Dr. Susan Russell






Slides of Physical and Cultural Geography

Recommended References:

  1. The Rice Economy of Asia, by Randolph Barker, Robert W. Herdt, with Beth Rose, 1985. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future.
  2. "Southeast Asia: An Introduction", by Ashok K. Dutt, pp.1-19. IN Southeast Asia: Realm of Contrasts, ed. By Ashok Dutt. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  3. "The Geopolitical Base", by P. Karan and W. Bladen, pp.20-35. IN Southeast Asia: Realm of Contrasts, op.cit.
  4. "The Physical Environment", by Allen Noble, pp.36-52.  IN Southeast Asia: Realm of Contrasts, op.cit.
  5. "Environmental Crisis", by Peter Dauvergne, p.27 of Far Eastern Economic Review, July 15, 1999.
  6. Southeast Asia: An Illustrated Introductory History, by Milton Osborne. 1990. Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Recommended Film: The Goddess and the Computer, by J. Stephen Lansing and Andre Singer. Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA. This film introduces you to the complexity of irrigated rice agriculture in Southeast Asia by focusing on traditional agriculture and the ritual regulation of water delivery and planting cycles on the island of Bali in Indonesia. It also discusses the problems that arose when development agencies tried to 'modernize' this system.



The purpose of this lecture is to introduce students to the main geographical features of Southeast Asia. The list below presents 1990 census information and a few characteristics of each country. For maps of each individual country and a short list of updated facts, you may contact the National Geographic website:


To download and print off one of these publicly accessible maps for non-commercial use, National Geographic has established separate websites:



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Southeast Asian Urban Population Centers Southeast Asia and the United States: an Areal Comparison

General Characteristics of Southeast Asian Countries

Area: 741,101 sq miles
1999 population: 198.4 million
Capital: Jakarta
Major Cities: Surabaya, Bandung, Medan
Primary Religion: Islam (with small pockets of Christianity and indigenous religions, esp. on Outer Islands)
National Language: Bahasa Indonesia

Myanmar (Burma)
Area: 261,218 sq miles
1999 population: 44.7 million
Capital: Rangoon
Major Cities: Mandalay
Primary Religion: Theravada Buddhism
National Language: Burmese

Area: 115,831 sq miles
1999 population: 68.4 million
Capital: Manila
Major Cities: Cebu, Davao, Baguio, Dagupan
Primary Religion: Roman Catholicism
National Language: Pilipino (based on Tagalog)

Area: 198,457 sq miles
1999 population: 60.2 million
Capital: Bangkok
Major Cities: Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen
Primary Religion: Theravada Buddhism
National Language: Thai

Area: 2,226 sq miles
1999 Population: 295,000
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Primary Religion: Islam
National Language: Bahasa Malay

Area: 127,317 sq miles
1999 Population: 19.9 million
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Other Cities: Penang, Melaka
Primary Religion: Islam (with Buddhist-Taoism and Hinduism)
National Language: Bahasa Malay

Area: 239 sq miles
1999 Population: 2.9 million (78 percent Chinese)
Capital: Singapore
Primary Religion: Buddhism (and Confucianism), Islam, Hinduism
National Language: Malay (and English)

Area: 127,242 sq miles
1999 Population: 75 million
Capital: Hanoi
Primary Religion: blend of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism
National Language: Vietnamese

Area: 91,429 sq miles
1999 Population: 4.8 million
Capital: Vientiane
Primary Religion: Theravada Buddhism
National Language: Lao

Area: 69,898 sq miles
1999 Population: 10.5 million
Capital: Phnom Penh
Primary Religion: Theravada Buddhism
National Language: Khmer

East Timor (for latest update, see www.timor.com)


Major Landforms in Southeast Asia

Major Islands of Indonesia and the Philippines
Indonesia: Bali, Timor, Java, Kalimantan, Moluccas, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Halmahera
Philippines: Cebu, Luzon, Mindanao, Negros, Mindoro, Palawan, Sulu Archipelago

Some Important Cities Aside from Capitals
Burma: Mandalay
Thailand: Chiang Mai, Hat Yai
Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh, Dien Bien Phu
Laos: Luang Prabang
Indonesia: Medan in Sumatra; Ujung Pandung in Sulawesi; Jogjakarta in Java
Philippines: Cebu City in Cebu; Baguio City in Luzon; Davao City in Mindanao

Major Rivers
Chao Phraya in Thailand, Irrawaddy in Burma, Mekong in IndoChina, Red River in Vietnam

Major Mountain Chains
Annamite Cordillera (in Vietnam), Arakan Yoma (in Burma), Cardamon Mountains (in Cambodia), Kinabalu (in Malaysia), Grand Cordillera Central (in the Philippines)


Important Physical Geographic Points about Southeast Asia

1. Southeast Asia is located on the equator, which means almost the entire region falls within the humid tropics.

2. Southeast Asia is conventionally divided into two cultural, linguistic, and geographic regions:

a. Mainland Southeast Asia - the countries of Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam;
b. Insular Southeast Asia - the island or peninsular countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, East Timor.

