictographs drawn in red colour which are older than 5,000 years.
Similar prehistoric pictographs are one of the major attractions of the Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park, straddling Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen and Yasothon provinces. Over a length of 60 metres, between three and five metres above the bottom, altogether 98 pictographs adorn the Phu Pha Taem Cliff. They were dated as being 3,000 to 4,000 years old. Another major attraction of the Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park is the ancient vessel drum known as Klong Maho Rathuek . As its name suggests, it might have been cast, put into the spot at high altitude and used as an alarm drum. It is a one-sided bronze drum, 86 centimetres in diameter and 90 centimetres long. Its face features an embossed figure showing a sun with 14 notched rays. On its side it has four figures of frogs. This 3,000 year-old artefact, found in 1938, is kept in an especially constructed building at Wat Matchimawat, also known as Wat Klang, in Don Tan District.
Two archaeological sites in Amnat Charoen Province hold evidence of prehistoric human habitats. At the Ban Pong Mueang Archaeological Site, three distinctive layers were excavated. At the lowest level, human skeletons, idols of worshipping, and pottery were found. Bronze axe-blades and baked clay pottery were excavated at the Don Yang Archaeological Site.
The most spectacular attraction in the Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani Province, are the Taem and Kham Cliffs [Pha Taem and PhaKham] adorned with prehistoric pictographs in colour, which are at least 3,000 years old. Also called drawings or paintings, altogether 300 pictographs in red and ochre colours cover cliff walls over the total length of 170 metres. Archaeologists grouped these pictographs into four figurative categories, including animals such as elephants, stomping buffaloes, turtles and gigantic catfish, tools and utensils, geometric designs, and human images.
Nearby, in the surroundings of the monastery named Wat Phu Anon, a cave has similar prehistoric pictographs.
The past of some places in the riparian belt is shrouded in legends. One such account relates the origin of the pagoda known as Phra That Phanom, in present That Phanom District of Nakhon Phanom Province. Accordingly, about 2500 years ago, an itinerant monk by the name of Maha Kasapa came to the region carrying a fragment of the chest bone of Lord Buddha. On that venerable monk’s advice, the original edifice, a pagoda, was built of brick. Therein, the holy relic was enshrined. Around this focal point of worshipping, settlements such as the present town of Nakhon Phanom are said to have been established.
A human habitat which flourished 2,000 to 1,500 years ago existed in present Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province. At the Ban Kan Lueang Archaeological Site, artefacts such as pottery and ceramic ware, implements such as iron axe-blades, ornaments such as beads, and plenty of paddy husks were excavated. The sheer fact that no human skeletons were found led to the dating of this habitat as one of early history, not of prehistory. The findings are preserved and displayed in the Ban Kan Lueang Museum, set up in 1996 by the Fine Arts Department in the compound of the monastery named Wat Ban Kan Lueang. On a rock in the Phu Manat Cave the reach of power of Si Maha Netaravoraman, also known as Chitrasen, ruler of the Chenla Kingdom, is inscribed in Sanskrit language. It was dated as of the 6th century.
Ancient sandstone stelae, known in Thai as bai sema,2 are characteristic of the Dvaravati Period. At four archaeological sites in Amnat Charoen Province, artefacts of the Dvaravati culture were found. Traces of an ancient city extant during the 6th to 8th centuries were found at the Prei Hue Dong Archaeological Site. Artefacts include Buddha images, several bai sema, and among them one stela with the sculpture of two parrots, the like of which has never been found anywhere else. Similar are the findings at the Old Wat Dong Tao Archaeological Site, including more of the said stelae and Buddha images in the Dvaravati style. Likewise unique are the remains preserved at the monastery named Wat Phu Silo in Mueang District. It has Dvaravati sandstone battlements into which flowers and leaves, with blooming lotus at their base, were carved. The other rare artefact is a large, white sandstone Dvaravati stela, bai sema, dating from the 7th to 8th centuries, found in the second of the three layers of human habitat, excavated in mounds of the Ban Pong Mueang Archaeological Site. This second level shows various traces of a Dvaravati Period settlement.
Three places in the western and upstream section of the riparian belt were apparently settled during the Dvaravati Period. They are located in Loei Province, namely, Ban Bung Phak Kam, Ban Pak Baeng and Ban Na Lak. While most of the preserved stelae, bai sema, were made of white sandstone, few were sculpted from red sandstone. Many depict a stupa carved into the mid-section. The altogether 40 stelae are grouped into seven categories, based on shape and design. One stela bears a 12-line inscription in Pallawa characters. The sandstone stelae found at Ban Pak Baeng, in 1965, were engraved with the silhouette of a stupa. In contrast, the stelae of Ban Na Lak show a variety of engravings. Upon the transfer of all but one stela each left at the original sites, these precious artefacts are preserved in the Khon Kaen National Museum.
In due course of restoration of the collapsed chedi named Phra That Bang Phuan, situated in Mueang District of Nong Khai Province, it became apparent that the monastery was founded in the Dvaravati Period. There still is a pagoda built of bricks in that period, with sandstone baisema, a Dvaravati stone inscription, and an ancient pond. Two caves in the Ban Phu Historical Park of Nong Khai Province, called Tham Wua and Tham Khon, have traces of murals depicting the Buddha in the Dvaravati style.
In Mueang District of Nakhon Phanom Province, the very old monastery named Wat Maha That has a stupa, chedi in Thai, which was originally built in the year 607. It rests on a square base with a side length of 5.85 metres and rises to the height of 24 metres.
The present monastery named Wat Thung Si Wila, located in Khueang Nai District of Ubon Ratchathani Province, has both its old ubosot and old vihara encompassed by bai sema, of various shapes and designs. Enshrined is the laterite statue of the Buddha seated under a canopy of Naga heads sculpted like monkey faces, a piece of Dvaravati art. The compound is surrounded by an ancient wall, with a large, ancient pond outside.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 9TH UNTIL 12TH CENTURIES : EXAMPLES OF KHMER STYLES
To date, few remains of the Khmer Period were found in the riparian belt, compared to the heartland and the western as well as southern plateaus of Isan. In reconstructing the Phra That Phanom Chedi, the pagoda in which the highly revered relic of the Buddha is enshrined, it became evident that the edifice had been built on an older square base of a pagoda constructed in the 9th century. In addition to Khmer architectural features, entire components recovered from the original monument, which collapsed in 1975, were incorporated into the rebuilt structure. These are the ancient and extremely interesting brick reliefs which have remained intact and decorate the base of the chedi, since its reconstruction which was completed in 1979. They are in the Khmer style known as Kulen3. Although on the eastern side nothing remains, on the northern side is Vishnu, mounted on a garuda, a mythical bird with the head, wings, talons and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man, and surrounded by attendants. On the western side are the four guardians of the earth placing offerings into the Buddha’s alms bowl. On the southern side, the departure of the Buddha for Nirvana is depicted.
