We’re Now on Stitcher


On Monday I filled out the application to make the History of Southeast Asia Podcast available on Stitcher, and last night it was accepted!  If you use the Stitcher app to listen to radio programs on your mobile device, you now have another way to listen to the podcast.  I’m planning to upload the next episode tomorrow, so that will be a good time to try listening (hint, hint).

Here is the new Stitcher page:


The Flugtag Comes to Louisville


Since the 21st century began, I have been a fan of the Red Bull Flugtag, and look forward to reading and seeing pictures about it every year.  For those not familiar with the event, Flugtag is German for “Flying Day,” and it is used to promote Red Bull, the energy drink that claims to give you wings.  Participating teams build contraptions that are supposed to fly or glide, and launch them off a pier; most of the time they fall thirty feet into the water underneath, but everyone has a good time watching.

I just learned that the next Flugtag is tomorrow, and it will be held in Louisville, where the contestants will fly or fall into the Ohio River.  Louisville is 85 miles west of where I live, and since my home town doesn’t have a body of water big enough, this is probably the closest the event will ever come to me.

Check out the teams participating in the link below.  Of course Kentucky is well represented this time.  My favorites are the Flying Colonels, who plan to fly in a giant KFC bucket, and the Cardinals (of course the University of Louisville had to get in on this!).

Red Bull Flugtag Louisville

Podcast Errata


Whoops, I found an error that got recorded!  In Episode 1, I gave the impression that modern man already knew about the splendid Cro-Magnon paintings in the caves of France, before the discovery of Java Man in 1891.  Well, last week, I learned I was wrong.  The Lascaux Cave, which contains the best examples of caveman art, was only discovered in 1940, and among the other French caves containing art that I looked up, the first to be discovered turned up in 1901, ten years after Java Man was found.  Therefore, I have edited the first part of Episode 1, by removing the misleading sentence, and uploaded a corrected MP3 file.

Unfortunately on the host site, at Blubrry.com, the episodes are no longer in chronological order.  Episode 1 is now listed as having been uploaded yesterday, though it was originally uploaded on July 15.  I wonder if I can get technical support to help with this?

Episode 3, Mandalas

The fourth episode in my podcast series went up this morning.  For those who haven’t been following this project from the start, I began with an introductory recording, which I called Episode 0; hence Episode 3 is the fourth episode recorded so far.

This episode is about the first Southeast Asian nations larger than a city-state, which appeared roughly two thousand years ago.  Special attention is given to Funan, the major state that arose in Cambodia.  Then we look at medium-sized states like Dvaravati, Haripunjaya, Pan Pan, Langkasuka, and Tambralinga, which the Mons and Malays founded in present-day Thailand and northern Malaya.



(Transcript, added September 17, 2019)

Episode 3:  Mandalas

Greetings, dear listeners!  You’re probably wondering about this episode’s title.  Originally I was going to call this episode “The First Southeast Asian States,” but we already have an episode called “The First Southeast Asians,” and I thought the titles sounded too much alike.  After all, the last thing I want to do in this podcast is bore the listeners!  “Mandala” is the unique term given to describe the political organization of most early Southeast Asian states, and after a quick recap to refresh everyone’s memory, I will explain what I mean by that term.

In the last episode we tracked the first two major human migrations from south China into Southeast Asia, the migration of the Austronesians, also called Malays, and the migration of the Mon-Khmers.  Then when the Mons contacted India, Indians came to Southeast Asia.  The Indians did not come as conquerers – the transportation and communication networks of the ancient world would not have supported an empire on both sides of the Bay of Bengal.  Instead they came as merchants, stopping in Southeast Asian ports as they traveled to China.  They also came as missionaries, converting much of the native population to Buddhism and Hinduism.  This double dose of Indian culture allowed the Southeast Asians to jump to the next phase of civilization, the transformation of their farming communities into city-states.

One thing I should mention before we go on is that Eastern religions are not exclusive; they do not proclaim they are the “One True Way,” the way most Western religions do.  Rather, Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are syncretistic in nature.  This means that they allow a person to combine ideas from more than religion, since none of them cover every aspect of one’s philosophical or spiritual life.  In fact, a convert to Mahayana Buddhism is encouraged to keep on following whatever gods he honored previously; they see the teachings of Buddhism as an improvement on that.  Conversely, Hinduism found a place for Buddha in its elaborate mythology, by claiming that Buddha was the ninth avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu.  As a result, you won’t see religious wars in Southeast Asian history, like the religious wars that happened so often elsewhere; in this part of the world, several religions can coexist with little friction; they don’t need bumper stickers that say “Coexist” to remind everybody.  From about 1 to 1500 A.D., people in a typical Southeast Asian community would practice Buddhism, Hinduism and that old-time animism – all at once.  And while there will be some friction in the modern era, after Islam and Christianity are introduced to the region, it won’t be as much friction as you would expect.

