Southeast Asia in a glimpse
Understand South East Asia
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and for a reason. Some of the countries here have it all: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year around, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, low prices. While its history and modern-day politics are complex, most of it is also quite safe for the traveller and easy to travel around in.
Southeast Asia's touristy countries (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) do not require visas from most visitors. Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and East Timor offer visas on arrival at most points of entry. Vietnam and Myanmar require advance paperwork for most visitors.
Virtually all of the traveller trail in Southeast Asia is perfectly safe, but there are low-level insurgencies in the remote areas of Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, and East Timor continues to be politically unstable.
Terrorists in Indonesia have bombed several hotels and nightclubs frequented by foreigners in Bali and Jakarta, most recently the Marriott and Ritz Carlton in July 2009.Thailand's southernmost states have also been the scene of violence in recent years, and while tourists have not been specifically targeted, there have been several attacks on trains and three foreigners were killed in bombings in Hat Yai in 2006.
Violent crime is a rarity in Southeast Asia, but opportunistic theft is more common. Watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when traveling, particularly on overnight buses and trains.
Pre-historic Southeast Asia was largely underpopulated. A process of immigration from India across the Bay of Bengal is referred to as the process of Indianization. Exactly how and when it happened is contested; however, the population of the mainland region largely happened through immigration from India. The Sanskrit script still used as the basis for modern Thai, Lao, Burmese and Khmer has its roots from this process. On the other hand, population of the archipelegos of East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia on the mainland is thought to have come about though immigration from Taiwan.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Southeast Asia was home to several powerful kingdoms. Some of the more notable ones were the Funan and the Khmer Empire in northern Southeast Asia, as well as the Srivijaya, the Majapahit Kingdom and the Melaka Sultanate in the Malay Archipelago.
European colonial era
Southeast Asian history is very diverse and often tumultuous, and has to an important extent been shaped by European colonialism. The very term Southeast Asia was invented by American Naval strategists around 1940. Southeast Asia was prior to WWII referred to with reference to the colonial powers; farther India for Burma andThailand, with reference to the main British colony of India, although Thailand was never formally colonized; Indochina referred to the French colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, while Indonesia and parts of maritime Southeast Asia was referred to as the Dutch East Indies. Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore were known asBritish Malaya, while Sabah was known as British North Borneo. Sarawak, on the other hand was known as the Kingdom of Sarawak and ruled by a British family known as the White Rajahs. Brunei was also made into a British protectorate, with the British taking charge of its defence and foreign affairs. The Philippines was named theSpanish East Indies during the initial period of Spanish colonial rule, and later came to be known by its current name in honour of King Philip II of Spain, a name which stuck even after the islands were transferred from Spanish to American colonial rule. East Timor was colonized by Portugal for 273 years, then occupied by Indonesia for 27 years before becoming the first nation to gain independence in the 21st century.
World War II was disastrous to Southeast Asia, and also saw the beginning of the end of European colonialism, as the European powers surrendered to Japan one by one in disgrace. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had conquered virtually the whole of Southeast Asia, with only Thailand remaining unconquered, as the Thais signed a treaty of friendship with the Japanese which allowed the Japanese to establish military bases in Thailand, and allowed Japanese troops free passage through Thailand. The Japanese occupation was a time of great hardship for many of the natives, as the Japanese took all the resources for themselves, and exploited many of the locals for their own gain. However, the Japanese occupation convinced many locals that the European powers were not invincible after all, and allowed the independence movements to gain pace.
After the war, the decolonisation process started in Southeast Asia, with the Americans granting independence to the Philippines in 1946, while the British granted independence to Burma in 1948, followed by Malaya in 1957 and eventually Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo in 1963, which federated with Malaya to form Malaysia. After some ideological conflicts, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and became a sovereign state. On the other hand, the Dutch and the French fought bloody wars in an effort to hold on to their colonies, most of which ended in humiliating defeats for the European colonial powers, eventually leading to the Indonesia gaining independence from the Dutch in 1949, and Indochina from the French, which became the three separate countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1954. European colonialism came to an end in Southeast Asia in 1984, when Brunei was granted full independence by the British. Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975 after it declared independence from the Portuguese following a coup in Portugal, and only left in 1999 following a United Nations referendum. East Timor was then occupied by a United Nations peacekeeping force, before finally becoming independent in 2002.