To the west of Nakhon Phanom Province, in the neighbouring province of Nong Khai, two caves in the Ban Phu Historical Park, called Tham Wua and Tham Khon, have traces of murals depicting Hindu deities from the Khmer Period. To the south, in neighbouring Mukdahan Province, one of the major attractions of the Phu Pha Thoep National Park is the cave named Tham Phra. Inside are several Buddha images which date from the time when a Khmer settlement existed nearby. In the Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park, the high plateau located in Don Tan District of the same province, where the ancient vessel drum known as Klong Maho Rathuek was found in 1938, is also the site from which the Khmer artefacts were collected that are preserved and displayed in the museum attached to the monastery named Wat Matchimawat, also known as Wat Klang. The first town at the site of present Ubon Ratchathani Town was likely established by the Khmer, in the 10th century. The Khmer sanctuary of Prasat Ban Ben, situated in Thung Si Udom District of Ubon Ratchathani Province, has three prang or pagodas built of brick on separate laterite bases. Excavations conducted by the Fine Arts Department, since 1990, yielded nine statues of deities laid flat on their backsides, on top of each other. Also found was an image of Indra riding the elephant named Erawan. All this is evidence that the sanctuary was built and maintained during the 10th to 12th centuries.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 14TH UNTIL 18TH CENTURIES : EXAMPLES OF THE LAN CHANG STYLE
In historical time, rivers served as the link between the land areas on either banks as well as upstream and downstream areas. The inhabitants of riparian lands including the tributary river basins used rivers for transportation. Rafts and boats of all kinds carried commodities as well as people. This explains why ancient realms established and maintained relationships, or expanded across rivers. The historical kingdom of Lan Chang is one such example along the Mekong River. Its historical influence on the riparian belt of Isan is evident, to this day.
The area in the northwest of the riparian belt of Isan, now Loei Province, was the territory of a small principality under the suzerainty of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya or, at times, part of the kingdom of Lan Chang. It became integral part of Siam in the Fourth Reign (1851- 1868). There, numerous structures give testimony of its past as part of the Lan Chang territory.
In the reigns of King Maha Chakrapat of Ayutthaya and King Chai Chettha of Si Satthana Kanahut, also known as Wiang Chan, the present Vientiane4, a spot on the watershed between the Nan and Mekong Rivers, marking the border between their kingdoms, was chosen to have a chedi or pagoda built. It was constructed during 1560 through 1563. This edifice named Phra That Si Song Rak blends Ayutthaya and Lan Chang architectural features. It rests on a square base with a side length of eight metres and is 32 metres high. It holds relics of the Buddha and symbolizes the alliance between the two monarchs. This sanctuary houses two highly revered Buddha images, one statue of the Buddha in the Lan Chang Style which is 19.19 metres high, and one of the Buddha seated under a canopy of Naga heads, in the Tibetan style. To this day, the people in Dan Sai District, where this sanctuary is located, annually celebrate in May the anniversary of its founding by floating a large krathong, a float made of stitched banana leaves on which tapers and incense sticks are placed amidst elaborate decoration as a propitiatory offering, and carrying innumerable smaller ones to the chedi, while rockets are launched to entice rainfall. This belief is upheld as well by the worshippers of the Buddha image known as Ong Saen or Fon Saen Ha in the 500-year old monks’ assembly hall, ubosot, of the monastery named Wat Pho Chai in Na Haeo District. It is believed that wherever this bronze image, cast in the Chiang Saen style, is placed rainfall will bring relief from drought.
At Wat Lat Pu in Tha Li District, the chedi named Phra That Satcha rests on a unique base. It is shaped like a lotus blossom with three tiers of petals, about one metre high, from which the chedi rises 33 metres. Its top has a 7-tiered, white umbrella. The structure of the chedi proper resembles that of the famous Phra That Phanom Chedi. The old monastery named What Tha Khaek in Chiang Khan District has three rare Buddha images, which were sculpted of sandstone more than 300 years ago. The Wat Huai Hao Inscription relates in 22 lines a royal command of King Photiworawasa of Lan Chang. The most precious artefact from the Lan Chang Period in Nong Khai Province is the Buddha image named Luang Pho Phra Chao Ong Tue. It is a 4-metre high statue, created on the order of King Chaiya Chettha of Wiang Chan, present Vientiane, by Lan Chang artisans, in 1562. This statue of the Buddha in the posture of subduing Mara was cast of an alloy of gold [thong kham], brass [thonglueang] and silver [ngoen]. The word “tue” in the name of the image signifies its weight expressed in an old Isan measure; one “tue” equals one billion grams. Of the exceptional kind is the chedi named Phra That Nong Khai, also appropriately called Phra That Klang Nam, which is situated in Mueang District of the same province. It was built on an islet, known as don in the Isan vernacular, sometime during the 15th to 17th centuries.
The present town of Nakhon Phanom has a chequered history. It is situated in a section of Mekong River banks where a succession of towns had been founded, on either the east or west bank. At times, there also were twin towns facing each other across the river. For example, there was a town named “Marakha Nakhon” in the ancient kingdom of Si Khotrabun on the east bank, in present Laos. As chronicled, it was restored by a Lan Chang ruler, in 1357. By 1514 it was abandoned. Another town was built on the east bank, near the present town of Tha Khaek, in present Laos, and named “Mueang Si Khotrabun”. In 1747, its last ruler, Phra Thammaracha, relocated the town to the west bank and named it “Mueang Nakhon”.