In Western civilization, the oldest political unit above the tribal level was the city-state, one city with the land surrounding it.  We see city-states in the Sumerian civilization of Iraq, and we get hints of them from the earliest days of ancient Egypt, before the first pharaohs appeared.  City-states are easiest to see in ancient Greece, because the Greeks never got tired of them, until King Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, brought all of Greece under his rule, in the 4th century B.C.  Likewise, city-states appeared in Southeast Asia, and at some point after that, the city-states came together to form larger states.  How they did that is the part we find mysterious.  Of course an exceptionally prosperous city-state could have produced a king who was a talented warrior, and this king could have built himself a kingdom by conquering the other city-states nearby, but we have no record of anyone doing it this early.  Another possibility is that several city-states could have formed an alliance, for trading or defensive purposes, and this alliance later coalesced into one state.  A good example of this in Western Civilization is the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states set up around the Aegean Sea, and the city of Athens dominated the alliance so completely that after a while we stop calling it the Delian League and call it the Athenian Empire instead.  However it happened, it happened, and it doesn’t take too many generations before we see kingdoms like Funan, where the city-states used to be.

Once larger states did appear, they did not have rigidly defined borders like the nation-states of China and the West.  Nowhere did kings build walls or fences, to mark which territory was theirs; it would not have been feasible with Southeast Asia’s jungles, mountains and seas getting in the way.  Instead, the kings and queens marked what they ruled by how far their influence stretched from them.  First the city where the rulers lived would be the capital, and towns or cities where the local rulers had submitted to the monarch’s authority would be considered part of that kingdom, too.  As for the surrounding countryside, it would be counted as part of the kingdom if had farms that fed those towns and cities, or if it was close enough to be within the sphere of influence.  That influence would spread out farther and farther when the king won wars, or when word got out that he was a great ruler.  Conversely, the sphere of influence would shrink if a king was defeated, and when a king died, his successor had to prove he was fully competent.  If he did not live up to his predecessor’s reputation, the sphere of influence would shrink for him, too.

We sometimes call this political arrangement a mandala.  You may have seen a work of art made of interlocking circles and lines.  That’s a mandala; the word is Sanskrit for “circles.”  We use the term “mandala” for the loose monarchies of ancient Southeast Asia because they were organized the same way.  The local rulers or tribal chiefs could switch loyalty from one king to another, and if that happened, from our point of view, the kingdom’s frontiers would suddenly change without warning.  In Western civilization, the closest system to this is the feudalism that ran most European nations in the Middle Ages.  If you look at a map of medieval France, for instance, you might see a “royal domain” that is the personal property of the French king, surrounded by land belonging to the king’s dukes.  Those dukes were not always loyal to the king, and could be positively dangerous if they switched sides in wartime.  A good example of such behavior was the Duke of Burgundy, who supported England for most of the Hundred Years War, and then went back to supporting France when it became clear that France was going to win.  For us this means that two historical maps of Southeast Asia can show different borders for the nations at any given time, and neither map will be wrong.

On the webpage where this episode is hosted, I have posted a map from Wikipedia, which gives an example of how the mandala system worked.  The map shows the Southeast Asian mainland in the year 1360.  At this time the mainland had six important kings, and the capital cities of those kings became major power centers.  Each power center is marked by a green circle on the map, and there are ripples radiating from those circles, like radio waves from a radio station.  These centers mean that one powerful king is in Laos, one is in Cambodia, and one, the king of Champa, is in South Vietnam.  Thailand has three power centers; from north to south they are called Lan Na or Chiangmai, Sukhothai, and Ayutthaya.  Because the rulers of all three of these centers were Thais, here you see the most intersections of power and influence; Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were even part of the same kingdom at this point.  This situation also meant it was possible to have a city near one king, but that city’s loyalty could be to another king.

