Diverse Cultures of Southeast Asia

By Brent Elliott and Jada Ferrell

Geography of Southeast Asia

  • Southeast Asia is made up of two major regions, mainland Southeast Asia and island Southeast Asia.
  • The mainland is separated from Asia by mountains and high plateaus.
  • Who ever commanded the Malacca and Sunda straits controlled rich trade routes.
  • Monsoons shaped trade routes.
  • Ships traveled northeast in the summer and southwest in the winter. The key product of Southeast Asia was spices.
  • Many families were built around a nuclear family rather than an extended family.
  • Women had more equality in Southeast Asia and matrilineal was an accepted custom.

Indian Culture Spreads to Southeast Asia

  • Indian merchants and Hindu priest filtered into Southeast Asia, slowly spreading their culture.
  • Indian traders settled in Southeast Asian ports cities in growing numbers. They gave presents to local rulers and married into influential families.
  • Indian influence reached its peak between 500 and 1000.
  • Indians carried Islam into the region and by the 1200s, Muslims ruled northern India.
  • The prevalence of Islam in lands surrounding the Indian Ocean contributed to the growth of a stable, thriving trade network.

New Kingdoms and Empires Emerge

  • The kingdom of Pagan arose in the fertile rice-growing Irrawaddy Valley in present-day Myanmar.
  • King Anawratha is credited with bringing Buddhism to the Burman people.
  • Filled the capital city with magnificent stupas.
  • Fell to conquering Mongols in 1287.
  • Khmer empire reached its peak between 800 and 1350.
  • The Khmer people adapted Indian writing, mathematics, architecture, and art.
  • In the 1100s, King Suryavarman II built the great temple complex at Angkor Wat.
  • Trading empire of Srivijaya flourished from the 600s to the 1200s.
  • Controlled the strait of Malacca.

Vietnam Emerges

  • Rice paddies, or fields.
  • In 111 B.C., Han armies conquered the region, and China remained in control for the next 1,000 years
  • Adopted the Chinese civil service system and built a government bureaucracy similar to that found in China.
  • Adopted custom of speaking and writing in the Chinese language.
  • Buddhism had the strongest impact.
  • In 939, as the Tang dynasty collapsed in China, Vietnam was able to break free from China.