The old monastery named Wat Okat Si Bua Ban in Mueang District of Nakhon Phanom Province houses a Buddha image which was created on the order of the ruler of Nakhon Si Khotrabun, in 1328. The famous Phra That Phanom Chedi in the district town of That Phanom, built 2,500 years ago according to a Buddhist legend, was renovated in 1641, on the order of the king of Lan Chang. Upon its collapse in 1975, reconstruction was carried out in such a way that ancient Lan Chang ornaments recovered from the original monument were incorporated and preserved. The preceding renovation of 1641 explains the semblance of the Phra That Phanom Chedi and the Phra That Luang Chedi in present Vientiane, and why the Phra That Phanom Chedi has remained a rallying point for both Thai and Lao Buddhists. In Tha Uthen District of the same province, the monastery named Wat Trai Phum houses the highly revered Buddha statue known as Phra Bang Wat Trai Phum. It is an image in the posture of calming the ocean. The two-metre high statue in the Lan Chang style was cast in 1565. It is placed on an octagonal base and supported by eight elephant sculptures. People believe that this image does grant rainfall. In Mueang District, the monastery named Wat Maha That has some buildings with architectural details and ornamental features in the Wiang Chan Style, especially its very old ubosot, the monks’ assembly hall. An old image of the Buddha in the subduing Mara posture, created in the Lan Chang Style, is housed in Wat Pho Si of the same district. The Chai Buri Stone Inscription, written in Lao language, narrates the history of an ancient town.
On the west bank of the Mekong River, opposite the town of Sawannakhet, the settlement of Ban Luang Phonsin was founded and built during 1767 through 1770. By then, the monastery named Wat Si Mongkhon Tai already existed there. It houses a Buddha statue built of brick. Under a Bo Tree, the small iron-cast Buddha statue named Phra Chao Ong Luang is placed. Later named Mukdahan, the settlement was and is locally called Mueang Muk. The monastery of Wat Si Bun Rueang, also known as Wat Ban Tai, in Mueang District houses in its ubosot, or chapel, a bronze Buddha statue cast in the Lan Chang style.
Further south, in Mueang District of Amnat Charoen Province, lies the monastery named Wat Phra Lao Thep Nimit. Its ubosot or chapel, built in the Lan Na architectural style, houses a Buddha statue of the Lao Wiang Chan style. Created in 1720, it is widely recognized as the most beautiful statue of Isan in the posture of subduing Mara.
The present town of Ubon Ratchathani was founded by two Lao aristocrats who had fled from Wiang Chan, present Vientiane, after falling in disgrace with King Siriboonsan. They sided with King Tak Sin and led the military campaigns to bring Champasak and Luang Prabang under the suzerainty of the Thon Buri Kingdom. The cave known as Tham Muet in the Pha Taem National Park, located in Khong Chiam District of Ubon Ratchathani Province, has wooden Buddha images carved in the Lan Chang style.
Two inscriptions on sandstone slabs are preserved at the monastery of Pa Chanthaburi in Nong Khai Province. Inscription # 1 tells of a ruler who built a monastery. In moving the stone slab repeatedly, its lower part broke off. Hence, only a fragment of this inscription is preserved. Inscription # 2 conveys the order to adhere to and support Buddhism. This stone slab is in good condition. The town of Nakhon Phanom, once again abandoned, was relocated over a distance of about 52 kilometres, in 1778.
CONSOLIDATION OF THAI POLITY
Town and province of Ubon Ratchathani, earlier part of the realm of King Siribunsan of Lan Chang with his capital in Vientiane, were firmly integrated into Siam during the reign of King Tak Sin. On the king’s order, building of the present city was started near the Mun River in 1780, and it was named Ubon Ratchathani.
Nakhon Phanom, once the westbank part of a twin-city on the banks of the Mekong River, while part of the kingdom of Si Khotrabun, was again relocated in the First Reign of the Royal House of Chakri, in 1790, and named Nakhon Phanom. In Mueang District of the newly gained territory of Ubon Ratchathani, the construction of the monastery named Wat Maha Wanaram, also known as Wat Pa Yai, was started in 1807. It houses a Lan Chang Style image of the Buddha in the subduing Mara posture, made of brick, plastered with stucco, and gilded.
At the site of an ancient pagoda, shaped like a mondop, in which a Buddha footprint is enshrined, located in Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province, the monastery named Wat Thung Si Mueang was built beginning in the Second Reign [1809-1824]. Its buildings show an architectural blend of Rattanakosin and Lan Chang styles. The outstanding edifice is the building that houses the Tripitaka Library. It was constructed of wood and erected in the middle of a pond. It reflects a blend of Thai, Burmese and Lan Chang styles. Its roof is a blend of Burmese and Thai styles with Lan Chang influence.
The monastery named Wat Pho Chai, located in Mueang District of Nong Khai Province, houses Buddha images originally placed in monasteries of Vientiane and brought across the Mekong River in the Third Reign [1824-1851].
The newly built monastery of Wat Thung Si Mueang had its vihara, the prayer hall, decorated with murals painted in the Third Reign [1824-1851]. The murals depict the life of Lord Buddha and narrate the story of Lord Buddha’s ten incarnations. They clearly reflect the artistic style of the preceding reign of King Rama II, with the settings and the human characters portraying the traditional way of life in Isan.
During the Fourth Reign [1851- 1868], the former small principality of Loei was firmly integrated into the Kingdom of Siam. In 1853, the walls of the vihara in the monastery named Wat Pho Chai, situated in Na Haeo District of Loei Province, were decorated with murals depicting episodes from Lord Buddha’s life story and scenes of the local, surrounding area. Further downstream the Mekong River, in Mueang District of Nakhon Phanom Province, the monastery named Wat Si Thep Pradittharam was built, beginning in 1859.
The first monastery in Isan of the Thammayut Buddhist Congregation was constructed, with funding provided by King Rama IV [1851-1868], beginning in 1853. Its architecture reflects, by royal command, the interfacing of cultural traditions in Mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnamese artisans designed and constructed the ubosot, the monks’ assembly hall, by combining the base in the ancient Khmer style with a Western-style hall, topped by a roof in the Thai style. It houses the Phra Sapphanya Chao image of the Buddha. Named Wat Supattanaram Woravihan, the monastery is located on the bank of the Mun River, in Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province. In its compound is a small, open-air museum with a precious collection of rare artefacts. In chronological order, these include sandstone stelae, bai sema, sculpted in the Dvaravati Period; Pre-Angkor style Khmer lintels5 dated as of the 7th century, reliefs sculpted of sandstone, sculpted columns in the Baphuon style, known in Thai as Ba Puan6, as well as stone images of the Hindu deity Ganesh; and Buddha statues in the Chinese style.
Another monastery, whose construction was started in 1855, is Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram, also known as Wat Si Thong, situated in the same district. In its present appearance, the ubosot resembles, after reconstruction, the famous Wat Benchamabophit in Bangkok, which was built during the Fifth Reign [1868- 1910]. The ubosot of Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram houses the precious Buddha image named Phra Kaeo Bussarakham, sculpted from topaz in the Chiang Saen Period and transferred from a monastery in Vientiane, in the Third Reign [1824- 1851]. During the Fifth Reign [1868- 1910], in the same district another monastery was built, named Wat Chaeng, which has been held in high reverence ever since its completion in 1888.