To complete the above example, just about all of Indonesia was ruled by the king of Majapahit in 1360, so if the map had included Indonesia, you would have seen a seventh power center on Java.  No power center is shown in Burma because after the devastating Mongol invasion of 1287, Burma had several little states, but no big ones.  And while the Vietnamese had a strong nation by now, it was organized as a Chinese-style bureaucracy, not as a feudal kingdom, so the mandala system did not apply to North Vietnam.  There, you have just gotten a preview of the nations we will be covering a few episodes after this one.

And now, let us go to Funan, the first important state in Southeast Asia.


In the introductory episode we noted that most Southeast Asians prefer to live in the lowlands, especially near rivers, because they are the best places to grow rice.  On the mainland, the most fertile area is the lower Mekong valley, in what is now Cambodia and South Vietnam.  As rivers go, the Mekong has a larger than average delta, expanding the rice-growing area, and in western Cambodia the Mekong is connected to a unique natural reservoir, a lake called the Tonle Sap.  This connection is the lake’s only inlet and outlet.  During the four-month rainy season, floodwaters pour from the Mekong into the lake, raising it as much as 40 feet above its winter level.  Then during the rest of the year, when the climate is drier, the channel flow reverses direction, letting the waters of the Tonle Sap out gradually.  This process keeps the water level of the Mekong delta constant all year round, and provides fertilizer in the form of silt from upstream.   Those of you familiar with ancient Egypt will recognize the fertilizing process as the same one that used to happen when the Nile River flooded every year, before the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.  Finally, people living near the Tonle Sap could supplement their diet by fishing.

In the last episode, I mentioned that around 1000 B.C., a group of Malays sailed west from the Philippines and settled the coast of Vietnam.  What I did not say was that around the 4th century B.C., some of them traveled inland by going up the Mekong River, and they became the rulers of the communities that developed here later.  Then shortly before the year 100 A.D., the entire lower Mekong region was united under a city named Vyadhapura.

Chinese records tell us this state was founded by a foreigner named Huntian.  A more detailed account comes to us from a Cambodian legend, and two Sanskrit-language inscriptions from very old Hindu temples, built by the kingdom of Champa in what is now Vietnam.  According to these, one day an Indian Brahman (priest) named Kaundinya was told by a heavenly spirit that he must sail east from India, and rule the land he discovers across the sea.  After a difficult journey he reached an island, where a beautiful young woman paddled out in her canoe to greet him. At first Kaundinya was delighted to meet such a charming hostess, until he learned that she was Queen Willow Leaf, ruler of the country and daughter of Kaliya, the Naga king.  The Nagas are creatures in Hindu mythology that are human from the waist up, and cobras from the waist down; they are not always dangerous to people, but this Naga king was a personal enemy of the priest.  When Queen Willow Leaf declared that she would seize his ship and destroy him, Kaundinya shot a magic arrow into her boat.  The queen immediately realized that she was no match for the newcomer and agreed to make peace.  Shortly after, the two were married.  The Naga king showed he approved of the marriage by drinking the sea around the island; this joined the island to the mainland and created the land of Cambodia.  The couple went on to have a child, and this child grew up to become the first king of Funan.

Because Funan existed so long ago, we have many questions about it.  To start with, we don’t know what the people of Funan called their kingdom.  Our best guess is that they called it Phnom, which means “mountain” in the Khmer language.  You can see that name in the name of Cambodia’s present-day capital, Phnom Penh, which means the hill or mountain of Lady Penh.  The name “Funan” comes to us from Chinese diplomats, who first visited the kingdom around 230 A.D.; Funan is Chinese for “King of the Mountain.”  Both Phnom and Funan are strange names for a country that is mostly flat.  The mountain they are referring to is probably Mt. Meru.  In Indian mythology, Mt. Meru is a great mountain with five peaks, located at the center of the world, and many Hindu gods live there.  We will see another reference to Mt. Meru later on, when the great temple of Angkor Wat is built; that temple is also made to look like a five-peaked mountain.

Another reason why Funan is a mystery to us is because Southeast Asia’s recent troubles have kept archaeologists from finding most of it.  The wars in the region, from the 1950s to the 1980s, prevented digging in and near the Mekong valley, and today the many leftover landmines in Cambodia still make digging there unsafe.  Thus we have not yet found Vyadhapura, Funan’s capital city.  Most likely it was on the banks of the Mekong, somewhere south of Phnom Penh, because that area is still extremely fertile today.

