People & Culture
The map of Southeast Asia does little to convey the diversity – of ethnicity, religion, culture and lifestyle – found throughout this region. Southeast Asia, a key node on an ancient trade route that spanned the eastern hemisphere, has long been a cultural crossroads frequented by traders, wandering ascetics and kingmakers who brought with them new beliefs, customs and tastes. Hardly passive, the people here have absorbed these influences, combined them with native traditions and made them their own.
Southeast Asia has hundreds and hundreds of ethnic groups. Indonesia – the world's fourth largest country – has more than 300 alone (and at least as many languages). Some countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, have high levels of homogeneity and thus a strong national, ethnic identity (though this often masks regional differences). Others, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have tried to make their very diversity their identity (though this may not reflect real power distribution). The balancing act between cohesion and representation is a common struggle throughout the region, as these still relatively young countries try to live up to the awkward borders bequeathed to them by colonialism.
Chinese make up significant minority populations in most Southeast Asian countries, going back hundreds of years. In Malaysia and Singapore, Chinese traders intermarrying with local Malay created a distinct identity, called Straits Chinese. While most countries derive cultural and commercial strength from Chinese immigrants, in times of economic hardship, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, ethnic Chinese have been targets of abuse for their prosperity and ethnic differences. Ethnic Indians, mostly from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, also have well-established communities in many cities in the region.
City Life, Country Life
Perhaps greater than the difference between national cultures is the difference between life in the city and life in the country. Rates of urbanisation vary greatly across the region: Singapore is, of course, one big city; Malaysia and Brunei also have predominantly urban populations. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, roughly half of the population lives in cities; in Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Timor-Leste, the number is somewhere between 30% and 40%; in Cambodia, the number is just 20%.
If there is one constant, however, it is that the rate is rapidly increasing. As of 2015, Southeast Asia had 21 cities with a population of more than one million; the UN predicts it will have 15 more by 2025. While cities are nothing new for the region – Hanoi, for example, is over 1000 years old – this mass migration is. In 1950, just 15.5% of the population was urban; today it's over 40%. Local infrastructure and economies have struggled to keep up, resulting in chaotic cities, where some live in air-conditioned towers and others live in off-the-grid slums (but everyone has to deal with the cacophonous traffic). In between is the middle class, usually educated government workers who can afford terraced apartments.
Meanwhile, for the more than half of the population who live in rural areas, life remains deeply rooted in the village and tied to the agricultural calendar. In these communities, multi-generational households are the norm and distinct animistic customs are part of daily life. Rice farming, especially with crude tools such as ploughs drawn by water buffalo, is difficult work that typically affords only a subsistence lifestyle.
Highland Indigenous Peoples
The mountainous stretch of continental Southeast Asia, from Myanmar's western border across northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and through Vietnam's central and northern highlands, is home to hundreds of indigenous minorities – sometimes called 'hill tribes' – totalling some several million people. Today they live in varying degrees of assimilation, conflict and isolation from the majority populations who occupy the fertile lowlands, and largely in poverty.
Some have territorial claims that go back hundreds of years (or longer); others arrived more recently, most likely from the Himalayas or southern China. Before the colonial era, when borders were less fixed, they lived largely autonomously, subsisting on farming and animal husbandry. Some groups are relatively sedentary; others practise a kind of slash-and-burn agriculture that requires regular relocation. Some grew opium as a cash crop, though this has largely been shut down.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the British and French colonialists – and later the Americans during the Vietnam War – occasionally sought to make allies of the tribes, pitting them against a recalcitrant majority. At the same time, missionaries converted some communities to Christianity. During the latter half of the 20th century, when the newly independent nations were dominated by strongmen and a forceful ethno-nationalist rhetoric, many indigenous peoples found themselves persecuted, stripped of their lands or pressured to assimilate.
