Home to an eclectic mix of indigenous peoples, Southeast Asia is a cultural melting pot. Read on to learn more about four unique Southeast Asia cultures and their traditions and histories.
1. Orang Asli – Malaysia
With a population of just over 178,000, making them a minority group in their home country, Malaysia’s “first people” are believed to be one of the region’s oldest inhabitants.
Consisting of numerous distinct tribes, the Orang Asli predominantly live in remote villages within the rainforest or mountains, each group identifying itself by its specific ecological space, with their rights enshrined in law.
Each community regards itself as culturally unique, although one common feature of Orang Asli tribes is their collective rejection of interpersonal violence, both within their own groups and in interactions with outsiders. Traditionally animists, believing that animals, objects, and places all possess their own distinct spirit, most Orang Asli believe that the universe consists of a celestial upper world, a terrestrial middle world, and a subterranean underworld, with all three inhabited by various supernatural beings that can be both helpful and harmful.
2. Bunong – Cambodia
The Bunong are Cambodia’s largest indigenous highland ethnic group, with a population of over 37,000 living in the country today. Like the Orang Asli, most Bunong are animists, believing that all of nature is populated by spirits, although a minority follow Theravada Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. The Bunong practice their own diverse, notoriously secretive traditional medicine, utilizing the biodiversity of the rainforests.
During the 1970s, as war raged throughout Cambodia, the Bunong migrated to Vietnam or other regions of the country. This mass migration had a significant impact on Bunong traditional medicine. Practitioners started to integrate plants found in these new locations. However, decades later, when returning to their homeland, they found that the medicinal qualities of their endemic plants had been largely forgotten and abandoned.
In remote regions of Cambodia, healthcare provisions are scant, particularly during the rainy season. The Cambodian government, backed by the World Health Organization, supports the practice of Bunong traditional medicine in these areas, where up to 95 percent of inhabitants still regularly use medicinal plants.
3. Mon – Myanmar
With approximately 1.1 million members living in Myanmar, the Mon people are a major ethnic group in the country. They are also a minor ethnic group in Thailand, numbering around 100,000.
The Mon are believed to be among Southeast Asia’s first settlers. They are credited with spreading Theravada Buddhism throughout the region, although they also have their own folk religion.
Settling Indochina in around 3,000 BCE, the Mons are thought to have originated from mainland China. They founded some of the oldest known civilizations throughout Southeast Asia and were an incredibly affluent, industrious people, dominating the region for centuries.
The Mon people are believed to have arrived in Myanmar around the ninth century, bringing with them Theravada Buddhism, which they acquired in India and Sri Lanka. By 825, the Mon had founded the cities of Thaton and Pegu in Southeast Myanmar, but their kingdom fell to the Pagan in 1057. Following the defeat, more than 30,000 Mon people were captured and taken away, including many Buddhist monks.
Many of Myanmar’s ancient treasures are built in the Mon style, including Manuha Temple in the Mandalay region. This temple is a place of worship built in 1067 by the captive Mon King Manuha. He reportedly commissioned the construction of Buddha in repose, reciting in prayer “Whithersoever I migrate in samsara, may I never be conquered by another.”
The Manuha Temple still receives visitors to this day, and the colossal gilded Buddha statue remains perfectly intact.
4. Asmat – Indonesia
The 70,000-strong Asmat population of New Guinea resides predominantly in Indonesia’s Papua province on the island’s southwestern coast. Encompassing lowland rainforest, freshwater swamp, tidal swamp, and mangrove, their homeland covers more than 7,300 square miles and is bordered by the Arafura Sea.
Part of the Asmat’s lands falls within Lorentz National Park, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Asmat are famous for their woodcarvings and art, which are sought after by collectors from all over the world.
A typical Asmat village consists of a collection of stilted houses, raised 2 or more meters above ground level to prevent flooding during the wet season. In some regions, the Asmat live in tree houses up to 25 meters above the ground.
Headhunting raids were an important part of Asmat culture, a practice that persisted until the 1990s, according to some.
The Asmat remain relatively isolated, although their interactions with the outside world have increased in past decades. Many Asmat receive higher education, with some traveling to Europe. Today, the Asmat seek to find innovative new ways of leveraging technology to improve health services, communications, and education throughout the region while at the same time protecting their cultural identity and homeland for future generations.