Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries, ranging from the East Indies to China, generally divided into “mainland” and “island” zones. The mainland (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) is actually an extension of the Asian continent. Muslims are found in all mainland countries, but the greatest wealth is in southern Thailand and western Burma (Arakan). The Cham in central Vietnam and Cambodia are also Muslims.
Island or 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 more than 234 million inhabitants are Muslims, 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. The temperatures are generally warm, though it is cooler in the highlands. Many marine and jungle products are unique in the region and have been sought after by international traders. For example, some small islands in eastern Indonesia were once the only source of carnations, nutmeg, and mace in the world. The entire region is affected by the monsoon winds, which blow in equal parts from the northwest and vice versa from the southeast. These wind systems bring fairly predictable rainy seasons, and before steamer ships were invented, these wind systems also allowed out-of-region traders 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 major markets in early Asia.
There are some differences in the physical environment of the mainland and the island of 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 lowlands separated by wooded hills and mountain ranges. These fertile plains are ideal for rice-growing ethnic groups like the Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese who developed diversity cultures that eventually became the foundation of modern states. The highlands were occupied by tribal groups characterized by distinctive styles of clothing, jewelry and hairstyles. A third feature of the Southeast Asian mainland is the long coastline. Despite a strong agricultural base, the communities that developed in these regions were also part of the maritime trade network that linked Southeast Asia with India and China.
The islands in maritime Southeast Asia can range from very large islands (for example, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Luzon) to tiny points on the map (Indonesia should cover 17,000 islands). Since the interior of these islands was covered in jungles and was often cut up by highlanders, traveling ashore was never easy. Southeast Asians have found it easier to navigate between different areas by boat, and it is often said that the land divides and the sea unites. The oceans connecting the coasts and neighboring islands formed smaller zones where people spoke similar languages and were exposed to the same religious and cultural influences. The modern borders created by the colonial powers – for example, between Malaysia and Indonesia – do not reflect any logical cultural differences.
The second feature of maritime Southeast Asia is the seas. Apart from a few deep underwater ditches, the oceans are shallow, which means they are quite warm and not very salty. This is an ideal environment for fish, corals, algae and other products. Although the oceans are rough in some areas, the entire region, with the exception of the Philippines, is generally free of hurricanes and typhoons. However, there are many active volcanoes and the island world is very vulnerable to earthquakes.
Lifestyle, livelihood, and existence
A special feature of Southeast Asia is its cultural diversity. Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, there are an estimated one thousand in Southeast Asia. Archaeological evidence comes from the human settlement of Southeast Asia about a million years ago, but a migration to the region also has a long history. In the early days, tribal groups from southern China moved across the long river systems into the inland areas of the mainland. The mainland is linguistically divided into three major families: the Austro-Asian (such as Cambodian and Vietnamese), the Thai-Thai (such as Thai and Laotian) and the Tibetan-Burmese (including the Highlander and Burmese). Languages belonging to these families can also be found in northeastern India and southwestern China.