Southeast Asia Overview


  1. Regional Characteristics  
  2. Demographics 
  3. Settlement, Migration, and Colonialism 

   4.  Development 

   5.  Culture 


  1. References
  2. Review Questions

Regional Characteristics

The Mainland is a region of rugged mountains peaking near 18,000 feet in the north of Mayanmar and radiating outward in a series of mountain ranges through western Mayanmar, along the border of Thailand, through Laos and into southern Vietnam.  There are also river vallry's and deltas surrounding four major river systems.  They are:



  1. The Irrawaddy, which flows from the south of Burma to its northern border shared by China and India
  2. The Chao Phraya, which runs from southern to northern Thailand
  3. The Mekong, which flows from the extreme south of Vietnam through Cambodia, touching the borderline separating Laos and Thailand and continuing its course into southern China
  4. The Red River, which extends from northeast Vietnam to the south part of China.


Southeast Asia has a total land surface of about 1,735,448 square miles, which is just over 1/2 of the continental United States (2001 World... , 2001, pg.7 and U. S. Dept. of Commerce, 1998, pg. 2).  The Asian continent contains the countries of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, which make up some 748,739 sq. miles, or 1/4 of the continental United States. The island nations of Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines make up the remaining 986,709 sq. miles of the region, which is a little larger than Alaska, Colorado, and Texas combined (986,607 sq. miles) (Ibid.).  Within the entire region, Indonesia has the largest landmass of 735,355 square miles or slightly more than the size of Alaska and Colorado combined (Ibid.).


Nearly all of the mainland of southeast Asia lies in the Tropical Monsoon Zone (Koeppen Climate Clasification A) which is characterized by distinct rainy seasons from May through October. This zone can be divided into three sub-categories.  The first is Tropical-Wet, which covers northern Vietnam, northwestern Myanmar, western and peninsular areas of Thailand, portions of eastern Laos, and the eastern areas of the Philippines. The second is Tropical Wet-Dry, which covers eastern Myanmar, 2/3 of Thailand, northwestern and southern Laos, most of Cambodia, southern Vietnam, and western part of the Philippines.  The third category is monsoon, which is most common in southern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and western Cambodia.  Equitorial regions do not experience a dry season and recieve consistant rainfall year round giving it a tropical rainforest classification. 




As of 2007, an estimated 574 million people live in Southeast Asia.  This is nearly twice the population of the United States living on less than half of the land surface the U.S. encompases.  Because of the regions landscape, this population is concentrated in only a few areas such as river deltas, coastal Vietnam, the Philippines, and the island of Java making Southeastern Asia cities some of the most crwded on the planet.  For example, Jakarta has a population density of about 130,000 people per square mile, in comparison, New York City, the most densly populated U.S. city has a population density of 7,504.2 people per sq. mile.


Great economic desparity is present in the region with Singapore's GNI PPP of $31,700 being three times that of the next closest country of Malaysia at $11,300.  Thailand (GNI $9140) nearly doubles the Phillipines (GNI $5,980), while Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos earn between $2,000 and $4,000.  Mayanmar, East Timor and Brunei are so poor that a GNI estimate is not possible.  Infant mortality rates in the region directly reflect the economic desparity as East Timor (GNI immeasurable) has an infant mortality (IM) of 98, while Singapore (GNI $31,700) has an IM of 2.6.

The table below summarizes the demographic information of southeast Asia as of 2007. 


Country Population    (in millions) % Under  15 % Over 65 Rate of Increase Proj. Pop.   for 2025 Proj. Pop  for 2050 Population    Density Infant Mortality GNI PPP    (for 2007)
Indonesia 231.5 28 6 1.4 271..2 296.9 122 34 3,950
Phillipines 88.7 35 4 2.1 120.2 149.8 296 27 5,980
Vietnam 85.1 29 7 1.3 103.6 116.9 257 18 3,300
Thailand 65.7 23 7 .7 70.2 68.9 128 20 9,140
Mayanmar 49.8 27 6 .9 55.4 58.7 74 75 -
Malaysia 27.2 33 4 1.8 34.5 40.5 82 10 11,300
Cambodia 14.4 37 3 1.7 19.6 25.5 79 71 2,920
Laos 5.9 44 4 2.4 8.5 11.8 25 85 2,050
Singapore 4.6 19 8 .6 5.3 5.3 6,785 2.6 31,700
East Timor 1.0 45 3 3.3 1.7 3.0 70 98 -
Brunei .4 30 3 1.6 .5 .6 65 19 -

Settlement, Migration, and Colonialism


Like the Europeans, the people of southeast Asia come from a common stock, but have regionally discrete ethnic and cultural groups.  In general the Burman dominate Myanmar, the Thai occupy Thailand, the Khmer occupy the area of Combodia and northern Laos, and the Vietnamese occupy the strip of territory facing the south China Sea.  The largest population is classified as Indonesian and occupy the islands that extend from Sumatra to the Moluccas.  All of these people, the Fillipinos, Malays, and Indonesians are classified as Indonesians although many cultural differances are present.  In the northern mainland numerous minorities inhabit remote areas far from population concentrations and away from government authority.


South Asians arrived in the southeast centuries ago with intentions of spreading Budism, reaching as far as Bali.  In many parts of the Malay penninsula, Hindu communities with Indian ancestry exist.  The largest group to move into the region is the Chinese.  They started arriving as early as the Ming and Qing dynasties, but a massive exodus occured during the late colonial period (1870-1940) as the Brittish encouraged the migration so they could be used in administration and trade.  During this period an estimated 20 million Chinese immigrated.  Before long these new immigrants moved into major cities, established "chinatowns" and eventually gained control over much of the commerce.  Because of this, the Chinese have lived hard lives and have been persicuted by the Japanese, and Indonesians.


