Difference between revisions of "Southeast Asia"
Revision as of 08:50, 4 February 2009
Southeast Asia is a collection of dissimilar but not unrelated states squeezed between the twin giants of India and China. The area has long been a favorite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers, well-known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good air connections.
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and for a reason. Some of the countries here have it all: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year around, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, low prices. While its history and modern-day politics are complex, most of it is also quite safe for the traveller and easy to travel around in.
Southeast Asian history is very diverse and often tumultous, and has to an important extent been shaped by European colonialism. The very term Southeast Asia was invented by American Naval strategists around 1940. Southeast Asia was prior to WWII referred to with reference to the colonial powers; farther India for Burma and Thailand, with reference to the main British colony of India, although Thailand was never formally colonized; Indochina referred to the French colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and Indonesia and parts of maritime Southeast Asia was referred to as the Dutch East Indies. The Philippines on the other hand was colonized by Spain for 333 years and by the United States for 44 years.
Pre-historic Southeast Asia was largely underpopulated. A process of immigration from India across the Bay of Bengal is referred to as the process of Indianization. Exactly how and when it happened is contested; however, the population of the mainland region largely happened through immigration from India. The Sanskrit script still used as the basis for modern Thai, Burmese and Khmer has its roots from this process. One the other hand, population of the archipelegos of Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia on the mainland is thought to have come about though immigration from Taiwan.
For at least two thousand years (and to this day), Southeast Asia has been a conduit for trade between India and China, but large-scale Chinese immigration only began with the advent of the colonial era. In Singapore, the Chinese form a majority of the population, but there are substantial Chinese minorities, assimilated to varying degrees, across all countries in the region.
Southeast Asia is tropical: the weather hovers around the 30°C mark throughout the year, humidity is high and it rains often.
The equatorial parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, have only two seasons, wet and dry, with the dry season somewhat hotter (up to 35°C) and the wet season somewhat cooler (down to 25°C). The wet season usually occurs in winter, and the hot season in summer, although there are significant local variations.
However, in Indochina (north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam), the seasons can be broken down into hot, wet and dry, with the relatively cool dry season from November to February or so being the most popular with tourists. The scorching hot season that follows can see temperatures climb above 40°C in April, cooling down as the rains start around July. However, even in the "wet" season, the typical pattern is sunny mornings with a short (but torrential) shower in the afternoon, not all-day drizzle, so this alone should not discourage you from travel.
In Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and parts of Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Borneo) and the Philippines (notably Palawan), haze from forest fires (usually set intentionally to clear land) is a frequent phenomenon in the dry season from May to October. Haze comes and goes rapidly with the wind, but Singapore's National Environment Agency has useful online maps  of the current situation in the entire region.
Because of its geographical location, the various cultures in Southeast Asia have both Chinese and Indian influences, with Indian influences dominating in most parts with the exception of Vietnam. Despite these influences, the various cultures have preserved native elements which blend seamlessly with foreign influences.
Southeast Asia is religiously diverse. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Sunni Muslim, while East Timor and the Philippines are predominantly Roman Catholic. In the northern Southeast Asia, Buddhism dominates, mostly of the Theravada variety, with the exception of Vietnam where the Mahayana variety dominates. However, religious minorities exist in every country. The ethnic Chinese minorities in the various countries practise a mix of different religions, including Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is still practised in parts of Indonesia, most notably Bali, as well as by a sizeable proportion of the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia and Singapore. The southern parts of Thailand are home to ethnic Malays who mostly practise Islam, while the island of Mindanao in the Philippines is also home to a sizeable Muslim community. Indonesia is also home to many Christians, most notably on the island of Sulawesi. In East Malaysia as well as more remote parts of various countries, various tribal religions are still widely practised.
Most of Southeast Asia's major languages are not mutually intelligible. English is a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in any Southeast Asian country (except maybe Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia), picking up at least some of the local language is useful, and may be essential. Chinese is also helpful, although many Southeast Asian Chinese speak only southern dialects like Cantonese or Minnan, not Mandarin.
Citizens of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) do not need visas for stays of up to 30 days in other ASEAN countries, with the solitary exception of Myanmar. For other visitors, the rules vary widely.
Southeast Asia's touristy countries (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) do not require visas from most visitors. Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and East Timor offer visas on arrival at most points of entry. Vietnam and Myanmar require advance paperwork for most visitors.
The main international gateways to Southeast Asia are Bangkok (Thailand) and Singapore, with Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in third place. Manila also offers good but limited connections to other cities outside the region, particularly North America. Hong Kong also makes a good springboard into the region, with many low-cost carriers flying into Southeast Asian destinations.
The only railway line into Southeast Asia is between Vietnam and China, and consequently on to Russia and even Europe. There are no connections between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries yet, although there are plans for links through both Cambodia and Myanmar onward to the existing Thailand-Malaysia network.