In recent decades, tourism and conservation have complicated the issue. Tribal villages have proved popular with overseas visitors, which can be an economic boon for communities but also puts them at risk of exploitation. There are also tribes with historic ties to land that has since been converted into protected national parks; as a result, certain traditional farming and hunting practices were made illegal and tribes have been forced to relocate.
Sidebar: Saving Face
Social harmony is valued across Southeast Asia. Crucial to this is the concept of 'face' – one's honour and reputation in social standing. To 'save face' (both yours and others), avoid causing embarrassment and confrontation (even if you feel you're getting the short end of the stick).
Much of Southeast Asia's ancient and classical art is religious in nature. The regions' temples, mosques and churches are great repositories of architectural design and sculpture. There are also strong artisan traditions that remain to this today, resulting in the vivid batik (cloth dyed with a wax-resist technique) of Indonesia; the woodcarvings of totems by the Ifugao people of northern Luzon; and the lacquerware polished to a high gloss in the workshops of Bagan, Myanmar.
Southeast Asia's most iconic art form, however, has to be Javanese shadow puppetry (wayang kulit). The two-dimensional puppets are made of leather, finely carved and rich in detail. What appears before the audience is the shadow cast by the puppet (ideally from an atmospheric oil lamp). Stories are taken from Hindu epics, Islamic tales and Javanese legends; one puppet master (the dalang) tells the whole story, which is set to the music of a gamelan orchestra, composed of gongs, metallophones and hand drums. Traditionally, shows go on all night. Yogyakarta and Solo are the best places to see wayang kulit.
The small island of Bali has a rich culture of dance, originally performed as part of religious rituals but now often staged for tourists. The two most common styles seen today are captivating legong, a stylised form of dance-drama traditionally performed by preteen girls (but now also adult women) with graceful, precise gestures and witchy eyes; and kecak, performed by men who chant and sing hypnotically. Bali, and particularly the town of Ubud, has a sizeable community of working artists and artisans, including many expats.
As for contemporary art, Singapore's scene stands out. The new National Gallery opened in 2015 to showcase the largest collection of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art. Singapore also has numerous commercial galleries and hosts an art biennale on even-numbered years.
Sidebar: Top 5 Museums
- Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore)
- Islamic Arts Museum (Malaysia)
- Jim Thompson's House (Thailand)
- National Museum of Cambodia (Cambodia)
- Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (Vietnam)
Rice is the staple food across Southeast Asia. Meals are often eaten family-style, with an assortment of shared side dishes served all at once to accompany rice (which may be steamed in bamboo baskets or cooked with a modern, electric rice cooker). It's hard to overestimate the importance of rice in the region. In several languages, the word for 'eat' is literally 'eat rice'; many folk religions have a rice goddess. Village festivals mark the beginning of rice-planting season, with rituals and customs designed to ensure a bountiful harvest. Noodles, made of rice or wheat, make up for what they lack in symbolism with their popularity.
Southeast Asia's history as a global crossroads is evident through its cuisine: there are curries and flat breads from India; stir-fries from China; baguette sandwiches – like Vietnam's banh mi – from France; and ingredients from the Americas such as peanuts. And while it's hard to imagine the food here without chillies, it's likely the Spanish introduced them in the 1600s. The region's geography is also a big factor: fish – from the sea, the Mekong River, Tonlé Sap (Great Lake) or water-logged rice paddies – is more prevalent than meat. As dictated by the strictures of Islam, Muslim communities throughout the region don't eat pork (creating a culinary culture clash with their Chinese neighbours who adore pork dishes).
Herbs and spices play a big part in local cooking: common aromatics include lemongrass, pandan leaf, galangal (a stronger, earthier kind of ginger), shallots and turmeric. Creamy coconut is often added to curries. It's typical for single dishes to combine sour, sweet and salty flavours. The sweet element usually comes from palm sugar; kaffir lime or tamarind adds a touch of sour. Rather than just salt, many dishes are seasoned instead with a salty fermented fish sauce (usually made of anchovies), which also adds a crucial umami element. Southeast Asian food is also known for its spicy kick – which can show up where you may not expect it (such as in the salads of Thailand and Laos).
