Introduction to Southeast Asia: Lifestyle, Livelihood, and Subsistence

An estimated one thousand languages are spoken in Southeast Asia. The mainland is divided into three important linguistic families, the Austro-Asiatic (like Cambodian and Vietnamese), Tai (like Thai and Lao), and the Tibeto-Burmese (including highland languages as well as Burmese).

People in Southeast Asia have adapted to local environments in many ways. In pre-modern times many nomadic groups lived permanently in small boats and were known as sea people. The deep jungles were home to numerous small wandering groups. Some of the islands of eastern Indonesia have a long dry season, and the fruit of the lontar palm was a staple food. On the fertile plains of Java and mainland Southeast Asia settled communities grew irrigated rice. Along the coasts, fishing and trade were the principal occupations.

Cultural changes began to affect Southeast Asia around two thousand years ago. Chinese expansion led to the colonization of Vietnam. Chinese control was permanently ended in 1427, but Vietnam remained influenced by Confucian philosophy, Buddhism, and Taoism. In the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and in the western areas of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, expanding trade across the Bay of Bengal meant Indian influences were more pronounced. These influences were most obvious where irrigated rice was grown by large sedentary populations, like northern Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Java, and Bali. Rulers and courts in these areas adopted Hinduism or forms of Buddhism, mixing imported ideas with aspects of local society.

The physical environment also affected the political structures that developed in Southeast Asia. Nomadic or semi-nomadic people did not establish permanent governing systems. Once there was a settled population, they could establish stable bureaucracies and a reliable tax base. However, even the most powerful of these states found it difficult to extend their authority into remote highlands and islands.

Source: Introduction to Southeast Asia: Lifestyle, Livelihood, and Subsistence
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