Farther north and upstream on the Mekong River, the Ho Revolt Suppression Memorial (AnusawariPrap Ho) was erected. Inscriptions on this monument in Thai, Lao, Chinese and English languages relate how Ho traders running mule caravans between Yunan in China and the north of Siam, now Thailand, instigated turmoil. In 1886 their revolt was crushed.
RESTORATION OF MONUMENTS AND PRESERVATION OF ARTEFACTS
In contemporary Thailand, great care is taken of the spiritual and physical heritage. Such dedication became obvious upon the sudden collapse, in 1975, of the famous Buddhist chedi named Phra That Phanom on the Mekong River, in That Phanom District of Nakhon Phanom Province. This edifice was built first, it is believed, 2500 years ago and enlarged as well as renovated repeatedly, over the centuries. In the course of reconstruction, completed in 1979, ancient components recovered from the original monument created during the Dvaravati, Khmer, and Lan Chang periods were meticulously incorporated into the resurrected, square based, 53.6- metre high chedi, which continues to be the repository of a precious relic, a fragment of the Buddha’s chest bone.
In like manner, the cultural heritage was preserved in three monasteries, the first and the second situated in Chiang Khan District of Loei Province and the third in Renu Nakhon District of Nakhon Phanom Province. Wat Phra Phuttha Bat Phu Khwai Ngoen, which houses a footprint of the Buddha measuring 120 by 45 centimetres, was registered as a historical site in 1935. Wat Si Khun Mueang, whose architecture is a blend of Lan Na and Lan Chang styles, was built in 1942 to house a historical wooden, gilded Buddha image in the Lan Chang art style. Wat Phra That Renu, whose chedi is 35 metres high, houses in its ubosot or chapel a highly venerated Lan Chang, gilded Buddha image in the meditation posture.
Commemorating recent political history of the 20th century, two sites are preserved. One is the residence of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese independence fighter and communist leader. Named Ban Than Ho Chi Minh, it is situated at Ban Na Chok, Mueang District, Nakhon Phanom Province, where the exiled politician had taken refuge from 1924 until 1931. At short distance to the south, in Don Tan District of Mukdahan Province, is the camp of the Communist Party of Thailand, known as Than Patibatikan Woraphat. Upon the cadres’ surrender, it was recognized as an important historical site in 1977. Since the transformation of the surrounding mountain area into the Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park, it has become one of its attractions. From among the many artefacts of historical periods, typically the finest examples were moved from their original sites to be preserved and displayed in museums at the local or regional level. The unique vessel drum, Klong Maho Rathuek, which was found on a high plateau in Don Tan District of Mukdahan Province, can be viewed in a local museum. The 3,000-year old drum likely used to strike alarm is kept, together with ancient Khmer artefacts, in an especially constructed building within the compound of the monastery named Wat Matchimawat, also known as Wat Klang in the same district. Also in the compound of another monastery, in Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province, the findings from the Ban Kan Lueang Archaeological Site are preserved. The local Ban Kan Lueang Museum, set up in 1996, has a collection of implements such as iron axe-blades, utensils such as ceramic ware, and ornaments such as beads, dated as of some 2,000 years ago.
Other artefacts were removed from their original site, to be kept at museums which are regional subunits of Thailand’s National Museum, based in Bangkok. Examples are the branches in the towns of Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen. The latter holds all but one sandstone stelae, bai sema, found at Ban Pak Baeng and Ban Na Lak, in Wang Saphung District of Loei Province. There, these boundary markers once surrounded long dilapidated ubosot or chapels. Merely one stela each was left as a token at the original sites.
RECENT RELIGIOUS EDIFICES
In the 20th century, numerous monasteries were established in Isan’s riparian provinces of the Mekong River. Wat Phu Thok with the Siri Wihara Chedi, located in Si Wilai District of Nong Khai Province, was built on the peak of the solitary sandstone mountain, appropriately named Phu Thok. This elevated monastery is accessible by ascending on a wooden jetty spiraling around the mountain, originally built to transport construction materials, and now providing access for monks, novices, worshippers and visitors.
Examples of monasteries built in Nakhon Phanom Province are, in chronological order of their construction, Wat Phra That Tha Uthen in the district of the same name, whose chedi is a square-shaped, plastered brick structure of three tiers, similar in appearance to the famous Phra That Phanom Chedi; and Wat Phra Si Khun in Na Kae District. Three monasteries are chosen as examples from Mukdahan Province. Two are located in its Wan Yai District. Wat Mano Phirom, originally built by artisans from Vientiane, was a much-admired masterpiece which unfortunately burnt down soon after its completion in 1904. Only seven years later it was completely reconstructed to its original, marvellous appearance. The small ubosot, the monks’ assembly hall of Wat Phra Si Maha Pho, features structural components of Thai, Vietnamese and French architectural styles. The third monastery, Wat Phu Dan Tae, also known as Wat Phutthatho Thammatharo, is located in the province’s Nikhom Kham Soi District. It houses a large Buddha statue.
Larger is the number of examples from Ubon Ratchathani Province. Three are located in Mueang District. They are Wat Burapharam, Wat Ban Na Mueang with its chapel or ubosot built in the shape of the Royal Barge Suphannahong, and Wat Nong Bua. The last named monastery has the unique Phra That Chedi Si Maha Pho. It was constructed in 25 tapering tiers, with each tier representing one century of Buddhism. The impressive, modern edifice resembles the ancient Buddha Gaya Stupa [Chedi Phuttha Khaya] in North India. Other examples in the province’s Warin Chamrap District are Wat Nong Pa Phong and Wat Pa Nana Chat, and in Khong Chiam District the monastery named Wat Tham Khuha Sawan. The monastery named Wat Si Nuan Saeng Sawang Aram at Ban Chi Thuan in the province’s Khueang Nai District has an extraordinary chapel, owing to the image of a standing lion, created by a Vietnamese artisan and built of brick and stucco.
Construction of the largest Catholic Church in Mainland Southeast Asia was started in 1996. It is located in Wan Yai District of Mukdahan Province. Known as the Martyr Memorial Church, named SakkanSathan Phra Marada HaengMoranasakkhi Wat Song Khon, or called Wat Ban Song Khon, in short, it was consecrated in commemoration of seven Christians who sacrificed their lives. The martyrs were beatified by the late Pope John Paul II. Built in modern architecture, the church is also considered the most beautiful Catholic Church in Mainland Southeast Asia.
