Southeast Asia or Southeastern Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of Japan and China, east of India, west of Papua New Guinea and north of Australia. Southeast Asia is bordered to the north by East Asia, to the west by South Asia and Bay of Bengal, to the east by Oceania and Pacific Ocean, and to the south by Australia and Indian Ocean. The region is the only part of Asia that lies partly within the Southern Hemisphere, although the majority of it is in the Northern Hemisphere. In contemporary definition, Southeast Asia consists of two geographic regions:
Mainland Southeast Asia, also known historically as Indochina, comprising parts of Eastern India (India stretches from South Asia to Southeast Asia), Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and West Malaysia.
Maritime Southeast Asia, also known historically as Nusantara, the East Indies and Malay Archipelago, comprising the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, Indonesia, East Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor, Brunei, Christmas Island, and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Taiwan is also included by many anthropologists.
The region lies near the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic and volcanic activity. The Sunda Plate is the main plate of the region, featuring almost all Southeast Asian countries except Myanmar, northern Thailand, northern Vietnam, and northern Luzon of the Philippines. The mountain ranges in Myanmar, Thailand, and peninsular Malaysia are part of the Alpide belt, while the islands of the Philippines are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Both seismic belts meet in Indonesia, causing the region to have relatively high occurrences of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Southeast Asia covers about 4.5 million km2 (1.7 million mi2), which is 10.5% of Asia or 3% of earth’s total land area. Its total population is more than 641 million, about 8.5% of the world’s population. It is the third most populous geographical region in the world after South Asia and East Asia. The region is culturally and ethnically diverse, with hundreds of languages spoken by different ethnic groups. Ten countries in the region are members of ASEAN, a regional organisation established for economic, political, military, educational and cultural integration amongst its members.
A tiny but rich sultanate in Borneo with an oil based economy, which has not yet made significant efforts to attract tourists
Home of the ancient city of Angkor and other remains of the once-powerful Khmer empire, is still recovering from decades of war but has good infrastructure in several places
One of the world’s newest states, a former Portuguese colony on the eastern half of the island of Timor, boasts excellent diving and an unique culture in the region
The world’s largest archipelago nation with over 16,000 islands, spanning three time zones, and the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, but also nominally secular and deeply influenced by Hindu and Buddhist culture
The only landlocked country in the region and the most sparsely populated, mainly Buddhist Laos has stunning natural scenery and charming laid-back towns
Multicultural country (including Muslim Malays, mainly Buddhist Chinese, mainly Hindu Indians, and many Orang Asli aboriginal people, especially in Borneo) that ranges from skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur to jungle-dwelling tribes in Borneo
Ancient country with staggering ethnical diversity, whose history includes both an indigenous empire and being part of the British Empire, now emerging from isolation under a strict military junta and opening up to tourism
A unique fusion of the Asian traditions of non-confrontation and respect for elders combined with Spanish ideas of machismo, romance and sophistication (plus modern Americanization), the largest Christian nation in the region, and second largest archipelago with 7,641 islands – most with beautiful tropical beaches, warmth and friendly smiles
Prosperous, clean and orderly island city-state, with a Chinese majority but with strong Malay and Indian communities, the main business and financial hub of the region
Rich culture and cuisine with frenetic cities, chilled-out beaches, and remains of Buddhist kingdoms, making it a very popular destination with visitors returning time and again
Firmly marching down the road to capitalism as one of the World’s fastest growing economies, Vietnam has a blend of Southeast Asian and Chinese values and culture, and a huge diversity of both natural and cultural attractions
Nine of the most prominent cities in Southeast Asia include:
- Bangkok — Thailand’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital with nightlife and fervour
- Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) — The bustling metropolis that has become Vietnam’s largest city and main economic centre
- Jakarta — The largest metropolitan city in southeast Asia, and beautiful life in the evening
- Kuala Lumpur — grown from a small sleepy Chinese tin-mining village to a bustling metropolis
- Luang Prabang — a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous temples, colonial era architecture, and vibrant night market
- Manila — a crowded, historic, and bustling city known for its unique blend of cultures and flavors with many places to see and experience
- Phnom Penh — a city striving to retain the name of “The Pearl of Asia”, as it was known before 1970
- Singapore — modern, affluent city with a medley of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences
- Yangon (formerly Rangoon) — the commercial capital of Myanmar, known for its pagodas and colonial architecture
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 and easy to travel around in.
The region is also a very popular destination for retiring abroad, and several governments in the region offer special long-term visas specifically for retirees.
For many travelers, backpacking Southeast Asia is the ultimate highlight of their backpacking career. Exploring the countries of Southeast Asia is like being catapulted into an alternate reality, there is an infinity of amazing experiences to be had. Travel or backpacking in Southeast Asia is very cheap compared to traveling in other parts of the world.