The diverse ethnic groups in the region, from socialite city dwellers to remote enclaves of subsistence farmers, each have a unique history, cultural practices, and religions. The region is a veritable cornucopia of cultures that have intertwined and adopted various elements, beliefs, and practices from one another.
Over centuries, migrating cultures have blended to create what is known as "Thai" today. Early waves of southern Chinese migrants combined with Mon peoples from Burma, Khmers from Cambodia, Malays, and Lao people -- it is said that Thailand's King Rama I could trace ancestry to all these -- plus European, Indian, Han Chinese, and Arab families. Of the 75% of the population that calls itself Thai, a great number of people in northeastern Isaan are of Lao ancestry. In the past century, Thailand has also become home to many migrating hill tribes in the north -- tribes who've come from Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and southern China, many as refugees. As you travel south toward the Malaysian border, you find Thai people who share cultural and religious affinity with their southern Malay neighbors. Also in the past 50 years, Thailand has seen a boom in Chinese immigrants.
The Thais are a warm and peaceful people, with a culture that springs from Indian and Sri Lankan origins. Early Thais adopted many Brahman practices, evident in royal ceremony and social hierarchy -- Thailand is a very class-oriented culture. Even their cherished national story, the Ramakien, the subject of almost all Thai classical dances and temple murals, finds its origin in the Indian Hindu epic the Ramayana. Thai Buddhism follows the Theravada sect, imported from Sri Lanka along with the classic bell-shape stupa seen in many temple grounds.
Perhaps the two main influences in Thai life today are spirituality and the royal family. In nearly every household throughout the country, you'll find a spirit house to appease the spirit of the earth, a portrait of the king in a prominent spot and perhaps pictures of a few previous kings, a dais for Buddha images and religious objects, and portraits of each son as he enters the monkhood, as almost all sons do.
Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia
Together, the countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia make up one of the most ethnically diverse regions of Southeast Asia. Outside the cities, little English is spoken in any of these countries except by tour guides and others who have frequent contact with Western visitors. Much of the architecture and art in Cambodia and Laos is influenced by Buddhism and includes some of the world's most renowned temples, along with exquisitely sculpted Buddha images. The temple complexes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia are among the architectural wonders of the ancient world, while the finest temples in Laos are found in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang.
Note: The ethnic minorities, or hill tribes, of northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand all share a common heritage with one another, originating from either Himalayan tribes or southern Chinese clans. You'll find startling similarities in the customs and languages of all these people.
Laos -- In Laos, approximately half the population is ethnic Lao descended from centuries of migration, mostly from southern China. A landlocked country with few natural resources, Laos has had little luck entering the global trade scene and remains dependent on the international donor community. If you think the Thais are laid-back, you'll have to check the Laos for a pulse. In fact, Lao culture is most often compared with that of the Thais because the two share common roots of language and culture, although the Thais will never admit it because they often look down upon their northern neighbors. Large communities of ethnic minorities live in agrarian and subsistence communities, particularly in the north, and carry on rich traditional crafts and practices.
Vietnam -- In Vietnam, the ethnic Vietnamese are a fusion of Viet, Tai (a southern Chinese group), Indonesian, and Chinese who first settled here between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. Although Vietnam has no official religion, several religions have significantly impacted Vietnamese culture, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and animism. Animism, which is the oldest religious practice in Vietnam and many other Southeast Asian countries, is centered on belief in a spirit world.
Ancient cultural traditions lean toward borrowings from the mandarins of old Chinese dynasties that claimed sovereignty over Vietnam. In the 1900s, the French added a new flavor to the mix. Modern Vietnam is defined by its pell-mell rush to capitalism.
Cambodia -- The population of Cambodia is made up primarily of ethnic Khmers who have lived here since around the 2nd century A.D. and whose religion and culture have been influenced by interaction with Indians, Javanese, Thais, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The achievements of the ancient Angkor empire were a long time ago, and modern Khmer culture still struggles in the aftermath of many years of war and terror. Relative political stability is new here, and Cambodia has far to go to catch up economically and with the infrastructure of the other countries in the region. Basic medical necessities are still lacking; land mines still cover the countryside and kill an estimated four people each day. Time and effort by civil authorities and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) will only tell. Life in Cambodia is marked by devout Buddhist ritual, much like its neighbors, which fosters a pervasive gentleness among the Khmer.
Seventy-eight percent of Singaporeans trace their heritage to migrating waves from China's southern provinces, particularly from the Hokkien, Teowchew, Hakka, Cantonese, and Hainanese dialect groups. Back then, the Chinese community was driven by rags-to-riches stories -- the poor worker hawking vegetables who opened a grocery store and then started a chain of stores and now drives a Mercedes. This story still motivates them today.
But it's not just Chinese who have dominated the scene. The island started off with a handful of Malay inhabitants; then came the British colonials with Indian administrators, followed by Muslim Indian moneylenders, Chinese merchants, Chinese coolie laborers, and Indian convict labor, plus European settlers and immigrants from all over Southeast Asia. Over 2 centuries of modern history, each group made its contribution to "Singaporean culture."
Today, as your average Singaporean struggles to balance traditional values with modern demands of globalization, his country gets raked over the coals for being sterile and overly westernized. Older folks are becoming frustrated by younger generations who discard their traditions in their pursuit of "The Five Cs" -- career, condo, car, credit card, and cash. Temples and ethnic neighborhoods are finding more revenue from tourists than from the communities they once served. Although many lament the loss of the good old days, most are willing to sacrifice a little tradition to be Southeast Asia's most stable and wealthiest country.
Malaysia's population consists primarily of ethnic Malays, labeled Bumiputeras, a political classification that also encompasses tribal people who live in peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. Almost all Malays are Muslim, and conservative values are the norm. The ruling government party supports an Islam that is open and tolerant to other cultures, but a growing minority favors strict Islamic law and government, further marginalizing the country's large Chinese and Indian population. These foreign cultures migrated to Malaysia during the British colonial period as trading merchants, laborers, and administrators. Today, Malaysia recognizes ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens as equals under national law. However, government development and education policies always seem to favor Bumiputeras.
Among the favorite Malaysian recreational pastimes are kite flying, using ornately decorated paper kites, and top spinning. Some still practice silat, a Malaysian form of martial arts.
No country in Southeast Asia has a more ethnically diverse population than Indonesia, with more than 350 ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures scattered among the 6,000 inhabited islands of this vast archipelago of more than 14,000 islands.
Of all the islands, Bali stands out for its especially rich cultural life, which is inextricably linked with its Hindu beliefs. Life here is marked by a unique flow of ritual; whether painting, carving, dancing, or playing music, it seems that all Balinese are involved in the arts or practice devout daily rituals of beauty. Flower offerings to the gods are a common sight, and the Balinese are forever paying homage to Hindu deities at more than 20,000 temples and during the 60 annual festivals on the island.
The majority of the island's population is native Balinese; there are quite a few people from other parts of Indonesia who are here for work opportunities. English is widely spoken in the tourist parts of Bali, which means that just about everywhere you go someone will speak enough to help you out.