For at least two thousand years (and to this day), Southeast Asia has been a conduit for trade between India and China, but large-scale Chinese immigration only began with the advent of the colonial era. In Singapore, the Chinese form a majority of the population, but there are substantial Chinese minorities, assimilated to varying degrees, across all countries in the region.
In recent years, Southeast Asia is acknowledged as having a relatively high rate of economic growth, with Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines often being called the "New Asian Tigers", and Vietnam also recording double digit growth rates in recent years. Nevertheless, despite being one of the most resource rich regions in the world (all Southeast Asian countries except Singapore are considered to be resource rich), widespread corruption means that poverty is still an issue in many countries, which much of the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few elite.
Southeast Asia is tropical: the weather hovers around the 30°C mark throughout the year, humidity is high and it rains often.
The equatorial parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, have only two seasons, wet and dry, with the dry season somewhat hotter (up to 35°C) and the wet season somewhat cooler (down to 25°C). The wet season usually occurs in winter, and the hot season in summer, although there are significant local variations.
However, in Indochina (north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar), the seasons can be broken down into hot, wet and dry, with the relatively cool dry season from November to February or so being the most popular with tourists. The scorching hot season that follows can see temperatures climb above 40°C in April, cooling down as the rains start around July. However, even in the "wet" season, the typical pattern is sunny mornings with a short (but torrential) shower in the afternoon, not all-day drizzle, so this alone should not discourage you from travel.
Southeast Asia is also home to many mountains, and conditions are generally cooler in the highlands. In equatorial Southeast Asia, highland temperatures generally range from about 15-25°C. Some of the highest mountains in Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar are so high that snow falls every year, and Indonesia and Myanmar are even home to permanent glaciers.
In Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and parts of Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Borneo) and the Philippines (notably Palawan), haze from forest fires (usually set intentionally to clear land) is a frequent phenomenon in the dry season from May to October. Haze comes and goes rapidly with the wind, but Singapore's National Environment Agency has useful online maps Web of the current situation in the entire region.
Southeast Asia's culture is dominantly influenced by the Indians and Chinese as well as its colonizers. Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao culture is heavily Indianized as well as Chinese-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia and Indonesia are also influenced by the Indians, Malays and Chinese with a touch of Arab culture due to the large Muslim populations. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced country while Brunei's culture is Malay-influenced. East Timor's culture is influenced notably by the Portuguese and the Malays. Singaporean and Philippine cultures are the most diverse: Singaporean is a mix of Malay, Indian, Peranakan, British, American and Chinese cultures while the Philippines is heavily influenced by American, Spanish, Malay, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese culture with less influence from the Indians, Mexicans and other Europeans, making it as the most westernized nation in the region.
Southeast Asia is religiously diverse. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Sunni Muslim, while East Timor and the Philippines are predominantly Roman Catholic. In northern Southeast Asia, Buddhism dominates, mostly of the Theravada variety, with the exception of Vietnam where the Mahayana variety dominates. However, religious minorities exist in every country. The ethnic Chinese minorities in the various countries practise a mix of different religions, including Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is still practised in parts of Indonesia, most notably Bali, as well as by a sizeable proportion of the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. The southern parts of Thailand are home to ethnic Malays who mostly practise Islam, while the island of Mindanao in the Philippines is also home to a sizeable Muslim community. Indonesia is also home to many Christians, most notably on Papua and the island of Sulawesi. In East Malaysia as well as more remote parts of various countries, various tribal religions are still widely practised.