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Introduction to Southeast Asia

Map of Southeast Asia. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.
Only in the past sixty years has “Southeast Asia” been used to refer to the region comprising modern-day Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. These ten countries cover an area more than three times that of Great Britain, France, and Germany combined, and they have a population about twice as great.
These countries have similar warm, wet climates, and they share many trees, flowers, and crops. But their hilly uplands are quite different from their lush river valleys. Also, of course, life in the islands—dominated as it is by the surrounding sea—is different from life on the mainland. Culturally, the region is extremely diverse. Its peoples speak many unrelated languages employing a number of alphabets. Several sects of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are widespread; other religions, such as Hinduism, also have hundreds of thousands of followers. At the same time, some have suggested that there are traits common to the cultures of Southeast Asia. Among these are the relatively high status of women, a tendency to place sacred sites on hills or mountains, and myths involving oppositions between beings associated with the sky or mountains and those associated with the waters or coasts.

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