What we have found is Funan’s seaport, Oc Eo.  It is located on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand; in those days one stream of the Mekong delta, a so-called distributary, ran west into the Gulf of Thailand, instead of going into the South China Sea with the rest.  Oc Eo also had several canals running through it, and many residents, instead of living next to the canals, put their houses on stilts and lived above the water.  And instead of stopping at the city limits, the canals run inland for as much as 42 miles, telling us that the people living in Cambodia were already masters at managing their water resources.  This skill would be the secret of Cambodia’s prosperity later on.  So many canals were dug in the countryside that Chinese visitors talked about “sailing across Funan.”

The artifacts found at Oc Eo tell us that it was a bustling center of trade.  Several of these artifacts, especially the statues, can be seen on a German website, Funan.de.  If you want to check them out, go to w-w-w-dot-f-u-n-a-n-dot-d-e.  Other artifacts include a Chinese-made mirror, Indian jewelry, and even a few coins from the Roman Empire.  One of the coins shows the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and has the date of 152 A.D. on it; the other coins feature another second-century emperor, Marcus Aurelius.  Finally, archaeologists have found glass beads and bracelets, and a man’s face carved into a piece of carnelian; these were also fashionable in the lands around the Mediterranean.  However, this does not mean that the merchants who left these artifacts were Roman; it just shows us how far trading networks could stretch in the second century.  The Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy reported that on the far side of the Indian Ocean, at eight degrees below the equator, there was a seaport named Kattigara.  This could be another name for Oc Eo – if we assume that Ptolemy got the latitude wrong and there wasn’t a two-thousand-year-old seaport in Malaya or Indonesia that we haven’t discovered yet.

Before the Chinese arrived, the King of Funan launched a series of military expeditions, which made vassals of all the city-states in Thailand and the Malay peninsula, and gave Funan complete control over the Indo-China trade.  Normally the Chinese are not impressed by the accomplishments of other people, but the ambassadors that went to Funan brought back a favorable report of the country’s Malay upper class, which had palaces, abundant treasures, and libraries of books written in Sanskrit.  However, it now appears that the “Indianization” we talked about previously had a superficial effect on Funan; while the upper class eagerly accepted Indian ideas, the common people kept their old customs whenever possible.  It also looks like most of the people in Funan were still Negrito, for one of the Chinese visitors, Kang Tai, scornfully described them this way.  Quote:  “The men are all ugly and black.  Their hair is frizzy.  They go naked and barefoot.”  End quote.  Kang Tai found the public nudity offensive, and when he complained about it to the king of Funan, a law was passed requiring all to wear clothing in public, and the traditional Cambodian “sampot” or loincloth was invented for this purpose.

Funan peaked as a nation under Jayavarman I, who ruled from 478 to 514.  Over the next few episodes, you’re going to hear the names of several kings ending in “varman,” so I’d better explain what that means.  “Varman” is a Sanskrit word meaning “protege,” and Jaya was the Hindu god of victory, so Jayavarman meant “Protege of [the god] Jaya.”  Likewise, we know the next king after Jayavarman was a protégé of the wind god Rudra, because his name was Rudravarman.  Indeed, the kings of Cambodia went on giving themselves names ending in “varman” until 1336, more than a hundred years after they converted to Buddhism.

Anyway, after Jayavarman I, Funan rapidly fell into ruin.  Rudravarman, who ruled from 514 to 545, is the last king we hear about in Chinese records; he is mentioned because of the gifts he sent to the Chinese emperor’s court.  One time he sent some long hair that he claimed was Buddha’s hair, and another time he sent a live rhinoceros.  Meanwhile, internal discord and raids from the Khmers in Laos weakened the state.  By 539 it was paying tribute to the Khmers; in 627 the Khmers moved south and conquered it completely.  But Funan had established the social, economic, and political patterns that most states on the Southeast Asian mainland would follow for centuries to come.

Other Mon and Malay States

While Funan was in the limelight, civilization spread from the coasts to the interiors of Thailand and Malaya.  This process started around 200 A.D., when Funan invaded this area, and was completed when a Mon kingdom called Dvaravati was founded around 500.  Dvaravati’s capital was at Lopburi, in the lower Menam River valley in central Thailand.  Then as Funan declined, Dvaravati’s culture came to dominate all of central and northern Thailand.  Normally we think of Dvaravati as a unified state, but judging from the area it influenced and the number of archaeological sites found, it may really have been a confederation of states, which counted Malays and Khmers among their subjects as well as Mons.  If the confederation theory is correct, we have another example of the mandala effect here.  No Thais were involved, though, because it will be several more centuries before they move into Thailand.  Much of the Dvaravati culture would be adopted later on by its neighbors in Cambodia and Burma, including its writing system and religious practices, and when the Thais showed up, they adopted its culture, too.