In the cities, meals are often eaten out – which will make sense once you see the wealth of cheap options available from street carts and simple canteens. Noodle soups and rice porridge are popular for breakfast. Dessert is not typically eaten after a meal, but sweets are common as snacks or with tea. Tropical Southeast Asia produces a rainbow cornucopia of fruit; in addition to your standard bananas and pineapples, you'll see market stalls and smoothie stands offering mangosteens, rambutans, jackfruits, custard apples, star fruits and durian – a large spikey fruit that people either love or loathe.
Sidebar: Noodle Dishes
- laksa (Malaysia)
- pho (Vietnam)
- pad thai (Thailand)
- mie goreng (Indonesia)
- nam ben chok (Cambodia)
- lard na (Laos)
- pancit bihon (Philippines)
- char kway teow (Singapore)
Throughout Southeast Asia, religion is a fundamental component of the national and ethnic identities. Islam is the majority religion in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and a significant minority religion in Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines. Across continental Southeast Asia – in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – Buddhism is the dominant faith. The Philippines and Timor-Leste are largely Catholic. Singapore, meanwhile, is the world's most religiously diverse country, with significant populations of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists and Hindus.
Hinduism is an ancient, amorphous religion; it's more a way of life, built up over thousands of years, than a doctrine. It has no origin story, but it belongs to India. It is both pantheistic – meaning god and the universe are one and the same – and polytheistic: the limitless eternal god (Brahman) appears in many forms, which are worshipped by followers. The three principle incarnations of Brahman are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer or reproducer). In art they are often represented as having multiple arms or heads to express their multifaceted nature.
Hinduism, alongside Buddhism, was an important influence on the culture and society of Southeast Asia during the first millennium. The Mataram kingdom of Java and the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia built grand temples (at Prambanan and Angkor, respectively) to the Hindu gods. Hindu temples are typically constructed on plinths with towers rising like mountains, which symbolise cosmic Mt Meru, the home of the gods. Exteriors are often covered in relief sculptures of divinities, such as the curvaceous apsara (celestial nymphs). Even after Hinduism faded as a religion, many deities continue to live on, often having merged with a local spirit. One example is naga, a Hindu serpent deity associated with water, who is a common sight at Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia.
Feature: A Hindu Epic's Lasting Legacy
The Ramayana is an ancient Hindu epic that has been played out – in traditional dance and puppetry, on temple carvings and in modern comic books – countless times over the centuries in Southeast Asia. It is the story of Prince Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) who falls in love with the beautiful Sita, winning her hand in marriage – by completing the challenge of stringing a magic bow. Before they can ascend the throne, the couple are banished to the jungle (by a scheming stepmother), where Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, a demon king. With the help of his loyal brother, Laksmana, and the resourceful monkey king, Hanuman, Rama defeats Ravana, Sita is rescued and peace and goodness are restored. Different cultures have interpreted the story in different ways, with Rama most often manifesting the ideals held by that particular culture.
Buddhism begins in the 6th century BC with the story of a sheltered Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who, at the age of 29, left his life of privilege on a spiritual quest. After years of experimenting with different ascetic practices, he meditated under a fig tree for 49 days and reached a state of enlightenment. The prince became a Buddha, an ‘Awakened One’.
Buddhism builds on many Hindu beliefs, chiefly samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth governed by karma, the law of cause and effect. The Buddha taught what came to be known as the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering; that suffering is caused by attachments; that ending attachments ends suffering; and that ending attachments is possible by following the 'middle way', which steered clear of both sensual indulgences and the opposite extreme of asceticism. The end goal is nirvana, a final emancipation from the world of desires and suffering and an end to the cycle of rebirth (both moment-to-moment and life-to-life).
