Culture of Southeast Asia- Religions, Clothing, Food and More

Southeast Asia is widely known around the world for its historic culture, heritage, pristine island beaches, multiple cuisines and good flight connections. Taking into account the trade routes of the Indian and East Asians roughly from 500 B.C, this region has been extensively influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures ever since. The Southeast Asian countries have abounding similarities when it comes to wet and dry climates, abundant trees and tropical forests, fertile lands and lush river valleys. A few fishing and tribal communities share similar backgrounds of history. But, culturally these countries are extremely diverse with their own sets of art forms, cuisines, religions, languages and belief systems with a few common traits associated with the Indo-Chinese cultures.

1. Religion in South East Asia

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With more than 650 million people living in the region, majority of them follow Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam with other religions like Christianity, Confucionism, Taoism and Animism existing as minorities amongst a few countries. Islam acts as a state religion for Brunei and Malaysia while Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand follow Buddhism as their official religion. 

Chinese and Indian ideologies spread all over Southeast Asia through the medium of trade during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries. Today, Buddhism is the most important and second largest religion in the region. Buddhists in Southeast Asia widely follow the Theravada Buddhism while Mahayana Buddhism remains a relic minority in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam due to the Chinese influence. Similarly, Hinduism and Islam paved their way into the region and was adapted and evolved by the people in their own cultural forms. This can be studied from the most notable architectural establishments of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.

2. Languages in South East Asia

Southeast Asia being a part of the Asian continent boosts a great linguistic diversity with its unique traditional history. Lao, Thai, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog, Khmer and Vietnamese are the main languages spoken in this rewgion. Each of these languages are adapted from distinct sources and acquire contrastive cultural characteristics. Majority of these countries have more than one spoken languages for example, Indonesia alone has over 600 spoken languages while Philippines has over 100.

Many languages adopted words from the western languages during colonization, for example - The Thai language consists of many German and Spanish inspired words although the rest of the language was heavily influenced by ancient languages like Sanskrit and Puli. The Malay language spoken in Malaysia has a great influence of Arabic, Sanskrit, Portugues, Dutch and Chinese. A lot of different dialects are spoken by the Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia like Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Teochew.

3. Traditional Clothing in South East Asia

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Although most of the clothing is influenced by the westernised styles, in modern Southeast Asia the traditional costumes are still popular, especially during festivals and special occasions. Dressing is an integral part of life for Southeast Asians and hence they are modest dressers. Despite globalization leading to westernization, the people still honor their ancestors and carry their legacy and rich culture with pride.

In Cambodia, the traditional attire called ‘Sampot’ is simple and wearable. The traditional Thai costume ‘Phasin’ is a dress with patterns in vibrant colours and is worn in 3 pieces, similarly ‘Sinh’ from Laos is a costume made of silk and cotton with handwoven patterns. A traditional costume made for noblewomen, the Nyonya Kebaya is worn in Singapore by the Chinese Migrants.

Natural fabrics like silk, satin and cotton, hand-sewn embroidery patterns, intricate designs and distinguished colours are all common factors that go into the making of Southeast Asia traditional attires.

4. Literature in South East Asia

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Almost every country in Southeast Asia was ruled by foreigners, leaving a great impact on their cultural heritage. The traditional literature in Southeast Asia is a mixture of culture, beliefs and religions which were mostly passed on by word of mouth or through dance as most of the population couldn't read at that time.  

For much of its history, Vietnam was under the rule of China so a lot of Vietnamese literature was written in Classic Chinese. Ancient symbolic scripts like Chu Nom and Chu Quoc Ngu date back to the 10th and 16th century respectively. On the other hand, Cambodian folklore was not written down until the 19th century and was passed on only through word of mouth or dancing. Many of these folklores are borrowed features from the Hindu mythologies of Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

Laos being a landlocked country was never influenced by Indian or Chinese literature but had a huge Buddhist influence. Buddhist writings were written on palm leaves and kept safely in wooden caskets. Many ancient classical texts and poems written in Sanskrit can be found in Cambodia that date back to the 5th century B.C. 

As a result of western colonization, well-known genres of Western Literature like novels, theatre, short stories, plays and essays were adapted by Southeast Asians.

5. Performing Arts


1. Dance

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The traditional dance forms in Southeast Asia are equipped with the act of storytelling, repertoire and alternatives between nritta, nritya and natya (interpretive dance, pure dance and dramatic dance). The performances are a combination of music, narration, dance and spectacle. Many court dances were influenced by Indian culture and were enhanced by adding their own local myths, stories, costumes and masks. 

Court Dances were performed in front of Kings and higher authorities for entertainment. The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were absorbed and adapted by these countries in their own cultural heritage. Folk and tribal dances are performed on special occasions and public holidays portraying stories from the daily lives of farmers and tribes.

2. Martial Arts  
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Southeast Asia is the region where the Martial Arts are performed as an act of spirituality and discipline. This art form has unique differences that represent each culture with physical differences in style and weapons. 

Thailand’s Muay Thai (kickboxing) dating back to the mid 18th century was used in the Burmese and Siam wars in 1767 when Nai Khanomtom was captured. Another is Eskrima, a martial art from the Philippines that use sticks with improvised hand movements.

Bando from Myanmar is a unique style of martial art which involves copying the stances of animals like tigers, panthers, monkeys, bulls and attacking. It is all about making the right judgement and swift attacking. The Cambodian Bokator is similar to Bando.  

6. Food in South East Asia

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The food prepared in Southeast Asia is a paradise for both- the cook and the eater. The cuisines are truly phenomenal with lightly prepared dishes and flavorful aroma served attractively. What makes each dish special is its history and the way it has been carried ahead through centuries. Each country has its history reflecting into the dishes. For example - In Indonesia and Malaysia, the practice of Islam has resulted in the elimination of pork from their staple diet. The Vietnamese food tastes like French revolution (Eg. Banh Xeo- Crispy Pork and Shrimp Pancake) while the Spanish left a major amount of food inspiration for the Filipinos (Eg. Lechón, Puchero, Fabada).

Chinese and Indian cuisines had an extensive impact on Southeast Asia food culture. Pho, the wok and noodles from China whereas curry and spices from India traveled all the way to these countries and blended into their staple food. For example - The Fish Amok is a Cambodian version of Indian Fish Curry. 

7. Festivals in South East Asia

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From the world’s biggest water fight in Thailand (Songkran) to Bali’s Silent Nyepi festival, Southeast Asia offers a festive treat like no other.

‘The Songkran Festival’ is widely celebrated in Thailand followed by Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia during the Buddhist New Year. Locals and tourists take to the streets and splash water on each other. This is also known to cleanse the soul and head towards a fresh beginning. Another beautiful and meaningful festival in Thailand is ‘Loi Krathong’ where people gather on the streets and release paper lanterns in the sky along with their worries and sufferings. ‘The Boun Bang Fai’ is a three-day rocket festival in Vietnam where on the third day people come out and fire homemade rockets and participate in healthy and fun competition. 

The Cambodian Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk) is the largest Dragon Boat Race that takes place in Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. 

Millions of people celebrate the Chinese New Year across Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. This day is celebrated in honour of the Chinese ancestors and deities. The surroundings are adorned with classic red lanterns, massive banquets, parades, joyful markets, loud firecrackers and a lot of food.


While at first glance, one could readily assume that the countries in Southeast Asia are vastly similar, the truth could not be further from it. The different languages, beliefs, eating habits make the culture of southeast Asia a deep and fascinating study. This depth and diversity can only be experienced when you travel 

This post was published by Shivani Asudkar

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