Southeast Asia is a favorite corner of the world for globetrotters. Tucked between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and at the intersection of major geological plates, the area is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations despite the fact it regularly endures earthquakes and volcanic activities. Still, visitors can’t resist Southeast Asia’s year-round tropical climate, gorgeous beaches, rich and varied cultural encounters, fabulous food, and low cost of living.
Home to some of the world’s most beautiful Buddhist and Hindu temples, Southeast Asia’s craftsmanship is awe-inspiring. Its architecture is enduring, as these religious testaments have lasted for centuries. Many temples are protected – and some even rebuilt – thanks to their UNESCO World Heritage status. While you’re in Southeast Asia, be sure to visit the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Thailand, Bagan in Myanmar, or Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
While it’s doubtful you’ll be able to visit them all in one journey, there are 11 Southeast Asian countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam.
Climate doesn’t vary much in this region. In the equatorial parts, which includes Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines, there are two seasons – wet and dry – with a temperatures hovering around 80 degrees. Some areas receive more than 60 inches of rain each year. The mainland, or Indochina region, which includes north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, experiences hot wet and dry seasons, with temperatures climbing as high as 104! At the opposite end of the climate spectrum, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar have mountains so high that snow falls every year, and Indonesia and Myanmar boast permanent glaciers.
People have been here a long time. Archaeological excavations in Southeast Asia, a landscape characterized by mountain ranges, plains, and plateaus, dates some fossils to one million years ago! Historically, it’s a culturally diverse region, home to 620 million people speaking more than 1,000 of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, and a mix of major cultures from India and China.
People from India began to migrate into Southeast Asia, traveling across the Bay of Bengal, and down rivers into the various countries of the mainland. These immigrants brought the Sanskrit inscriptions with them, which are still part of the modern languages of Thai, Lao, Burmese, and Khmer. Then, around 4,000 years ago, people from southern China and Taiwan began to trickle into the archipelagos of East Timor, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia on the mainland.
Historically, religions in Southeast Asia were predominantly Buddhist and Hindu, until Islamic teachings spread throughout Southeast Asia around the 13th century. This fact was documented by Marco Polo, an Italian merchant and explorer who visited Sumatra in 1292. Islam is the state religion of Malaysia and Brunei, and practiced by 85% of the population of Indonesia, however, Muslims are a minority in Singapore and the southern Philippines.
Southeast Asia’s recent history is rife with colonization by other powerful European countries, including Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and even the United States, until Japan conquered virtually all of the territory (with the exception of Thailand) during World War II. Still, Thailand’s treaty of peace allowed Japan to establish military bases there. The war years were a time of great hardship for the people of Southeast Asia, but eventually these countries gained their independence.
Today, some countries of Southeast Asia are experiencing what’s called the “Tiger Cub Economies,” a time of high rate of economic growth achieved by employing an export-driven model of technology and economic development. This model is used by South Korea and Taiwan, and the cities of Hong Kong and Singapore, collectively known as the “Four Asian Tigers.”
Yet, with this newfound wealth, and despite being one of the most fertile and resource-rich regions in the world, there is widespread corruption and wealth remains in the hands of an elite few. According to Natalia Soebagjo, chair of Transparency International Indonesia, “Southeast Asia is home to some of the richest, fastest-growing economies, as well as some of the planet’s poorest people. Battling corruption is an integral part to sustainable growth and reducing income inequality.”
When you plan your tour of Southeast Asia, you can help to counter the negative aspects of corruption by traveling responsibly and volunteering with sustainable programs that lift up the vulnerable communities here. From teaching conversational English to school children, to helping conserve iconic animals such as elephants and orangutans that draw ecotourism, and even building a community center or repairing a temple, there are worthwhile outlets for your energy and enthusiasm, as well as tasks that will enrich your soul.
Keep reading to learn more about volunteer travel organizations that deliver high-quality programs and experiences, while maintaining safety and affordability, in Southeast Asia!