The Isan people, also known as Lao Isan or Northeastern Thai, are a culturally rich and diverse ethnic group inhabiting the northeastern region of Thailand. With deep-rooted traditions and a unique belief system, the Isan people's mythology and rituals exhibit a rich tapestry of deities, heroes, and creatures. This article aims to provide an introductory overview of the beliefs, mythology, and rituals of the Isan culture with a focus on deities, their personalities, and stories, as well as unique beliefs specific to this community.

Belief System

The Isan people predominantly adhere to Theravada Buddhism, which is deeply intertwined with their local beliefs, customs, and folklore. A blend of Brahmanism, Mahayana Buddhism, and animism, this syncretic belief system shapes the Isan people's mythology and rituals.


The Isan people's pantheon consists of an array of deities and spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, which play significant roles in the community's daily life, mythology, and rituals. Some of the principal deities include:

  • Phra In (Indra): Derived from the Hindu god Indra, Phra In is revered as the god of rain and the king of the deities. He is believed to reside in the Tavatimsa heaven and is responsible for maintaining the balance of the world.

  • Phra Narai (Vishnu): Adapted from the Hindu god Vishnu, Phra Narai is regarded as the preserver of the universe. The Isan people believe that Phra Narai periodically incarnates on Earth to restore balance and order, and they recognize his ten primary incarnations, known as the Dasavatara.

  • Phra Phrom (Brahma): Based on the Hindu god Brahma, Phra Phrom is revered as the creator of the universe. He is often portrayed with four faces, symbolizing his omnipresence and his ability to oversee all directions simultaneously.

  • Phra Isuan (Shiva): Inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, Phra Isuan is considered the god of destruction and transformation. He is also associated with fertility and is believed to dwell in the Kailasa mountain.

  • Phi Ta Khon: A unique Isan deity, Phi Ta Khon is a friendly ghost or spirit, celebrated annually in the Phi Ta Khon festival. This figure, characterized by its colorful mask and attire, represents the ancestral spirits who protect the community and ensure prosperity.


Isan mythology includes numerous tales that reflect the cultural history and beliefs of the region. Some of the most prominent myths are:

  • Ramakien: A Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana, the Ramakien narrates the story of Phra Ram, an incarnation of Phra Narai, and his wife Sita, who is abducted by the demon king Thotsakan (Ravana). This tale exemplifies the battle between good and evil and the power of love and loyalty.

  • Phra Lak Phra Ram: A popular Isan story, Phra Lak Phra Ram tells of two heroic brothers, Phra Lak and Phra Ram, who undertake a series of adventures and trials to restore peace and order to the land. This story highlights the importance of bravery, wisdom, and unity.

  • Nang Phom Hom: This tale is centered around a female protagonist, Nang Phom Hom, who is believed to possess magical powers. She uses her abilities to assist the needy and punish evildoers, symbolizing the power of compassion and justice.


The Isan people's rituals are deeply ingrained in their belief system, reflecting their connection to the spiritual world and nature. These ceremonies often involve appeasing deities and spirits, invoking blessings, or warding off misfortune. Some notable rituals include:

  • Baci Ceremony: A significant ritual in Isan culture, the Baci ceremony is performed during important life events, such as births, weddings, and welcoming guests. This animistic ritual seeks to harmonize the 32 guardian spirits, or kwan, that protect an individual's soul, ensuring their well-being and prosperity.

  • Phi Ta Khon Festival: An annual event held in the Loei province, the Phi Ta Khon festival celebrates the spirit Phi Ta Khon. Participants dress in elaborate costumes and masks, engaging in dancing, singing, and merrymaking to honor and appease ancestral spirits, ensuring their protection and blessings.

  • Thot Kathin: A Buddhist tradition in Isan culture, Thot Kathin involves offering robes and other essentials to monks during the end of the rainy season. This ceremony signifies gratitude and respect for the monastic community, as well as the accumulation of merit for those who participate.

  • Boon Bang Fai: The Rocket Festival, known as Boon Bang Fai, is an annual event celebrated in the Isan region to mark the beginning of the rainy season. Participants construct and launch homemade rockets, seeking the favor of Phra In to ensure plentiful rainfall and a successful harvest.

Unique Beliefs

A notable unique belief among the Isan people revolves around the spirits known as phi. This belief system, which predates Buddhism, encompasses various spirits that can influence human lives positively or negatively. These spirits inhabit natural elements, such as trees, rivers, mountains, and even houses. Isan people perform rituals and make offerings to these spirits to maintain harmony and balance between the physical and spiritual worlds.