Given the physical geographical conditions, the major natural resource of the riparian belt is water. Along with water come resources which are either immediately dependent on water or become accessible through water. Two examples of the latter are salt and gold which, in historical times, were almost of equal value. Gold has been found in the gravel and sand of numerous streams which empty into the Mekong River and, therefore, in the main river itself. Also, gold ores in the ground have been exploited, to this day, for example in such locations as Ban Na Din Dam in Mueang District and in Ban Nam Phon, Ban Huai Phot and Ban Tha Di Mi in Chiang Khan District of Loei Province.
Like in other parts of Isan, the vast stock of rock salt, presumably the largest geological formation of its kind worldwide, reaches as far as some locations along the Mekong River. In the underground, it expands farther than indicated by the places in which salt farming is still practiced. Examples are called up in the provinces of Nong Khai, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani. In the midstream basin of the Songkran River, which straddles the provinces of Nong Khai and Sakon Nakhon, the upland laterite soil hints at the underground salt rock. Salt is still being produced there by either boiling or sun-drying saline groundwater. Virtually every district in Amnat Charoen province has active salt farms. They are concentrated in Phana and Lue Amnat districts as well as in the adjacent districts of Ubon Ratchathani Province. The produce, rock salt, fetches market prices that are up to three times higher than those for sea salt.
Historically, freshwater fishery and fish rearing have been the source of livelihood and economic mainstay of most inhabitants of all riparian settlements. The Mekong River and its tributaries were virtually inexhaustible guarantors of food security, suppliers of balanced nutrition, and the backbone of the regional market economy. Salt was the vital ingredient of preservation techniques and fermentation processes. Salted, sun-dried fish was a staple-food throughout the entire Isan. Given the sheer length of the Mekong River and variations in geophysical conditions, fishing, fish rearing, and processing of fish vary by fish species and techniques of catching, trapping and caging among different locations. Most prominent among the fish species is the scaleless giant catfish, called plabuek in the Isan vernacular (Pangasianodon Gigas Chevey), which lives at a water depth of ten metres. It grows to a length of three metres and a weight of up to 250 kilogrammes. Hence, it is the world’s largest scaleless freshwater fish. It is frequently caught in the sections of the Mekong River alongside the districts of Si Chiang Mai and Sangkhom of Nong Khai Province and of Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai Province, North Thailand. Examples of other fish species include a great variety of scaleless catfish, known in Isan vernacular as pla kot lueang, pla kot mo, pla kot pong, pla khoeng; various carps such as pla taphian and pla yisok thet; varieties of catfish, called pla duk, including pla duk thet, pladuk ui and pla duk dan; a large snakehead mullet named pla chato; and eels such as pla lot.
ENVIRONMENTAL ATTRACTIONS AND CONSERVATION
Environmental conservation along the Mekong River is a complex challenge. The sheer fact that this mighty river is both an international waterway and marks the border between two countries poses problems. They are caused by differences in priority-setting and deficiencies in concurring on a common set of criteria for environmental, cultural, social and economic impact assessments, along the entire length of the river. This explains why environmental conservation has salutary effects on the headwater areas of tributaries inside Isan rather than on the western river bank, in as much as it is part of Isan. This section of the river can not possibly be protected to the required intensity without the implementation of coordinated measures on both river banks and, most importantly, without covering as well both the upstream and downstream sections.
A natural phenomenon would occur out of the Mekong River, in the evening of the 15th day of the waxing moon in the 11th month. According to the Buddhist calendar, this point in time marks the end of the Buddhist Rainy Season Retreat, known as wan ok phansa in Thai, which occurs sometime in October. This event is known as Bang FaiPhaya Nak, the flaring of luminous balls flung by the mythical serpent called Naga. At dusk, immediately following twilight, iridescent, redpinkish balls, ranging in size from a thumbnail to an egg, would shoot out of the water to heights of 20 to 50 metres and dissipate. They do not emit any smoke, smell or sound. This spectacle is observed from the river banks in Sangkhom, Si Chiang Mai, Tha Bo, Mueang, Phon Phisai, Rattanawapi, Pak Khat, and Bueng Kan Districts of Nong Khai Province. It is widely believed, by both local people and visitors who would gather in large numbers, that Phaya Nak, the mythical serpent, shows adoration of the Lord Buddha in this marvellous manner. Scientists explained this phenomenon as caused by the emission of gases which result from the fermentation of decaying organic matter in the river bed.
Another fascinating though almost constant sight is the spot at the confluence of the Mun and Mekong Rivers, where the blue water of the Mun River clashes with the brown water of the Mekong River, and their waters are twirled. This turbulent collision is euphoniously circumscribed, in the Isan vernacular, as “KhongSi Pun”, meaning “the chief elephant pounding the mortar”. This spot is called Mae Nam Song Si, the “two-coloured river”, also known as Don Dan Pak Mae Nam Mun, the “Mun River Mouth Ricochet”.
One of the natural wonders in the river beds of Isan are rapids, especially those in the Mekong River. Typically the large and broad rapids in the Mekong River would be invisible in the rainy season and surface late in the dry season, from February to May.
Particularly attractive spots are the rapids, known as kaeng in Thai, named Khut Khu off Chiang Khan District in Loei Province; those off Bueng Kan District in Nong Khai Province; and Kabao off Wan Yai District in Mukdahan Province. The best-known rapids in the Mun River are Saphue, whose name is borrowed from the Kui language meaning “giant snake”, and Tana which is situated at close distance to the confluence of the Mun and Mekong Rivers. These two rapids are situated in Ubon Ratchathani Province, where also the Phu Chong – Na Yoi National Park with its rapids known as Sam Phan Pi and Kalao is located.
NATURE RESERVES, PROTECTED AREAS, AND BIODIVERSITY
Protected areas and nature reserves constitute solid evidence of environmental conservation in the headwater areas of tributaries inside the riparian belt of Isan. Large areas in its six provinces were demarcated so as to preserve what is vital and rare. Hereunder, these examples of natural environment and resource conservation are called up by the provinces, as they are situated along the course of the Mekong River.
Much of the mountain area of Loei Province is under environmental protection. Examples are, in descending order by area size in square kilometres, the Phu Luang Plant and Wildlife Preserve (897) straddling parts of Wang Saphung, Phu Ruea, Dan Sai, and Phu Luang Districts; Phu Kradueng National Park (348) in the western part of Phu Kradueng District; Phu Ruea National Park (121) in Phu Ruea District; Na Haeo National Park in Na Haeo District; and Phu Pha Man National Park (350) in the eastern part of Phu Kradueng District and beyond covering most of Phu Pha Man District of neighbouring Khon Kaen Province.
