Lao Isan - Religion and Expressive Culture

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of northeast Thailand. The monastic organization in the region is linked to the central monastic authority in Bangkok. Practices are similar throughout Thailand.

Religious Beliefs. The Lao Isan differ in belief and practice from other Thai. Perhaps the most distinctive Lao Isan practice is the bunbangfai, the Rocket Festival. Monks and others prepare rockets to be fired off to pay respect to guardian spirits before the coming of the monsoon rains. Another major festival is that of bunphrawes, based on the story of the penultimate reincarnation of the Buddha. Although the story is known throughout Thailand, this festival has been the major annual festival in Lao Isan villages. As among other Theravada Buddhists, the Lao Isan gain merit by presenting gifts to the monastery and having their sons ordained as monks for short periods.

Religious Practitioners. A large majority of men become monks for some period during their lives. Ideally, ordination takes place when the man is twenty years old. This allows his parents or other close relatives to obtain the merit of this action and prepares the man for marriage and domestic life. The northeast is particularly well known for its monastery retreats for meditation. Monks from the northeast have reached the highest levels of the monastic hierarchy. Many Bangkok temples are inhabited and led by monks from the northeast. The monastic system has been an avenue for advancement for many men from the poorest part of the country. In addition to monks, there are paahm or Brahmans, who carry out lifecycle rituals; diviners, who are concerned with spirit-affliction; guardian-spirit mediums and intermediaries; and exorcists.

Ceremonies. The annual ritual cyle is coordinated with the agricultural cycle and is as follows: songkran, the New Year festival at the end of the dry season, on 13 to 15 April; wisaka bucha, the day of birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, in May at the beginning of the rainy season; bunbangfai, the Rocket Festival, in May-June; khao phansa, entering the Vessa or Rain's Retreat, in July; bun khao saak, making merit for the spirits of the dead, in September; ok phansa, leaving the Rain's Retreat, in October; kathin, the presentation of robes to the monks, in October-November; bunphrawes, the making of merit for the recitation of the Prince Vessantara story, in February-March.

Arts. The northeast has artistic patterns similar to those in other parts of Thailand. For example, there are similarities in tattooing, architecture, design, and sculpture. There are, however, some distinctive features of northeastern art. In musical repartee, the Lao Isan have a tradition of playing the reed instrument called kaen. Many of the woven materials are also distinctive in the use of the ikat method of resist-dye technique ( mat mii ) and supplementary weft ( phaa khit ).

Medicine. The Western biomedical system is well established in Thailand through provincial hospitals and publichealth clinics. The northeast region, however, has the fewest hospitals per capita and the fewest doctors per capita. Villagers often prefer traditional herbal medicines and massage to hospital visits. Rituals such as bai sir sukhwan, where the soul is "tied" back into an ill or disturbed person, are important forms of healing.

Death and Afterlife. Given the importance of death in Buddhist thought, the funeral is the most important rite of passage in northeastern Thai villages. Buddhist monks officiate and it is the only rite of passage recognized as a solely Buddhist ritual. Death marks the passage of the life-force into the next life, whether that be in hell, in heaven, or on Earth as animal, spirit, or human. The funeral procession and cremation are overseen by monks. Buddhist laity participate in rituals of transferring merit to the dead, while monks chant their blessings.

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