Southeast Asia

Introducing Southeast Asia

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Dive into the hedonistic, never-ending action of some massively exciting Asian cities, stretch your sun-bronzed legs on the best beaches in the world, absorb the jaw-dropping spirituality of countless temples, explore dense, verdant rainforest and come face-to-face with some of the world’s most interesting cultures and communities. Southeast Asia promises shed loads of pleasure and doesn’t come anywhere near to disappointing.

Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries that reach from eastern India to China, and is generally divided into “mainland” and “island” zones. The mainland (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) is actually an extension of the Asian continent. Muslims can be found in all mainland countries, but the most significant populations are in southern Thailand and western Burma (Arakan). The Cham people of central Vietnam and Cambodia are also Muslim.

Island or maritime Southeast Asia includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and the new nation of East Timor (formerly part of Indonesia). Islam is the state religion in Malaysia and Brunei. Although 85 percent of Indonesia’s population of over 234,000,000 are Muslims, a larger number than any other country in the world, Islam is not the official state religion. Muslims are a minority in Singapore and the southern Philippines.

Geography, environment, and cultural zones

Virtually all of Southeast Asia lies between the tropics, and so there are similarities in climate as well as plant and animal life throughout the region. Temperatures are generally warm, although it is cooler in highland areas. Many sea and jungle products are unique to the region, and were therefore much desired by international traders in early times. For example, several small islands in eastern Indonesia were once the world’s only source of cloves, nutmeg, and mace. The entire region is affected by the monsoon winds, which blow regularly from the northwest and then reverse to blow from the southeast. These wind systems bring fairly predictable rainy seasons, and before steamships were invented, these wind systems also enabled traders from outside the region to arrive and leave at regular intervals. Because of this reliable wind pattern, Southeast Asia became a meeting place for trade between India and China, the two great markets of early Asia.

There are some differences in the physical environment of mainland and island Southeast Asia. The first feature of mainland geography is the long rivers that begin in the highlands separating Southeast Asia from China and northwest India. A second feature is the extensive lowland plains separated by forested hills and mountain ranges. These fertile plains are highly suited to rice-growing ethnic groups, such as the Thais, the Burmese, and the Vietnamese, who developed settled cultures that eventually provided the basis for modern states. The highlands were occupied by tribal groups, who displayed their sense of identity through distinctive styles in clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. A third feature of mainland Southeast Asia is the long coastline. Despite a strong agrarian base, the communities that developed in these regions were also part of the maritime trading network that linked Southeast Asia to India and to China.

The islands of maritime Southeast Asia can range from the very large (for instance, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Luzon) to tiny pinpoints on the map (Indonesia is said to comprise 17,000 islands). Because the interior of these islands were jungle clad and frequently dissected by highlands, land travel was never easy. Southeast Asians found it easier to move by boat between different areas, and it is often said that the land divides and the sea unites. The oceans that connected coasts and neighboring islands created smaller zones where people shared similar languages and were exposed to the same religious and cultural influences. The modern borders created by colonial powers—for instance, between Malaysia and Indonesia—do not reflect logical cultural divisions.

A second feature of maritime Southeast Asia is the seas themselves. Apart from a few deep underwater trenches, the oceans are shallow, which means they are rather warm and not very saline. This is an ideal environment for fish, coral, seaweeds, and other products. Though the seas in some areas are rough, the region as a whole, except for the Philippines, is generally free of hurricanes and typhoons. However, there are many active volcanoes and the island world is very vulnerable to earthquake activity.

Lifestyle, livelihood, and subsistence

A distinctive feature of Southeast Asia is its cultural diversity. Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, an estimated thousand are found in Southeast Asia. Archeological evidence dates human habitation of Southeast Asia to around a million years ago, but migration into the region also has a long history. In early times tribal groups from southern China moved into the interior areas of the mainland via the long river systems. Linguistically, the mainland is divided into three important families, the Austro-Asiatic (like Cambodian and Vietnamese), Tai (like Thai and Lao), and the Tibeto-Burmese (including highland languages as well as Burmese). Languages belonging to these families can also be found in northeastern India and southwestern China.

Around four thousand years ago people speaking languages belonging to the Austronesian family (originating in southern China and Taiwan) began to trickle into island Southeast Asia. In the Philippines and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago this migration displaced or absorbed the original inhabitants, who may have been related to groups in Australia and New Guinea. Almost all the languages spoken in insular Southeast Asia today belong to the Austronesian family.

A remarkable feature of Southeast Asia is the different ways people have adapted to local environments. In premodern times many nomadic groups lived permanently in small boats and were known as orang laut, or sea people. The deep jungles were home to numerous small wandering groups, and interior tribes also included fierce headhunters. In some of the islands of eastern Indonesia, where there is a long dry season, the fruit of the lontar palm was a staple food; in other areas, it was sago. On the fertile plans of Java and mainland Southeast Asia sedentary communities grew irrigated rice; along the coasts, which were less suitable for agriculture because of mangrove swamps, fishing and trade were the principal occupations. Due to a number of factors—low populations, the late arrival of the world religions, a lack of urbanization, descent through both male and female lines—women in Southeast Asia are generally seen as more equal to men that in neighboring areas like China and India.

Cultural changes began to affect Southeast Asia around two thousand years ago with influences coming from two directions. Chinese expansion south of the Yangtze River eventually led to the colonization of Vietnam. Chinese control was permanently ended in 1427, but Confucian philosophy had a lasting influence when Vietnam became independent. Buddhism and Taoism also reached Vietnam via China. In the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, and in the western areas of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, expanding trade across the Bay of Bengal meant Indian influences were more pronounced. These influences were most obvious when large sedentary populations were engaged in growing irrigated rice, like northern Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Java, and Bali. Rulers and courts in these areas who adopted Hinduism or forms of Buddhism promoted a culture which combined imported ideas with aspects of local society.

Differences in the physical environment affected the political structures that developed in Southeast Asia. When people were nomadic or semi-nomadic, it was difficult to construct a permanent governing system with stable bureaucracies and a reliable tax base. This type of state only developed in areas where there was a settled population, like the large rice-growing plains of the mainland and Java. However, even the most powerful of these states found it difficult to extend their authority into remote highlands and islands.


Population is unevenly distributed, with the highest density in lowland areas. Most of the people live in small agrarian villages; the largest cities are Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok, Thailand; Singapore; Manila, Philippines; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There is a great diversity in culture, history, religion, and ethnic composition. Many different languages are spoken, such as those of the Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, and Malayo-Polynesian families. Religions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Confucianism. Animism is still practiced among many more isolated peoples of the region.

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