The by far largest protected area in Nong Khai Province is the Phu Wua Wildlife Reserve (186), straddling parts of Bung Khla, Seka, and Bueng Khong Long districts. Straddling the eastern part of Bueng Khong Long District in Nong Khai Province and the western parts of Ban Phaeng and Na Thom districts in Nakhon Phanom Province lies the Phu Langka National Park (50). Mukdahan Province shares with two neighbouring provinces the richly endowed Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park (231) straddling parts of Don Tan District in Mukdahan Province, Chanuman District in Amnat Charoen Province, and Loeng Nok Tha District in Yasothon Province. Another protected area is the Mukdahan National Park, also called Phu Pha Thoep National Park (48.5) in Mueang District.
The forest park named Don Chao Pu in Mueang District of Amnat Charoen Province is known as a habitat of large groups of monkeys on 32 hectares of mixed, deciduous forest.
Protected areas in Ubon Ratchathani Province can be distinguished by their terrain, in the mountains and by the Mekong as well as Mun Rivers. The Phu Chong – Na Yoi National Park (686) straddles large parts of Na Chaluai, Nam Yuen and Buntharik districts; it is part of the so-called “Emerald Triangle” whose adjacent, complementary dense forest areas are situated in Cambodia and Laos. In the mountain area of the province’s northern area is the Pha Taem National Park (140), straddling parts of Khong Chiam, Si Mueang Mai, and Pho Sai Districts.
Near the confluence of the Mun and Mekong Rivers is the Kaeng Tana National Park (80), straddling the northern part of Sirindhorn and the southern part of Khong Chiam districts. Masses of rocks are characteristic of the high mountain areas with their vast plateaus. Examples are the mountains named Phu Luang and Phu Ruea in Loei Province, where particularly the eroded limestone cliffs in the Suan Hin Pha Ngam Park have bizarre forms such as rock arches. Bung Khla District in Nong Khai Province has wide areas strewn with strangely shaped sandstone rocks and boulders. In its Ban Phu Historical Park, some rock formations were named after Buddhist legends and folklore.
Mukdahan National Park, albeit small in area size yet dotted with eleven mountains, has numerous rocks which are naturally stacked and formed into different shapes such as a blooming lotus, a boot, a crown, a jet, a UFO, a crocodile, a dragon, an aeroplane, and a Chinese-style gazebo. Among the attractions of Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park are several large stone flatlands. Altogether eleven basins in the rocks, with diameters of two to five metres, hold water throughout the year with a variety of small lotus plants.
A well-known feature is the ensemble of odd stone formations called Sao Chaliang, rocks which tower resembling mushrooms, on the high plateau in the Pha Taem National Park of Ubon Ratchathani Province. Similar attractions in the same province exist in the Phu Chong – Na Yoi National Park with its “stone park” called Suan Hin Phlan Yao and the rocky fields of Phlan Kong Kwian.
Cliffs are another ubiquitous feature. Spectacular examples abound in the provinces of Loei, Mukdahan and Ubon Ratchathani. Cliffs are prominent features of the terrain in Loei Province on mountains such as Phu Luang; Phu Pha Man with its famous fir cliffs named Pha Man, Pha Nok Khao, and Pha Sam Yot; the lone, steep-sided mountain of Phu Kradueng with its jagged cliffs named Pha Nok Aen, Pha Lom Sak, and Pha Mak Duk; the mountain shaped like a Chinese junk, appropriately named Phu Ruea with its cliffs called Pha Lon Noi and Pha Sam Thong; and the “park of beautiful cliffs”, Suan Hin Pha Ngam, which evokes comparison with the limestone cliffs in Kunming, China.
Mukdahan National Park has, in some parts, steep cliffs, and so does the Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park in the same province with cliffs as major attractions such as Pha Makluea, Pha Hom, and Pha Taek. Sheer cliffs are the hallmarks of Pha Taem National Park, especially those named Pha Taem and Pha Kham, as well as one of the attractions in Kaeng Tana National Park with its Lan Pha Phueng, all located in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Cliffs which serve as conduits of mountain streams are called up further below, in the section where exceptional waterfalls are presented.
Almost typically cliffs are the physical setting of caves and grottoes, which are common in the mountain areas of the riparian belt. Among the many grottoes and caves, several are called up here by their proper names, thus omitting the Thai designation tham for (large) caves as well as (small) grottoes, with reference to the provinces in which they are situated. In Loei Province there are Maholan and Phothisat with 15 grottoes individually named such as Khao Wongkot and Sawanchan. Mukdahan Province has Fa Mue Daeng and Phra. Representative of the caves in Ubon Ratchathani Province are Heo Sin Chai, Muet, and Phra, also known as Phu Ma Nai.
Waterfalls are likely the most popular destination of holidaymakers, especially of local people and increasingly of visitors particularly from Bangkok. Not only are they places of recreation for the local working population but they offer splendid respite on the itinerary of visitors who are keen to get to know the focal points of the Isan cultural heritage. The number of waterfalls is huge. Hence, the list of the spectacular ones is long.
Owing to its largely mountainous terrain, Loei Province is particularly rich in waterfalls, called nam tok in Thai, in amazing natural settings. They include Wang Kwang, Phen Phop Mai, Phon Phop, Phen Phop, Tham Yai, Than Sawan, Tham So Nuea, Tham So Tai and Sa Anodat in the Phu Kradueng National Park; Huai Phai in the Phu Ruea National Park; Suan Hom and Phlang Din in the Suan Hin Pha Ngam Park; Suan Hom, also known as Santi Thara, and Phiang Din, also known as Wisut Thara, in Nong Hin District; Pla Ba, also known as Tat San, in Phu Ruea District; Kaeng Song Khon in Dan Sai District; and Than Sawan, Khring as well as Tat Hueang in Na Haeo District. Well-known waterfalls of Nong Khai Province include Tham Fun, Chet Si, Phu Tham Phra and Chanaen, also known as Tat Sanaen, in the Phu Wua Wildlife Reserve; and Than Thip as well as Than Thong in Sangkhom District. The Phu Langka National Park straddling the boundary between Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom provinces has two attractive waterfalls, Tat Kham and Tat Pho. Popular waterfalls in Mukdahan Province are Wang Duean Ha and Phu Tham Phra inside the Mukdahan National Park and Tat Ton in Nong Sung District. In the mountains of Ubon Ratchathani Province, some waterfalls are called “nam tok” in Thai, while others are called “kaeng” in the Isan vernacular. The spectacular ones are Huai Sai Yai, also known as I Khiao, Lamduan, Huai Luang, also known as Tham Bak Teo, Sam Phan Pi, Koeng Mae Phong, Kalao, Soi Sawan, Saeng Chan, Thung Na Mueang, Rak Sai, and Tat Ton.