Southeast Asia is a popular destination for round the world cruises, and many of them make several stops in Southeast Asia with the option to go for shore excursions. Popular ports of call include Singapore, Langkawi, Penang, Tioman, Redang, Phuket and Ko Samui. In addition, Star Cruises also operates crusies from Hong Kong and Taiwan to various destinations in Southeast Asia.
Much of Southeast Asia is now covered by a dense web of discount carriers, making this a fast and affordable way of getting around. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are the main hubs for discount airlines in the area. The larger multinational discount airlines and all national carriers are respectable, but some of the smaller airlines have questionable safety records, especially on domestic flights using older planes — do some research before you buy.
Thailand has the most extensive network, with relatively frequent and economical (albeit slow, compared to most buses) and generally reliable services. The main lines from Bangkok are north to Chiang Mai; north-east via Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) to Nong Khai and also east to Ubon Ratchathani; east via Chachoengsao to Aranyaprathet and also south-east via Pattaya to Sattahip; and south via Surat Thani (province) to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao and Hat Yai, through Malaysia via Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, and Johor Bahru, to Singapore.
Cambodia's railways were badly hit by the civil war and have been going downhill ever since. The only remaining passenger service connects the capital Phnom Penh with the next-largest town Battambang, and takes longer to arrive than a reasonably determined cyclist. It is no longer possible to transit all the way through Cambodia to Thailand by rail.
International ferry links are surprisingly limited, but it's possible to cross over from Malaysia to Sumatra (Indonesia) and from Singapore to the Riau Islands (Indonesia). Star Cruises  also operates a fleet of cruise ferries between Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, occasionally venturing as far as Cambodia, Vietnam and even Hong Kong.
Domestic passenger ferries link various islands in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, but safety regulations are often ignored, boats often overloaded, and sinkings are not uncommon. Be sure to inspect the boat before you agree to get on, and avoid boats that look overcrowded or too run down.
Getting around continental Southeast Asia as well as intra-island travel in the various islands of Southeast Asia by car is possible, but definitely not for the faint hearted. While you can drive yourself around Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei without any major problems after giving yourself some time to get used to the relative lack of road courtesy, traffic conditions elsewhere range from just bad to total chaos. As such, it is advisable to rent a car with a driver, and not try to drive yourself around.
It's difficult to choose favorites from a region as varied as Southeast Asia, but picking one representative sight per country:
Every Southeast Asian country has its own currency. The US dollar is the official currency of East Timor and is widely accepted in all Southeast Asian cities. Thai baht is one of the unofficial currencies in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. As Singapore is considered to be the main financial centre of Southeast Asia, Singapore dollars would generally be accepted in major tourist areas if you're in a pinch (and are legal tender in Brunei), though the conversion rate might not be very favourable. Exchange rates for Southeast Asian currencies tend to be very poor outside the region, so it's best to exchange (or use the ATM) only after arrival.
Southeast Asia is cheap, so much so that it is among the cheapest travel destinations on the planet. US$20 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget in most countries in the region, while the savvy traveler can eat well, drink a lot and stay in five-star hotels for US$100/day.
Some exceptions do stand out. The rich city-states of Singapore and Brunei are about twice as expensive as their neighbors, while at the other end of the spectrum, the difficulty of getting into and around underdeveloped places like Myanmar, East Timor and the backwoods of Indonesia drives up prices there too. In Singapore in particular, the sheer scarcity of land drives accommodation rates up and you would be looking at US$100 per night for a three-star hotel.
Rice is the main Southeast Asian staple, with noodles of all sorts an important second option.
Fruit is available everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Mangoes are a firm favorite among travellers. The giant spiky durian, perhaps the only unifying factor between South-East Asia's countries, is infamous for its pungent smell and has been likened to eating garlic ice cream next to an open sewer.
Street vendors or hawkers. Be careful of some, but most offer wonderful food at a very inexpensive cost.
Rice-based alcoholic drinks — Thai whisky, lao, tuak, arak and so on — are ubiquitous and potent, if rarely tasty. As a rule of thumb, local booze is cheap, but most countries levy very high taxes on imported stuff.
Beers are a must try in Southeast Asia - check out San Miguel (Philippines), Tiger Beer (Singapore) and Bia Lao (Laos).
Virtually all of the traveller trail in Southeast Asia is perfectly safe, but there are low-level insurgencies in the remote areas of Indonesia and Myanmar, and East Timor continues to be politically unstable.
Terrorists in Indonesia have bombed several hotels and nightclubs frequented by foreigners in Bali and Jakarta, but the authorities have cracked down and there have been no attacks since 2005. Thailand's southernmost states have also been the scene of violence in recent years, and while tourists have not been specifically targeted, there have been several attacks on trains and three foreigners were killed bombings in Hat Yai in 2006.
Violent crime is a rarity in Southeast Asia, but opportunistic theft is more common. Watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when traveling, particularly on overnight buses and trains.