Buddhism in Practise
As Buddhism spread it evolved, splitting into two principle branches: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada ('Teaching of the Elders') is the more conservative of the two, based on what are believed to be the earliest teachings of the Buddha. It emphasises the individual's path to liberation. Meditation is a big part of Theravada practice; to master one's mind is a step towards eliminating attachments. Monastic life is held up as the ideal, though the laity can 'make merit' through devotional acts.
Theravada, also called the Southern School, reached Southeast Asia via Sri Lanka and is practised in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. In these countries, monks, with their shaved heads and saffron robes, are a visible presence, especially when they make their morning rounds to receive alms of rice. It's expected that all male Buddhists take vows for a period of time (for some weeks or months), usually after finishing school. Though orders of nuns existed in the past, women who aspire to monastic life are no longer granted full ordination (though there are women fighting this).
Mahayana ('Greater Vehicle') Buddhism takes a more expansive approach, seeking a universal liberation for all sentient creatures (all of whom are believed to possess an inherent Buddha nature and interconnectivity). A central figure in this tradition is the bodhisattva, a being who, on the cusp of achieving enlightenment, chooses instead to stay back and help unburden others. Mahayana, also called the Northern School, spread through Tibet, China, Japan and Vietnam – though in reality, most Vietnamese practise a fusion of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, collectively known as Tam Giao (Triple Religion).
Temple Art & Architecture
The influence of South Asian art and architecture, as well as the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism, can be seen in the temples of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand (called wat or in Myanmar, paya). The most important structure is the stupa, a kind of monument that originally functioned as a reliquary but could also be built to commemorate a place or an event (and building a stupa was a good way to earn cosmic merit). Early stupa were often shaped like half-globes, topped by a single, parasol-shaped spire; over time different cultures developed different styles. Traditional Khmer-style stupas look a bit like corncobs; in Myanmar they are often bulbous or bell-shaped; Thailand, too, has many bell-shaped stupa, but with facets and tiers; stupa in Laos are often tall, thin and angular. Temples usually also have a hall of worship containing a central image of the historical Buddha, Gautama.
Mahayana temples typically conform to Chinese aesthetics and may have several images of the Buddha (illustrating the many faces of the Buddha that are worshipped in the Mahayana tradition) and bodhisattvas. In China, the stupa evolved into the pagoda, a tower with multiple tiered roofs, which also appears in some Vietnamese temples.
Feature: Buddha Images
Buddha images are visual sermons. Elongated earlobes, no evidence of bone or muscle, arms that reach to the knees, a third eye: these non-human elements express Buddha’s divine nature. Periods within Buddha’s life are also depicted in the figure’s ‘posture’ or pose:
Reclining Exact moment of Buddha’s enlightenment and death.
Sitting Buddha teaching or meditating. If the right hand is pointed towards the earth, Buddha is shown subduing the demons of desire; if the hands are folded in the lap, Buddha is turning the wheel of law.
Standing Buddha bestowing blessings or taming evil forces.
Walking Buddha after his return to earth from heaven.
Christianity was brought by the Europeans during the colonial period. Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by the French, to the Philippines by the Spanish and to Timor-Leste by the Portuguese. Today, the Philippines has the world's third largest Catholic population. Parts of Indonesia are Christian, mainly Protestant, due to the efforts of Western missionary groups. In each of these populations there are remnants of earlier beliefs and customs and an almost personal emphasis on preferred aspects of the liturgy or the ideology. Local variations of Christianity can often be so pronounced that Westerners of the same faith might still observe the practice as foreign.
Islam originated in Arabia in the 7th century, when the prophet Mohammed received the word of God (the Quran, the holy book of the faith). Islam means ‘submission’ in Arabic, and it is the duty of every Muslim to submit to the all-knowing, omnipresent Allah (God). This profession of faith is the first of the five pillars of Islam; the other four are to pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast during Ramadan (ninth month of the lunar calendar) and make the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.