Forests in headwater areas are of vital importance, as recognized by the government through the establishment of protected areas. Official documents identify mixed, deciduous tree forests in Loei, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Amnat Charoen provinces. Dry virgin forests exist in the provinces of Loei, Nong Khai, and Mukdahan. The existence of hardwood tree forests is reported for Nong Khai, Mukdahan and Ubon Ratchathani Provinces. Pine tree forests are characteristic of high mountain areas in Loei and Ubon Ratchathani provinces. Several kinds of forests are rare, with only one province each having any such forest. Fir tree forests and virgin mountain forests of pine as well as fir trees exist in Loei Province. A rare virgin rain forest and groves of the palm-like plant called prong in Thai [Cycascircinalis (Cycadeae)] are found in Nong Khai Province. Other types of rare mountain forests are the crag forest and the stunted hardwood forest [pa teng rang khrae] of Mukdahan Province. Likely the last remaining wetland forests are found in the downstream basin and flood plain of the Songkhram River, in Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom provinces. One type of wetland forest, called pa bung in the Isan vernacular, has trees and other plants which grow and thrive in seasonal marshes adjoining the river and its tributaries. Another type, called patham in the Isan vernacular, has trees and plants germane to low-lying lands with abundant water.
Dense, lush forests of whichever kind have become extremely rare. They have been preserved only in few spots located in Loei Province, in a small mountain range straddling Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom Provinces, and in the southern, high mountains of Ubon Ratchathani Province. The latter is part of the appropriately called “Emerald Triangle”. This dense and lush virgin forest area straddles the border-triangle of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
The biodiversity of naturally growing vegetation in reserves is exemplified by some plants named hereunder. Trees include valuable hardwoods such as daeng [Xylia xylocarpa (Leguminosae)], makha mong [Afzelia xylocarpa], pradu daeng [Phyllocarpusseptentrionalis], phayung, the Bombay blackwood [Dalbergialatifolia (Leguminosae)] and rosewood [Dalbergia oliveri]. At high altitude grow firs [Abies] and pines [Pinus of the Pinaceae and Coniferae species]. While bamboo groves are frequent, those with prong, a palm-like plant with handsome feathery leaves [Cycascircinalis (Cycadeae)] are rather rare. Prominent among the wild flowering plants are epiphytes, especially a great variety of orchids including the rare Paphiopedilum and Sukul orchids. Grasslands at high altitude have a unique temperate flora such as the millet grass [Millium efuseum].
Terrain, climate and vegetation in protected areas are conducive to the survival of wildlife in great variety. Examples of herbivorous mammals are several species of monkeys including the white-cheeked gibbons and flying lemurs, elephants, black bears, boars, hares, and porcupines. To the group of herbivorous mammals belong numerous species of ungulates such as goat antelopes, bison, barking deer, and mouse-deer or chevrotain. Carnivorous prey animals include tigers and dholes, also known as Asiatic or Malay wild dogs. There are as well protected species of tortoises and turtles. Fowl includes the Siamese fireback pheasant [Lophura diardi] and the red jungle fowl [Gallus gallus].
The lasting effect of large-scale population migration is obvious throughout the riparian belt. Until into recent history, wholesome relocation of entire communities occurred. Such migration was greatly facilitated by the ease of moving across as well as along the Mekong River. To this day, numerous ethnic groups have upheld their ethnic identity. It is apparent, first and most of all, in their colourful attire which livens up their traditional celebrations. For example, in the two provinces of Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan seven and eight “local tribes”, respectively, are officially recognized. These distinctions reflect the broad variety of ethnic or “tribal” subgroups most of which belong to the very large ethnic group of Thai people in Mainland Southeast Asia, in accordance with anthropological as well as linguistic definitions. Hence, in introducing the various groups, large and small in numbers of people, a distinction is made between those who ethnically are Thai and those who belong to other ethnic groups.
Examples of subgroups of ethnic Thai are the descendants of Lao immigrants who hailed from areas on the east bank of the Mekong River and its hinterland in historical realms which constitute the present country of Laos. They include the Phu Thai Dam in Ban Na Panat of Chiang Khan District, Loei Province, who settled there in 1905 and maintained their cultural identity.
The majority of the population of Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan provinces is identified as Thai Isan, who descended from the population in that territory of the Lan Chang Kingdom which was incorporated into Siam during the reign of King Narai [1656-1688]. The Thai Yon of its Tha Uthen District hailed from Sip Song Phan Na in Yunan, China. From among the Phu Thai, relocated in the Third Reign [1824-1851], after the rebellion of Chao Anuwong, a Lao prince, had been crushed, groups of Phu Thai Dam and Phu Thai Khao were settled in the upland areas of the provinces of Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Sakon Nakhon. The lowland district of Renu Nakhon virtually is a Phu Thai homeland, where traditions have been upheld such as hospitality, customary meals, charm rituals, and communal bonds and practices known as fon ram. This kind of social cohesion is the guiding principle in mutual assistance, labour exchange, and celebrations complete with dancing fon ram. The Thai So are concentrated in the upland area which straddles parts of Phon Sawan District in Nakhon Phanom Province, Dong Luang District of Mukdahan Province, and Kusuman District in neighbouring Sakon Nakhon Province. Around there, the people known as Thai Kaloeng, whose ancestors were of the subgroup named Lao Sang, were settled in the Third Reign [1824-1851]. In close vicinity of Nakhon Phanom Town is the area where the Thai Sak, originally from Wai in Annam, were settled during the reign of King Prasat Thong [1629-1656]. Originally called Pa Hai Sok, it is the present At Samat Sub-district of Mueang District in Nakhon Phanom Province.
A highly diversified group are the Bru, an ethnic group originally speaking a Mon-Khmer language and related to the Hraden whose ancestors had been taken captives in the areas of Savannakhet, Saravane and Attopeu, east of the Mekong River, in present Laos. Settled in Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Ubon Ratchathani provinces since the Third Reign [1824-1851], they are called Thai Kha, a name rejected by the Bru. It echoes their early status as villeins, from which they were freed through the abolition of slavery in the Fifth Reign [1868- 1910]. Subgroups are still referred to as Kha Ya Hoen, Kha Ta Oi, Kha Cheng, Kha Sok and Kha Sap Nan, among others. By and large, the Bru are talented artisans especially in creating sculptures and casting images. The villagers of Pa Ao Subdistrict in Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province are descendants of immigrants from the area of Vientiane. To this day, they have enjoyed a high reputation for their skills in manufacturing bronze ware and weaving silk fabric.