Another Mon state, called Haripunjaya by its people and Hariphunchai by modern Thais, arose next, in northern Thailand.  Traditionally its capital, Lamphun, was founded in 661, and the kingdom got started as a colony of Dvaravati, when Jamadevi, the daughter of the current king, was sent to Lamphun to become that city’s first queen.  Queen Jamadevi later gave birth to twins; the older succeeded her as the ruler of Lamphun, and the younger became ruler of Lampang, a nearby town.


In the northern Malay peninsula, several small states appeared with names like Pan Pan, Langkasuka, and Tambralinga, stretched across the Isthmus of Kra in different locations.  The Malay states prospered by offering traders a short cut that was both quicker and safer than the Strait of Malacca:  portage by land across the isthmus.  The portage was not difficult either, because at one point only five miles of land separates rivers flowing into the Gulf of Thailand and the Bay of Bengal.  Today from time to time, there are proposals to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, like the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal, but the present-day Thai government hasn’t gotten around to trying it.  By contrast, the Mon States were not in a favorable trading location, so they relied on agriculture to make a living.

We do not know much about any of these kingdoms.  Plenty of artifacts have been found, but all of the inscriptions on them are religious texts; no information on the politics or history of the states can be gleaned from them, aside from the fact that they all practiced Theravada Buddhism, also called Hinayana Buddhism.  The Malay states gradually came under the rule of Srivijaya, the first Indonesian empire, in the eighth century.  Then after Srivijaya withered away in the 1200s, the Malay states briefly appeared again before they disappeared, this time for good.  Presumably a stronger nation conquered them, like Siam, which was getting its act together at the same time.  As for the Mon kingdoms, Dvaravati became part of the Khmer empire in the tenth century, and Thaton, the Mon state in southern Burma, was conquered by the Burmese in the eleventh century.  That left Haripunjaya, which turned out to be the strongest Mon state.  It survived attacks from the Khmers in the east, and the Burmese in the west, and then in 1292 it fell to Mangrai, one of the first Thai kings.  The Mons were not displaced as residents, though; in Thailand they retained their separate ethnic identity during the whole Khmer period, and were absorbed into the Thai kingdoms after that.  They were still the largest ethnic group in the lower Menam River valley as late as 1350.

Join me next time when we go to the lands east of Cambodia and Thailand, and learn how Vietnam got started.  We will also see the rise of another kingdom that has been mentioned already, Champa.  Vietnam and Champa will become rivals in a struggle that will last all the way up to the end of the Middle Ages.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!



Episode 2, The Main Players Arrive


The next episode in my new podcast series went up today.  This time the main topic is migrations.  The Southeast Asians you are familiar with came originally from China, in at least five waves:  the Austronesians or Malays, the Mon-Khmers, the Vietnamese, the Tibeto-Burmans and the Thais.  In this episode we follow the course of the Malay and Mon-Khmer migrations.  Then when the Mons make contact with India, we see Indian civilization introduced to nearly all of Southeast Asia, setting the stage for the rise of the first Southeast Asian states.  Check it out at this link:



(Transcript, added July 29, 2019)

Greetings, dear listeners!  Before I begin today’s narrative, I want to thank all of you for setting some time aside to hear what I have to say.  Time is a valuable commodity in today’s fast-paced world, so that by itself is meaningful to me.  If you have already listened to one or both of the other episodes, I am also glad I didn’t scare you away.  The number of downloads this podcast has received so far tells me that not all of you are from my family; that is encouraging, too.  You may remember the line from the movie “Field of Dreams” where they said, “If you build it, people will come,” and that is happening here.  Finally, I want to thank those of you who encouraged me with kind comments about the podcast on Facebook.  Maybe in the near future I will ask for reviews on iTunes, like the other podcasters are doing.


