With its strategic location along the world’s trade routes, the Southeast Asia region has had a pivotal role in world history for thousands of years. The area has also been a significant source of spices and other resources, another attraction for European explorers. During the colonial era, states of the region became important assets to the Portuguese, British, Dutch and French. As a result, it is quite multicultural. Its major religions are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and (in the maritime region) Islam, and visitors on Southeast Asia river cruises will find that many residents speak French and English in addition to their native language.

Southeast Asia’s long history

Human habitation began in this region approximately 45,000 years ago; the aboriginal settlers are thought to have come east from India and later ones south from China in around 2500 B.C. The ancient kingdoms, like the Ayutthaya Kingdom on the Chao Phraya River delta and the Khmer Empire on the Tonle Sap, were largely agrarian, but seafaring trade routes between India and China were quite active in the region.

The existence of Southeast Asia was known to the ancient Greeks. The astronomer Ptolemy in his Geographia named the Malay Peninsula “Aurea Chersonesus” (the Golden Peninsula) while Java was called “Labadius” presumably from the Sanskrit. An ancient Hindu text may have earlier referred to Southeast Asia as Suvarnabhumi, which means land of gold.

Much of Indochina was governed by powerful Burmese, Thai and Khmer empires, which built great monuments, like the ancient cities of Angkor, Bagan and Ayutthaya with their awe-inspiring temples until 500 years ago when the first European countries arrived to colonize the area. The lure of trade brought Europeans to Southeast Asia, and missionaries also came on the ships, hoping to spread Christianity in the region. With the conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511, Portugal was the first European power on the scene, but the Netherlands and Spain soon followed. The Dutch took over Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641 while Spain began to colonize the Philippines (named after Phillip II of Spain) in the 1560s. Acting through the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch established the city then known as Batavia (now Jakarta) as a base for trading and expansion. England, acting through the British East India Company, came to the party a little later; they started in Malaysia and temporarily took over some Dutch territories during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1819, Stamford Raffles established a key British trading post in Singapore. In 1824 an Anglo-Dutch treaty cooled this rivalry and demarcated territories in Southeast Asia.

This “new imperialism” accelerated into the 20th century; only Thailand remained free of foreign rule though not unaffected by Western activities in the region. By 1913, the British occupied Burma, Malaysia and Borneo, the French controlled Indochina, and the Dutch ruled the East Indies while Portugal held Timor. In the Philippines, Filipino revolutionaries declared independence from Spain in 1898, but the Philippines were promptly (and under protest) ceded to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. During World War II, the region was invaded by the Japanese Imperial Army. Again, Thailand was the only country to maintain a nominal independence, which they did via a political and military alliance with the Japanese Empire.

Colonial rule had a profound effect on Southeast Asia. While the colonial powers certainly enjoyed great profits from the region’s vast resources and large market, they also developed the region to some extent, with commercial agriculture, mining and an export-based economy growing rapidly during this period. Increased labor demand resulted in mass immigration, especially from British India and China, which brought about massive demographic change. The institutions required for a modern nation-state, such as a state bureaucracy, courts of law, print media and to a lesser extent modern education, prepared the colonial territories for nationalism. In the period between the World Wars, these nationalist movements became firmly established.

After World War II, the Europeans returned, but things had irretrievably changed. Indonesia declared its independence in August of 1945 and fought the returning Dutch; the Philippines were granted independence in 1946. Burma secured its independence from Britain in 1948, and the French were driven from Indochina in 1954 after a bitterly fought war against the Vietnamese nationalists. The newly established United Nations provided a forum both for nationalist demands and for the emerging independent nations.

During the Cold War of the 1950s, fighting communism in the region became a major concern, resulting in conflicts in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The United States intervened in Indochina resulting in the Vietnam War, which involved not only Vietnam but also Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnam War ran from 1955 to 1975; in the 1970s the Communist Party in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, carried out a program of “social engineering” resulting in more than 1,000,000 Cambodian casualties before their regime came to an end.

In 1975, Portuguese rule in East Timor ended, but it was quickly annexed by Indonesia. In 1984, Britain left the Sultanate of Brunei, ending the colonial era in Southeast Asia. East Timor finally achieved independence in 2002, following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto and conflict between the independence movement and the country’s ruling militia; it is now a member of the United Nations.

Southeast Asian religions

The region’s earliest peoples were animists; in Myanmar (Burma) this faith been incorporated into Burmese Buddhism in the form of nat worship. Nats are spirits of trees, water, etc., but 37 of them are Great Nats, the spirits of martyred people. Nat festivals continue to be held in Burma, the most important of which is held at the pilgrimage site of Mount Popa during the full moon of December.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam were brought to the area by Chinese and Indian immigrants beginning in the second century BC and remained the area’s major religions, with Buddhism and Hinduism more popular on the mainland and Islam dominating the maritime countries, until the 16th century AD. At that time, the region began to encounter Christianity through European colonization.

Wats, stupas and monasteries

River cruise travelers will encounter a series of wats, pagodas and monasteries in shapes and configurations distinct to this area. A few words about these:

Wats are monastery temples in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most famous is Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but there are many throughout the region, often shaped like pagodas with graceful, sloping roofs, particularly in Thailand. A stupa is more of a mound-shaped structure; most contain Buddhist relics and they are often topped by golden spires that commemorate the eight stages of the Buddha’s life. Visitors taking an Irrawaddy River cruise can see many stupas, including Mya-Tha-Lun Pagoda in Magway, Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan and the 19th-century stupas at Amarapura. The Buddhist monasteries are traditionally built of teakwood, with graceful arches and intricately carved decorations. Visitors can see examples in Mandalay (Shwenandaw Golden Palace) and Salé.

Contemporary Southeast Asia

In August of 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded by Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Cambodia was admitted in 1999, leaving only East Timor as a non-member. During the 1990s, Southeast Asia emerged as the fastest growing economy in the world. The region has experienced rapid economic growth, particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and to some extent Vietnam. However, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and East Timor are still lagging economically.

With both modern cities and ancient temples and monuments, the region is an enticing mix of the old and the new. Demographically speaking it is quite youthful, filled with hope and promise.