When Islam arrived in Southeast Asia, it didn't so much supplant existing beliefs – the Hindu-Buddhism of the previous centuries and the folk religions of even earlier – as absorb them. For example, chanting and drumming remain a component of the region's Islamic prayer tradition. Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam, is often credited for the particularly syncretic brand of Islam that developed in Southeast Asia. Sufis were itinerant holy men (suf is an Arabic word for the coarse wool worn by a religious ascetic) who encouraged a personal expression of the religion instead of a strict orthodoxy and adherence to the law. Scholars believe that they played a part in adapting traditional practices to Islamic beliefs.
All mosques (masjid in Indonesian, Malaya and Arabic) have a large prayer hall, often partitioned by gender. There are no seats; worshippers pray on the floor facing towards the mihrab, a wall niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. In the courtyard there will be a fountain for the ritual ablutions required before prayer and a minaret (tower) from where the call to prayer is announced. Beyond these fundamental elements, there is great variation in mosque design around Southeast Asia. The oldest mosques have peaked or tiered roofs reminiscent of Hindu temples. Others, particularly those built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, are modelled on mosques in the Middle East, with domes, arched porticoes and slender minarets. Some have latticework or mosaics in geometric patterns that are typical of Islamic art (which eschews veneration of people or objects). The Masjid Negara, Malaysia's national mosque, is an example of modernist, 20th-century mosque design.
Historically, Islam makes no distinction between the spiritual and secular worlds. Sharia (Islamic law), which is based on the Quran, the words and deeds of the prophet (collectively known as sunnah) and the interpretations of scholars, regulates criminal, civil and personal conduct. A major discussion in the Muslim world is how to define, follow and apply Sharia within the context of the modern, pluralistic state. Some instructions are clear-cut, such as abstinence from pork products, drinking and gambling; yet, should those who partake be legally punished? Other requirements, like modesty in dress, leave much room for debate.
Compared to the Middle East, Southeast Asia has typically practised a more moderate form of Islam. Women have never been cloistered and with few exceptions are not required to cover their heads – though recently more women are choosing to do so. Malaysia has long maintained a parallel Sharia system that applied to Muslim Malays only, but it is largely concerned with family matters. Indonesia does not have national Sharia, but it does allow the province of Aceh to enforce partial Sharia under the terms of the 2005 peace deal. There is a Sharia family court in the Philippines for Muslims.
Fundamentalism has been on the rise throughout the Muslim world and Southeast Asia has been no exception. In Indonesia and Malaysia, conservative movements have been calling for an expanded implementation of Sharia. Local critics deride this as an Arabisation of their culture; others point to the growing income gap as a reason for the recent surge of hardline populism. While changes on the national level have so far been minor – for example, Indonesia has banned the sale of alcohol in convenience stores – religious moderates worry that this is only the beginning.
The small sultanate of Brunei has the strictest Sharia law of any country in the region. In 2014, it was announced that the country would begin phasing in a Sharia criminal code that would include corporal punishments, such as the severing of limbs for theft.
Sidebar: Buddhist Monuments
- Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
- Borobudur, Indonesia
- Bagan, Myanmar
- Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand
Sidebar: Folk Religions
Folk religions are still practised around the region, often alongside, or intertwined with, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – meaning a faith with which you are familiar might appear, in practice, markedly different here.
Sidebar: Religious Reads
- Living Faith: Inside the Muslim World of Southeast Asia (Steve Raymer; 2001)
- Buddhism for Beginners (Thubten Chodron; 2001)
- Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines (Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, 2016)
Sidebar: Hinduism in Bali
When the last of the great Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Indonesia fell, survivors fled to the island of Bali. Today Bali is the only remaining outpost of Hinduism – after more than a millennium of influence – in Southeast Asia.
Sidebar: Modern Islam
Southeast Asia is home to a quarter of the world's Muslims (while Arab countries account for less than 15%). Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and sends the greatest number of pilgrims to Mecca each year.