I will also let you know that I am now in the process of finding advertisers to support this podcast, and myself, as long as I continue to be between jobs.  Contrary to what economists may say, the Great Recession of 2008 has not yet ended where I live.   Along that line, I am putting a donation button on the page hosting this episode; it should be up by the time you hear this.  You can think of the donation button as being like the jar near a piano player or sushi chef in a restaurant; if you like what you hear and want to encourage me to produce more, feel free to leave a tip.  Those of you who subscribed to this podcast via iTunes will have to go to the page where I upload the episodes to make a donation.  If that is you, go to https://www.blubrry.com/hoseasia/ .  Once again, that’s http://www., “blueberry” with no “e”, blubrry, .com/hoseasia/.  Thank you all in advance for your support.


And now, on with the story!


The Great Malay Migration


In the last episode we saw that at the end of the ice age, the Negritos, cousins of the Australian Aborigines, were the only people living in most of Southeast Asia.  Because a lifestyle of hunting and gathering does not support many people, they were thinly spread throughout the region.  Only where farming communities existed could you have more than ten people per square mile.  Hunter-gatherers typically needed ten square miles to feed each person in their tribe, so you can say that a hunting-gathering economy is at least 100 times less efficient.


Around 2500 B.C., other peoples, the ancestors of the Southeast Asians we are familiar with, began to move into the region.  All of them came from the north, out of the land we now call China.  It was a gradual migration, that happened in waves.  Most of the newcomers had arrived and found new homes by the second century A.D., but this process will not be complete until the last people to move, the Thais, set up their first kingdoms in the thirteenth century.  In the process, all of these groups displaced the Negritos; that is why today the Negritos are only found in remote areas, like the jungles of the Philippines.  We won’t we talking much about the Negritos after this.

The people who arrived in the first wave were the ancestors of those now settled in more than half the countries of the region:  Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor.  These peoples go by many names:  Austronesians, Malays, and Malayo-Polynesians, to name a few.  Here I will call them “Malays” after they settle down, and “Austronesians” when they are on the move, or outside of Southeast Asia, because they also explored and settled other places.  The migrations of the Austronesians across both the Pacific and Indian Oceans make them one of the most successful people groups of all time; before Europeans learned how to cross the oceans, the Austronesians were the world’s boldest and best sailors.

Originally the Austronesians must have lived on the Asian mainland, presumably on the Amoy coast of south China; this is the area now called Fujian Province.  However, five thousand years ago, when they began to leave evidence of their presence, they were already on the nearest large island, Taiwan.  We don’t know how they got to Taiwan.  During the ice age they could have followed a land bridge from the mainland that no longer exists.  Or if they had invented the canoes that served as their first boats by this time, they could have made the crossing by mastering the techniques of sailing on the open sea, a skill that would serve them greatly from here on.  With them they brought rice; remember what I said in the previous episode about Southeast Asians growing rice first.  They were also making pottery by this time, so we can trace their steps from one island to the next by the pots they left behind.  But don’t expect to see many Austronesians if you go to Taiwan today; in modern times waves of Chinese immigrants have come over from the mainland and overwhelmed the indigenous population.  One of the largest groups of Chinese came in the 1660s, and an even larger group arrived in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government lost the Chinese Civil War, and they fled to Taiwan, taking two million of their followers and relatives with them.  Today the Austronesian tribes, also called Formosans, have a little over half a million members, making up 2.3 percent of Taiwan’s present-day population, and they live mainly in the mountains and on the east coast, rather than in cities like Taipei.

On a map you can see there is about 100 miles of open water between the mainland and Taiwan.  At some point between 2500 and 2000 B.C., some Austronesians left Taiwan to go exploring. It probably did not seem like an important event at the time, because only a few people went on the journeys, while the vast majority of the Austronesian population stayed at home.  Even so, with their canoes they managed to reach the next islands:  the Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands, 100 miles to the northeast, and the nearest of the Philippine Islands, 100 miles to the south; in both places they were able to proceed to more islands in a stepping-stone fashion.

The Ryukyu Islands form a long chain going from Taiwan to Japan, so the group traveling up this chain eventually ran into the Japanese.  The Japanese also had agriculture and pottery by this time, meaning they were at the same level of technology as the Austronesians, so they were able to stop and absorb them.  Thus, the people living in the northern Ryukyus today are fully Japanese, while those living on Okinawa and the islands to the south, what we call the Ryukyuan people, are part Japanese, part Austronesian.  We now believe the Japanese got rice from the Austronesians, and also added a few words to their vocabulary that are Austronesian in origin.

