Isaan Music: Mor Lum vs. Luk Thung

Isaan is famous for a few things. For it’s awesomely friendly people, for a huge amount of red shirts, for Kao Niao Moo Ping (Sticky rice with grilled pork), hot girls and music.

Why is Isaan music so famous you might ask? Well, easy. You can hear it everywhere. If you take a bus somewhere up north you probably get waken up with Isaan music short before arrival, when going out partying with Thai friends you will hear Isaan music, heck even most Taxi drivers play Isaan music in their cars.

The success of Isaan music has different reasons. It’s easy to play (instrument wise), easy to sing along, hits the nerve of what is on people’s minds. Furthermore: The two main styles of Isaan music fit perfectly into what people want from music. Either party or whine. Enter Mor Lum and Luk Thung.

Mor Lum (Mor Lam)

It’s not really clear if it really is from Isaan or originated in Laos (isn’t it all the same anyways?). It stands for ‘expert song’. In Laos we call it Lam while Mor Lam stands for the singer himself.

The characteristic feature of lam singing is the use of a flexible melody which is tailored to the tones of the words in the text. Traditionally, the tune was developed by the singer as an interpretation of gon poems and accompanied primarily by the khene, afree reed mouth organ, but the modern form is most often composed and uses electrified instruments. Contemporary forms of the music are also characterised by quick tempi and rapid delivery, while tempi tend to be slower in traditional forms and in some Lao genres. Some consistent characteristics include strong rhythmic accompaniment, vocal leaps, and a conversational style of singing that can be compared to American rap.

Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam also reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humour. In its heartland, performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies, while the music has gained a profile outside its native regions thanks to the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.

Luk Thung

Luk Thung is short for pleng luk thung (Thai: เพลงลูกทุ่ง; lit. “song of a child of the fields”).
Luk Thung songs typically reflect the hardship of everyday life among the rural poor. Tempos tend to be slow, and singers use an expressive singing style with a lot of vibrato. Comparisons are sometimes made with country music of the United States.
The form developed in the first half of the 20th century, although the term luk thung was first used in the 1960s.  Many of the most popular early luk thung stars have come from the central city of Suphanburi, including megastar Pumpuang Duangjan, who adapted it to 1980s string (Thai pop) music by making a dance-ready form called electronic luk thung. The mor lam influence has produced a new genre called luk thung Isan or luk thung prayuk, which incorporates the faster rhythms of mor lam.

Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at
Sascha is the publisher of and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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