The Portugese arrived in southeast Asia in the 1500s on the Maluku islands (spice island) in eastern Indonesia.  One hundred years later the Dutch arrived followed by the British.  By the 1700s the "East Indies" started appearing on maps further attracting westerners looking to prosper in trade.  The most prominent colonial competitors in Southeast Asia were the Dutch, British, French, and the Spanish who were later replaced by the United States in the Phillipines as part of the settlement after the Spanish-American war in 1898.  By the 1920s resentment toward colonial powers was growing as several anticolonial groups started pushing the idea of independance.  WWII played a major role in changing southeasterners belief that Europeans were invincable and by the mid 1900s most of southeast Asia had achieved their independance.



The modern countries of mainland southeast Asia all existed as indigenous kingdoms in one form or another before the onset of European colonialism.  Cambodia emerged as the first Kingdom, peaking in the twelfth century while independent kingdoms were established in the 1300s by the Burmese (Mayanmar), Siamese (Thailand), and Vietnamese.  With the exception of minor border changes, mainland countries remain similar in modern times.  The island region was different in comparison to the mainland as the modern map bears no resemblance to pre-colonial maps.  Pre-colonial societies were managed at the village level with the closest thing to a kingdom being the Muslims of the Malay islands.  Countries such as the Phillipines, Indonesia, and Malaysia were territorially configured by European occupiers.


Economic activity in this region stretches from the stone age with hunting and gathering to slash and burn agriculture, comercial agriculture of the colonial period, to the curent export of labor, raw materials, textiles, and computer components.  Throughout history southeast Asia has been one of the worlds poorest regions although some of its countries have become quite prosperous.  High tech industries have brought strong growth to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand raising their GDP PPP well above average for LDC's.  Although much of the economy in the region keeps people working in the fields for agriculture or fishing (62%), Asians now see their future in the export of semi-conductors and software.




Rice Paddy agriculture has existed in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, and has become a major part of the average persons lifestyle; working in the fields.  Modern cities provide limited opportunity for work in industry, which typically involved computer technology.  Because the Monsoon climate brings so much rain, Stilt housing is popular and can be found all over Southeast Asia.  Diverse Metal working is also present in this region, especially in Indonesia for the production of tools, weaponry, and musical instruments.  The prime cultural influences have been from either China or India or both, with Vietnam being most drastically influenced by China.  A folky general rule of thumb states that peoples who ate with their fingers were more likely influenced by the culture of India rather than the culture of China.


The people of southeast Asia follow many different religions, but in general the mainland countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, practice Buddhism. Singapore is also predominantly Buddhist, while the people of Malaysia, western Indonesia and Brunei follow Islam. Christianity is predominant in the Philippines, eastern Indonesia and East Timor. The Roman Catholic influence in the region is a residual effect of colonial expansionism.  These distributions are general and it is important to keep in mind that many migrations have made it possible for various religious pockets to surface sporadically throughout southeast Asia.



2001 World Population Data Sheet. (2001). Population Reference Bureau. Book Ed. Washington, DC.

About Singapore Annexure [Online]. (1999). Asiaweek magazine. Available: 14 Oct. 2001.

Bradshaw, Michael. (2002). World Regional Geography: The New Global Order, Updated 2nd Edition. NY: McGraw Hill.

Clawson, David L. (2001). World Regional Geography: A Development Approach. 7th Ed. NJ: Prentice Hall, NJ.

Pulsipher, Lydia Mihelic. (2000). World Geography. NY: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Tourism Authority of Thailand [Online]. (2000). Laws on Prostitution. Available: 14 Oct. 2001.

United States Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census [Online]. (1998). State and Metropolitan Area Data Book. 5th Ed. Tables A-1 States Area and Population and B-1 Metro Areas and Population. pp. 2 and 63. Available: 14 Oct. 2001.

2007 World Population Data Sheet (2007)


de Blij, H.J.. The World Today, Concepts of Regions in Geography. New York City: John Wiley and sons incorperated, 2007.


Hobbs, Joseph. Essentials of World Regional Geography. fifth. Iowa City: Brooks/Cole, 2005.


Rowntree, Diversity Amid Globalization. Upper Saddle River New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.


"Southeast Asia." Wikipedia. 09 Apr 2008. 9 Apr 2008 <>.



Review Questions

1. Which of the following Southeast Asian countries has a higher per capita income than many European countries, including Spain, Portugal, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Great Britain?
    A. Indonesia B. Philippines C. Thailand D. Singapore E. Malaysia.
2. Southeast Asia's largest country in terms of both area and population is:
    A. Myanmar B. Thailand C. Malaysia D. Indonesia E. Vietnam.
3. Of the following countries in SE Asia, which has the highest per capita income:
    A. Brunei B. Thailand C. Vietnam D. Cambodia E. Malaysia.
4. Which three Southeast Asian countries once were French possessions?
    A. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos B. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos C. Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei D. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos; E. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand.
5. Which Southeast Asian nation did the United States rule for almost half a century?
    A. Philippines B. Thailand C. Indonesia D. Malaysia E. Vietnam.

Original submitted by Matthew L. Irons on Dec. 5, 1996. Re-submitted by Connie Shockley on June 16, 1997, and by John Kempf on Nov. 19, 2001.

Re-submitted by Harry King on April 30, 2008.