Southeast Asia is a group of diverse states between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, featuring indigenous cultures influenced by Indian and Chinese culture and some of the largest communities of Overseas Chinese, whose own cultures have in turn been influenced by the cultures of their neighbors. The region includes the most populous Muslim country in the world, very prominent Buddhist countries, and quite significant Christian, Hindu and Animist communities. Southeast Asia has long been a favourite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers, known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good air connections.
Tiny oil-rich sultanate in Borneo
Home of the ancient city of Angkor, and still recovering from decades of war
One of the world's newest and poorest states, on the eastern half of Timor
The sleeping giant of the region and the world's largest archipelago, with more than 18,000 islands spanning three time zones
The forgotten, but growing, country of the region, mountainous and landlocked, and becoming more popular on the backpacker trail
Multicultural country that ranges from the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur to the jungle-dwelling tribes of Borneo
Ancient country whose history includes both an indigenous empire and being part of the British Empire, now emerging from isolation under a military dictatorship 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, the largest Christian nation in the region with 7,107 islands – most with beautiful tropical beaches and flashing smiles
Clean and orderly island city-state
A rich and rewarding culture and cuisine with frenetic cities and chilled-out beaches make it a very popular destination with many visitors returning time and again
Firmly marching down the road to capitalism as one of the world's fastest growing economies, and one of the more popular tourist destinations in the area
Disputed territories in the region are:
Aside from East Timor, the other ten nations listed above are members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
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 the economic centre of the south
- 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
Outside of major cities here are some of the most rewarding destinations:
- Angkor Archaeological Park — magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire
- Bali — unique Hindu culture, beaches and mountains on the "Island of the Gods"
- Borobudur — one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world
- Gunung Mulu National Park — fantastic limestones caves and karst formations
- Ha Long Bay — literally translated as "Bay of Descending Dragons", famous for its scenic rock formations
- Komodo National Park — the only home of the komodo, the biggest reptile in the world
- Krabi Province — beach and water sports mecca, includes Ao Nang, Rai Leh, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta
- Palawan — an ecologically diverse and relatively unlogged island at the western fringe of the Philippines with some of the most rewarding diving and swimming sites in the world
- Preah Vihear — cliff-top temple pre-dating Angkor Wat
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.
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, Lao, Burmese and Khmer has its roots from this process. On the other hand, population of the archipelagos of East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia on the mainland is thought to have come about through immigration from Taiwan and southern China.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Southeast Asia was home to several powerful kingdoms. Some of the more notable ones were the Funan and the Khmer Empire in the Indochinese peninsula, as well as the Srivijaya, the Majapahit Kingdom and the Melaka Sultanate in the Malay Archipelago.
Southeast Asian history is very diverse and often tumultuous, and has to an important extent been shaped by European colonialism. The very term Southeast Asia was invented by American Naval strategists around 1940. Prior to WWII, Southeast Asia was referenced in terms of their colonial powers; farther India for Burma and Thailand, with reference to the main British colony of India, although Thailand itself was never formally colonised; Indochina referred to the French colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, while Indonesia and parts of maritime Southeast Asia were called the Dutch East Indies. Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore were known as British Malaya, while Sabah was known as British North Borneo. Sarawak, on the other hand, was the Kingdom of Sarawak, ruled by a British family known as the White Rajahs. Brunei was also made into a British protectorate, with the British taking charge of its defence and foreign affairs. The Philippines was named the Spanish East Indies during the initial period of Spanish colonial rule, and later came to be known by its current name in honour of King Philip II of Spain, a name which stuck even after the islands were transferred from Spanish to American colonial rule. East Timor was colonized by Portugal for 273 years, then occupied by Indonesia for 27 years before becoming the first nation to gain independence in the 21st century. This massive colonisation effort was fueled by the lucrative spice trade, which in turn encouraged heavy immigration of workers to support the harvest and sale of plantation crops like nutmeg, rubber and tea.