As stated in a document published by Thailand’s Office of the National Culture Commission, “all these ethnic groups are fully assimilated and consider themselves Thais.”
CONVERGENCE OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE AND STRATEGIC INTERVENTION
The convergence of local communities’ dedication and governmental policy as well as assistance has facilitated the conservation of the built environment. Several such cases are described above, in the context of information about structures which represent the multifaceted cultural heritage. Four examples are recalled here, in brief, to highlight the standing commitment to conservation and restoration of historical sites. The site of a Buddha Footprint, at the monastery named Wat Phra Phuttha Bat Phu Khwai Ngoen in Chiang Khan District of Loei Province was registered as national heritage in 1935. The Phra That Bang Phuan Chedi, a pagoda of ancient origin in Mueang District of Nong Khai Province was restored in 1976, after it had collapsed. The famous Phra That Phanom Chedi, after which both its monastery and the district are named, located in Nakhon Phanom Province, was resurrected through meticulous reconstruction by 1979, four years after it had collapsed. The Khmer sanctuary of Prasat Ban Ben in Thung Si Udom District of Ubon Ratchathani Province was preserved, beginning with excavations since 1990.
In line with the emphasis on traits and treasures of the riparian belt of Isan, the foci are on the conservation of the environment, both natural and built, the significance of natural resources, and the protection of biodiversity in the animal as well as plant kingdoms. These foci have, of course, been components of the national development policy. Hence, the establishment of protected areas is one among numerous development strategies. Following are few examples of development ventures geared to ensuring sustainability.
Forestry is supplemented through reforestation. In the Phu Ruea National Park, located in Loei Province, for example, the protection of the natural pine forest is coupled with pine tree reforestation. In the same province, the Phu Ruea Temperate Climate Plant Experimental Station has run a program of testing temperate-climate plants for cultivation under local physical conditions, complemented with demonstration and dissemination. A similar program has been implemented to acclimatize foreign flowering plants by the agricultural station named Suan Kaset Chit Sakon in Mueang District of Amnat Charoen Province. At the village named MuBan Pramong Nam Chuet in Tha Bo District of Nong Khai Province, fish rearing of species such as carp and catfish has been practiced at great intensity.
The singularly outstanding infrastructure projects are bridges across the Mekong River. The first bridge linking Thailand with Laos is named Saphan Mitraphap Thai –Lao, the Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge. The 1.2 kilometre long bridge, built with Australian aid, connects the Mueang District of Nong Khai Province with Vientiane. The second bridge across the Mekong River is under construction. It will connect the city of Mukdahan in Thailand with the city of Savannakhet in Laos.
In line with the strategy to foster rural development at the grass-roots level, named the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) project launched by the Royal Thai Government, examples of such ventures are called up hereunder. At the village named Tham Phaen Yo in Tha Bo District of Nong Khai Province, wrappers are produced for the preparation of the finger-food known as spring rolls. These wrappers or wafers are also indispensable for making other dishes originally of the Vietnamese cuisine and for local specialties such as naem nueang, pickled sour-pork. Villages alongside the downstream section of the Songkhram River, situated in Si Songkhram and Tha Uthen districts of Nakhon Phanom Province, have large proportions of households engaged in fisheries. Processing portions of their catches has a long tradition. One specialty, called pla daek in the local vernacular and known as pla ra throughout Thailand, is produced from fish cut into pieces, mixed with salt and rice bran, stuffed into a big water jar, topped with a piece of wood, compressed, and left for two to three years to ferment. Another specialty is pla daek tuang, a strong-flavoured variant of the widely used essence of salted fish or shrimp, commonly called fish sauce, nam pla. Also, pla som, a pickled fish condiment resembling caviar, is produced by processing minnow, various small fish that are less than a designated size and, hence, not game fish.
Some village-based industries in Mukdahan Province revolve around the growing of mulberry trees, rearing of silkworms, processing raw materials, and producing downstream products. The fibrous thread produced by the larva is spun into silk yarn. The pupa adds variety to meals. The cocoons are made into artificial flowers. Silk threads are dyed using natural saps extracted from barks, leaves, or fruits of olive and jackfruit trees, of various shrubs, as well as coconut palms.
Some sub-districts such as Pa Ao in Mueang District of Ubon Ratchathani Province seem to have built reputations based on the division of labour by genders. Pa Ao is well known for both its bronze ware and silk and cotton fabric. There like at other such locations in this province, types of fabric are distinguished, as follows: pha sin, sarong-like skirts, of the mai ngoenkum, muk, mup mao, katio, and mudmee varieties, pha poeng, pha hom, pha thung, and pha khao ma. Availing of an abundance of raw material, most households at Tha Khong Lek in the province’s Warin Chamrap District have traditionally been engaged in making pottery by mixing sticky clay from the Mun River Bed with paddy husk.
Whatever development efforts have been launched, they could yield results only if water was reliably available. Recognizing its necessity, dams were constructed and reservoirs created. The largest such dam and reservoir, by far, is the Sirindhorn Dam, named after H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, which bars the Lam Dom Noi River and created the Sirindhorn Lake, straddling parts of the Sirindhorn, Phibun Mangsahan and Buntharik districts in Ubon Ratchathani Province.
Looking north from this topographical point, numerous reservoirs were put in place, typically in upland areas of the provinces located along the Mekong River. Moving upstream, province-by-province, examples of such water reservoirs, named AngKep Nam in Thai, are called up. Examples from Ubon Ratchathani Province are the reservoirs of Huai Tham Khae, Nong Chang Yai and Nong Hi. Situated in Amnat Charoen Province are Phuttha Uthayan, Huai Pho, Huai Si Tho, Nong Baen, and Huai Suan Pha. Those in Mukdahan Province include Huai Tha, Huai Chino, Huai Muk, and Huai Khi Lek. Examples from Nakhon Phanom Province are Huai Sap, Nong Loeng, Chai Wan Yai, Nong Sang Yai, Nong Han, Som Hong, Nong Yat, and Huai Hin Chanaen. In Nong Khai Province are the reservoirs of Bua Phuan as well as Nam Pham, and in Loei Province is the one named Suai.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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