3. While many countries in Southeast Asia today have dense populations, in the past the region had considerably lower population density than major Asian countries like India, China and Japan.

The low population density placed a premium on the ability of leaders and rulers to attract people to various population centers. River valleys, deltas, and major maritime trading ports that were well-positioned along trading routes between India and China were the areas where early population centers, major kingdoms, and great temples first arose. Southeast Asian maritime skills were highly developed in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The combination of rice agriculture and maritime skills led to the development of two different kinds of classical Southeast Asian states: inland states, based on rice agriculture, and maritime states, based on trade and raiding.

Two of the earliest states that exemplify these different forms of adaptation were:

Angkor, Cambodia: this was one of the earliest and greatest kingdoms in classical Southeast Asia. The Khmers, or Cambodians, developed Angkor in a region of Cambodia that had a long dry season and an intensive wet season. To develop a great state, they built reservoirs that could trap rain during the wet season for use during the subsequent dry period. Tonle Sap is a great lake in the center of the Cambodian Basin, a low-lying area only 100-300 feet above sea level. During the monsoon, or rainy season, Tonle Sap lake increases over 6 times its normal depth as it absorbs the flooded waters of the Mekong River. With advanced hydraulic engineering skills, the Khmer made Angkor a spectacularly successful rice-growing area where three crops a year were grown to support a population in excess of one million. Trade throughout the hundreds of miles of the Khmer kingdom, which at its peak covered large areas of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, played only a marginal role in the development of this state.

Srivijaya, Sumatra in Indonesia: this was a maritime empire, one of the earliest and greatest coastal trading states. International trading ships in the 7th century between the Middle East, India, and China passed through the Straits of Malacca --the narrow body of ocean that separates Sumatra from Malaysia. Western goods and foreign products were exchanged in China for silks and porcelains. Srivijaya enjoyed a 'preferential trading partner' status with China as a tributary state, and essentially controlled the trade through the Straits and up to China. Since trading ports and empires were located close to the sea, the coastal environment tends to be swampy and less suitable to intensive agriculture compared to inland areas. Hence, trade, not agriculture, became the focal point for major maritime states that evolved in this region.

4. Upland and Lowland Distinctions in Southeast Asia:

Just as the great civilizations of Southeast Asia were located along rivers, deltas, coastal areas or geographic locations suitable for intensive rice agriculture, there are similar geographic contrasts in the characteristics of peoples who live in the lowland areas versus the highland areas.

Generally, upland areas can be characterized as having lower population densities, greater heterogeneity in languages, cultures, and ethnicity, greater political fragmentation, and slash burn cultivation of root or grain crops.

Slash and burn cultivation, or swidden agriculture, is based on a system wherein standing tropical forest is cut and cleared before the rainy season begins. After the timber dries, farmers burn the cut area, which leaves a thick layer of ash on the soil. When the ash is mixed with the soil, it provides important nutrients and phosphate that increase soil fertility and hence the productivity and size of crops. The rainy season further pushes these nutrients into the soil. After one or two years of cultivation, the farmer needs to cut down a new area of the forest and abandon the original plots for 10-15 years so that the forest will grow back. Slash and burn cultivation usually necessitates some mobility of the population over time, hence requiring a fairly large area of land per person.

Wet rice agriculture, in contrast, is a form of permanent agriculture that involves radically transforming the landscape. Farmers must build terraces and irrigation canals to regular the flow of water from streams and rivers. Nutrients are provided through the algae that form in the water of the rice paddies. This type of rice agriculture is more intensive, and responds well to increased labor inputs. Hence, since in tropical lowland areas a farmer can get two seasons a year of rice without difficulty, wet rice was the support base for many Southeast Asian states.

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Rice Paddy in the lowland Philippines Rice terrace in upland Luzon, Philippines

Lowland Southeast Asian aras generally have much larger areas of language similarity, higher population densities, and greater or larger forms of political integration than do upland areas.

5. Modern environmental pressures:

In 1997, 13 of the world's most polluted cities were in Asia. One-third of Asians did not have access to clean water; one-half did not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

The financial crisis in Asia during the 1997-99 period halted or slowed the fairly recent efforts by Southeast Asian states to invest in greater environmental regulations and conservation efforts. Even as environmental budgets were cut by many governments whose currencies lost value during this period, the need for foreign exchange created powerful pressures to export ever-larger quantities of fish, minerals, agricultural and plantation products. Furthermore, while many states already have lost most of their primary forest cover, additional incentives now exist to increase commercial tropical timber production and export. Total forest plantations in Indonesia covered 3.8 million hectares in 1994, and the Indonesian government hopes to increase this amount to 8 million hectares by 2005. Similarly, the Philippines already has lost 99% of the forest cover it had 100 years ago.

In Indonesia, illegal fishing (dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing for aquarium fish exports) also appears to have increased during this period of financial crisis.

Some economists view the devastation to the forest and marine resource environments of Southeast Asian countries to be a more serious, longer-lasting problem than economic recovery and banking reforms in the region.

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