World War II was disastrous to Southeast Asia (see Pacific War for a detailed guide), and also saw the beginning of the end of European colonialism, as the European powers surrendered to Japan one by one in disgrace. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had conquered virtually the whole of Southeast Asia, with only Thailand remaining unconquered, as the Thais signed a treaty of friendship with the Japanese which allowed the Japanese to establish military bases in Thailand, and allowed Japanese troops free passage through Thailand. The Japanese occupation was a time of great hardship for many of the natives, as the Japanese took all the resources for themselves, and exploited and in many cases outright enslaved locals for their own gain. They were also for the most part more brutal than the Western colonial powers to people under occupation, especially towards the ethnic Chinese. However, the Japanese occupation convinced many locals that the European powers were not invincible after all, and thereby had the effect of helping the independence movements to gain pace after the end of the war.
After the war, the decolonisation process started in Southeast Asia, with the Americans granting independence to the Philippines in 1946, while the British granted independence to Burma in 1948, followed by Malaya in 1957 and eventually Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo in 1963, which federated with Malaya to form Malaysia. After some ideological conflicts, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and became a sovereign state. In contrast to the relatively peaceful withdrawals by the British and Americans, the Dutch and the French fought bloody wars in an effort to hold on to their colonies, and earned humiliating defeats. Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in 1949, and Indochina forced the French military to withdraw and separated into the three countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1954; see Indochina Wars. European colonialism came to an end in Southeast Asia in 1984, when Brunei was granted full independence by the British. Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975 after it declared independence from the Portuguese following a coup in Portugal, and only left in 1999 following a United Nations referendum. East Timor was then occupied by a United Nations peacekeeping force, before finally becoming independent in 2002.
In recent years, Southeast Asia is acknowledged as having a relatively high rate of economic growth, with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand often being called the "New Asian Tigers", and Vietnam also recording double digit growth rates. Nevertheless, despite being one of the most resource rich regions in the world (all Southeast Asian countries except Singapore are considered to be resource rich), widespread corruption means that poverty is still an issue in many countries, with much of the wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite few.
Southeast Asia's culture is dominantly influenced by the Indians and Chinese as well as its colonizers, and also natives of the Malay archipelago. For at least two thousand years (and to this day), Southeast Asia has acted as a conduit for trade between India and China. Large-scale immigration, however, only began with the advent of the colonial era. In Singapore, the Chinese form a majority of the population, but there are substantial Chinese, Indian and other minorities, assimilated to varying degrees, across all countries in the region.
Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao culture is heavily Indianized as well as Chinese-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia and Indonesia are also influenced by the Indians, Malays and Chinese with a touch of Arab culture due to the large Muslim populations. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced country while Brunei's culture is Malay-influenced. East Timor's culture is influenced notably by the Portuguese and the Malays. Singaporean and Filipino cultures are the most diverse: Singapore's is a mix of Malay, Indian, Peranakan, British, American and Chinese cultures while the Philippines is heavily influenced by American, Spanish, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese influences with less coming from India, Mexico and non-Iberian parts of Europe, making it perhaps the most Westernized nation in the region.
Southeast Asia is religiously diverse. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Sunni Muslim, while East Timor and the Philippines are predominantly Roman Catholic. Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, with Mahayana Buddhism being the dominant form in Vietnam, and Theravada Buddhism being the dominant form in the other countries. However, religious minorities exist in every country. The ethnic Chinese minorities in the various countries practice a mix of different religions, including Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is still observed in parts of Indonesia, most notably Bali, as well as by a sizeable proportion of the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. The southern parts of Thailand are home to ethnic Malays who mostly practice Islam, while the island of Mindanao in the Philippines is also home to a sizable Muslim community. Christian minorities also exist in Indonesia, most notably in Papua, East Nusa Tenggara and North Sulawesi, as well as in East Malaysia, and in the border area of Thailand and Myanmar. In East Malaysia as well as more remote parts of various countries, various traditional tribal religions are widely practiced.
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.
In Indochina (north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar), 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.
Southeast Asia is also home to many mountains, and conditions are generally cooler in the highlands. In equatorial Southeast Asia, highland temperatures generally range from about 15-25°C. Some of the highest mountains in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar are so high that snow falls every year, and Indonesia and Myanmar are even home to permanent glaciers.
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 Environmental Agency has useful on-line maps of the current situation in the entire region.
English is a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in almost any Southeast Asian country except Singapore, picking up at least some of the local language is useful, and may be essential outside the cities.
The main language groups are:
- Austroasiatic - Vietnamese and Khmer are spoken in Vietnam and Cambodia respectively
- Austronesian - Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Tetum and related languages are spoken throughout the island nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor and Brunei
- Tai–Kadai - Thai and Lao are spoken in Thailand and Laos respectively
- Sino-Tibetan - Burmese is closely related to Tibetan, and more distantly related to the Chinese family of languages. Mandarin is an official language of Singapore. Various Chinese dialects are spoken by the sizeable Chinese communities throughout the region.
The Chinese languages have a large influence, with Mandarin being an official language in Singapore and southern variants such as Cantonese and Minnan are spoken in ethnic Chinese communities across the whole region. South East Asia is a prime destination for China's rising tourist industry, and Mandarin is becoming more prevalent in order to cater for it.
English is an official language of Singapore, a common second language in Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, and a recognized language in Myanmar.
Many people in Singapore can speak a dialect of English known as 'Singlish' which borrows heavily from many other regional languages and has rather different grammar and intonations. It may sounds like an unrelated language to the native English speaker at first, but give it time and it will become clearer to you!
French is still spoken and taught in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, although its situation varies by country. In Vietnam, it is known by many older educated Vietnamese, especially those educated before 1975, though it has today been largely supplanted by English among the youths. In Laos, French is widely used among the educated populace and features on most public signage. In Cambodia, French is limited chiefly to urban and elderly elites and a handful of university educated students.
The other languages of the former colonial countries are generally not spoken so widely anymore or at all. You may notice English words in Malay, Dutch words in Indonesian and Spanish words in Tagalog (Philippines).
Southeast Asia's most visited countries, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, do not require visas obtained before arrival 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.
Travellers to ASEAN nations (all nations covered in this article except East Timor) may need to be aware of the effects on visas. ASEAN citizens are entitled to visa-free tourist travel to other ASEAN countries, and agreements are in place with nearby nations such as China which affect visas in either direction. Visa-free travel may be for a shorter period than travel with a visa, limited to as little as 14 days. A common ASEAN travel area, similar to the Schengen Agreement for Europe, is planned but has not yet been implemented. Visitors from outside the ASEAN area still need to consult the specific visa requirements for the countries they are visiting. Business travellers may wish to take advantage of tariff reductions and other economic measures between the nations. For visitors, however, normal duty free limits on cigarettes, alcohol, perfume and the like, apply when travelling between them.
The main international gateways to Southeast Asia are Bangkok (Thailand), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and Jakarta (Indonesia). Manila (Philippines) and Bali also offer relatively good connections to other cities outside the region. Hong Kong also makes a good springboard into the region, with many low-cost carriers flying into Southeast Asian destinations.
Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways are all known for their great service and safety records. Philippine Airlines is the oldest airline in this part of the world still flying under the original name. Rapidly expanding AirAsia flies out of its Kuala Lumpur hub and getting from one Southeast Asian city to another is often as easy as booking two separate AirAsia tickets and transiting through their Kuala Lumpur hub. AirAsia also operates several secondary hubs in Jakarta and Bangkok. In addition, budget flights can be booked through the Jetstar, Silk Air, Scoot and Tiger Airways hubs in Singapore.
Travellers to ASEAN nations are starting to benefit from the ASEAN Single Aviation Market policy, a gradual process of opening up the markets which is moving slowly but surely. See Low-cost airlines in Asia for some of the effects.
The only railway line into Southeast Asia is between Vietnam and China, and 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, Nha Trang, Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City and Ko Samui. In addition, Star Cruises also operates cruises from Hong Kong and Taiwan to various destinations in Southeast Asia.
With the exception of Singapore, public transport networks in Southeast Asia tend to be underdeveloped. However, due to reckless driving habits, driving is also usually not for the faint-hearted. Most of the time, plane, bus or rail travel tends to be the best way to get around.
Much of Southeast Asia is now covered by a dense web of low-cost carriers, making this a fast and affordable way of getting around. Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are the main hubs for budget airlines in the area. The larger multinational budget airlines and most 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.
Services along the main Jakarta-Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok business corridor are extremely frequent, with frequencies almost like a bus service in the daytime, meaning that competition is stiff and prices are low if you book in advance.
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; northeast via Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) to Nong Khai and also east to Ubon Ratchathani; east via Chachoengsao to Aranyaprathet and also southeast 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.
The networks in Indonesia and Myanmar are more limited and decrepit and perhaps best experienced for their nostalgic value. 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 go 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) and Johor (Malaysia). 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 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 weenies. 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 favourites from a region as varied as Southeast Asia, but picking one representative sight per country:
- The awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia
- The eerie, continually erupting volcanoes of Mount Bromo in Indonesia
- The laid-back former royal capital of Luang Prabang in Laos
- The surreal mix of modernity and tradition in Malaysia's capital-to-be Putrajaya
- The literally thousands of ancient temples and stupas which make up the cityscape of Bagan, Myanmar
- The 2000-year-old rice terraces of Banaue, built onto the mountains of Ifugao in the Philippines by ancestors of the Batad indigenous people
- The colourful ethnic districts of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam in Singapore
- The limestone cliffs, azure waters, and perfect beaches of Krabi in Thailand
- The delightfully well-preserved ancient trading port of Hoi An in Vietnam
- Scuba diving is a major draw for visitors to Southeast Asia, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand all boasting world-class diving locations.
- Surfing is also an increasing popular sport especially in Indonesia (with Nias and Bali the top draws) and the Philippines.
- Sailing is popular, especially in Southern Thailand
- Try wake boarding at Southeast Asia's largest wake boarding centre in Camarines Sur, Philippines.
- Explore one of the world's longest underground rivers in the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park located in Palawan, Philippines.
Southeast Asia, in particular Indonesia and Thailand, is well-known throughout the world for its traditional massages. While the conditions of massage parlours vary, those in major hotels in touristy areas are usually clean, though you would generally pay a premium for them. Nevertheless, prices remain much lower than in most Western countries, with 1-hour massages starting from around USD5–20.
Every Southeast Asian country has its own currency except for East Timor. The US dollar is the official currency of East Timor, the unofficial currency of Cambodia and Laos, and (for larger payments) is widely accepted in some Southeast Asian cities. Euros are also widely accepted in the major cities, although rates are rarely as good as for dollars. Thai baht are widely accepted 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. Alternatively, Singapore and Hong Kong have many money changers who offer competitive rates for Southeast Asian currencies, so you might plan to spend a night or two in transit for you to get your money changed.
Southeast Asia is cheap, so much so that it is among the cheapest travel destinations on the planet. USD20 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget in most countries in the region, while the savvy traveller can eat well, drink a lot and stay in luxury hotels for USD100 per day.
Some exceptions do stand out. The rich city-states of Singapore and Brunei are about twice as expensive as their neighbours, 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 more than USD100 per night for a four-star hotel.
Southeast Asia is a shopping haven, with both high end branded goods and dirt cheap street goods. The most popular city for shopping in Southeast Asia is Bangkok, although Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore all have extensive arrays of exclusive shopping malls stocked with haute couture labels. On the other end of the spectrum, street markets remain a part of daily life (except in Singapore) and are the place to go for dirt cheap or counterfeit items. Some towns like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Bali, Indonesia are well known for enormous markets selling traditional artworks, and it's often possible to buy directly from local artists or have dresses, jewellery, furniture, etc., made to order.
Bargain in public markets and flea markets where prices aren't fixed. Southeast Asians actually will give you a bargain if you make them laugh and smile while naming your price; if they don't, try saying bye bye and smile and maybe the vendor might change his mind and give you a discount. When bargaining for simple things like watches, sunglasses, and shoes remember that these are often marked up hugely and, given some bargaining skill, can often be brought down to something like 20% of the asking price. If you can't seem to get them down to a reasonable price, then you're doing it wrong. See Bargaining for more tips.
As a general rule of thumb, if a price is not explicitly posted, you need to haggle for it. However even posted prices can often be haggled down as well.
Southeast Asian cuisine reflects their diverse history and culture. It can be roughly split into continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) and maritime (Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor), and even then still differs from area to area depending on cultural influences. The Philippines' food culture is the most varied due to their additional influences from Spain and America.
Street vendors or hawkers are a culinary cornerstone of the region, offering wonderful food at a very inexpensive cost; if you're scrupulous about hygiene, go for the char-grilled, deep-fried or boiled-silly options. Thai and Vietnamese dishes like the ubiquitous pad Thai and beef pho have been widely exported around the world after the Vietnam War, followed closely by Malaysian restaurants, but a common refrain is that they simply cannot compare with a fresh bowl served by the roadside. Singapore probably serves as the easiest introduction to street food, though Bangkok and Penang have the better hawkers, with Ho Chi Minh City not far behind.
Rice is the main Southeast Asian staple, with noodles of all sorts an important second option. It's common to take a rich soupy bowl of noodles or some congee (rice porridge) for breakfast. Roti canai in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is based on the Indian paratha (flatbread) while Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have a fondness for French bread courtesy of their colonial history, epitomised by banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich).
Love of the spicy chilli is also shared throughout the region, and many of its most famous dishes incorporate chilli whether as a core ingredient or as a separate garnishing, from Thai curries and tom yum soup to the Indonesian beef rendang to Malaysia's assam laksa to Cambodia's amok. The unsuspecting diner may end up downing glass after glass of water to try and quench the burning sensation, but the local advice is to drink hot tea instead. Asking the cook to tone down the spiciness will not always work, and often your eyes will water when eating an adjusted version even as nearby locals happily slurp down their meals. Chilli is just one of the many spices used in Southeast Asian cooking, with lemongrass, tamarind and cloves popular choices to lend strong aromatic flavours to dishes.
Living next to seas and rivers, seafood is a crowd favourite. Fish and prawns feature prominently, with fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste frequently used in everyday cooking, although shellfish such as Singapore chilli crab is much more expensive and usually saved for special occasions or enjoyed by the well-off.
Fruit is available everywhere in all shapes and sizes, and pretty much all year round thanks to the tropical weather. Mangoes are a firm favourite among travellers. The giant spiky durian, perhaps the only unifying factor between Southeast Asia's countries, is infamous for its pungent smell and has been likened to eating garlic ice cream next to an open sewer. Other distinctive Southeast Asian fruits are the purple mangosteen, the hairy rambutan and the jackfruit-like cempedak, whose exteriors hide juicy fleshy insides.
Rice-based alcoholic drinks — Thai whisky, Tuba, lao, tuak, arak and so on — are ubiquitous and potent, if rarely tasty. In some areas, notably the Philippines, rum is also common, made from the local sugarcane. 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, and are often very inexpensive. Check out San Miguel (Philippines), Singha, Chang beer (Thailand), Bir Bintang, Angker Beer (Indonesia), Tiger Beer (Singapore and Malaysia), Beerlao (Laos), Angkor and Angkor Stout (Cambodia). Lager is by far the most popular style, although stout (especially Guinness) is also popular and the larger cities have plenty of microbreweries and imported brews. Beer in SE Asia is primarily consumed by locals to simply get drunk, and not for taste. As such, by Western standards, most locally produced SE Asian beers are often of comparable quality to a low-end Western beers. Don't be surprised by the local habit of adding ice to your beer: not only does it help keep it cool, but it dilutes the often high alcohol content (6% is typical) as well.
Hampered by heavy taxation and a mostly unsuitable climate, wine is only slowly making inroads, although you can find a few wineries in central and northern Thailand, Bali, and Vietnam. Don't buy wine in a restaurant unless you're sure it's been kept properly, since a bottle left to simmer in the tropical heat will turn to vinegar within months. The exception is the former French colonies of Laos and Cambodia which have a respectable collection of vintages available in the larger cities of Vientiane and Phnom Penh.
Nearby Australia exports a good deal of wine to this region; it will be found mainly in high-end hotels or restaurants, though places catering to the budget/backpacker part of the tourist trade may have some as well. The cheap local restaurants generally will not have any.
Violent crime is rare in Southeast Asia, but tourists have been attacked in beach resorts in a few isolated but well publicised cases.
Opportunistic theft is more common, so watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when travelling, particularly on overnight buses and trains.
Major dangers are very poor road safety, as well as little or no oversight of physical activities such as white water rafting and bungee jumping.
In 2004 an Indian ocean tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people, with Thailand and Indonesia's Aceh province being severely affected. Many foreign tourists were injured or killed in this very rare yet very dangerous event.