The Austronesians who went south to the Philippines enjoyed far more success.  I will call them “Malays” after this, because they eventually settled in what is now called Malaysia.  Anyway, from Taiwan they first came to the Batanes and Babuyan Islands, two tiny clusters of islands that became stepping stones to a much larger island, Luzon.  If you’re not familiar with the geography of the Philippines, that country has more than 7,000 islands.  Two of the islands, Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, are larger than the rest; most of the other islands are between these two, and are collectively called the Visayas.  Besides being the largest island, Luzon is also the most important; Manila is located here, along with the lion’s share of today’s Filipino people.

The islands of Southeast Asia proved to be an ideal place for growing rice on a large scale.  Up to this point, rice hadn’t been very important in south China or Taiwan, since there were other grains available, but now it became a staple that allowed Malay communities to grow rapidly.  By contrast, the Negritos remained few in number, because of their primitive lifestyle, so they could not compete with the newcomers.

The Philippine Islands are only a few miles apart; nowadays ferry boats travel between them every day.  Thus, it was easy for the Malays to explore and colonize the whole Philippines.  But while they had gone beyond sight of land to get here from Taiwan, dugout canoes are not recommended for travel on the open sea; they are unstable and easily capsized when they encounter waves. At some point, probably while the Malays were finding out what was in the Philippines, they learned to add side boards and outriggers to their canoes, turning them into much more seaworthy vessels.  Now they were ready to take the next big step.  By 1500 B.C., one group had sailed due east from Mindanao and discovered the Palau Islands; this was the first step in the colonization of Micronesia.  Another group sailed due west around 1000 B.C., crossed the South China Sea, and landed on Vietnam’s central coast.  Descendants of these explorers would found the kingdom of Champa, the future rival of the Vietnamese; but that’s a subject for another episode.

Just as the group which had gone south from Taiwan had been more successful than those that went in other directions, so the group of Malays that went south from the Philippines enjoyed the most success.  From Mindanao they split into two waves, and these landed on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sulawesi.  These islands were even larger than the largest Philippine islands, but they were completely covered by jungle, so they weren’t very inviting.  However, the next islands to the south–Java, Bali and Lombok–were smaller and more fertile.  Again the local Negritos proved to be no match, and were conquered or expelled.  Finally, some westward-heading expeditions reached Sumatra, the huge island that marks Indonesia’s western limit, and they also reached the Malay peninsula; naturally both were quickly settled.

We think the Malays reached New Guinea by 1600 B.C., because an important South Pacific culture, now called the Lapita culture, began producing pottery not long after this, in the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands.  You may remember that in the last episode, I mentioned an archaeological site called Dongson in North Vietnam.  Well, by 700 B.C. pottery from Dongson was ending up in places as far away as New Guinea.  This tells us that the Malays were routinely traveling all the way to New Guinea at this date, and probably traded with New Guinea’s Melanesian tribes.  From the Melanesians they acquired another crop, a root vegetable called taro.  This would come in handy as a second staple; the Malays would grow taro on islands that did not have suitable places for growing rice.

During the next two thousand years the Malays covered astonishing distances, crossing both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and they did it by trusting in things like birds, ocean currents, and the stars to guide them.  In the Pacific they became the Polynesian people, settling almost every island worth living on.  We believe they reached Hawaii around 500 A.D., Easter Island between 700 and 1100, and New Zealand by 1280.

In the west, at an uncertain date, one or more outrigger canoes left Indonesia, crossed the Indian Ocean and made landfall on Madagascar.  They brought with them several valuable crops, and introduced them to Africa:  rice, mung beans, taro, bananas, plantains, coconuts and sugar cane.  That was all that could be said on the subject until the twenty-first century, when language and DNA analysis entered the picture.  We now believe the boats were launched from Borneo, because the language and DNA of the Malagasy most resembles that of Borneo’s southeastern tribes.  A recent comparison of mitochrondrial DNA samples from 266 modern Malagasy indicated that they were descended from just thirty women.  Because ancient Indonesian kingdoms like Srivijaya could build vessels big enough to carry 500 people, this means only one boatload of Malays was needed to colonize Madagascar.  Of course the boat must have also carried men, and there could have been some women who did not have any children, but because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, evidence for them will not show up in such tests.  We used to think the crossing happened between 1 and 500 A.D., but the DNA tests also suggested that the settlers arrived much later than that, most likely around 830.

Because the settlers were sailing through uncharted waters, it is unlikely they knew where they were going; they may have been blown off course, and decided it was safer to keep sailing west than to try returning.  Or they could have been refugees, fleeing after an enemy tribe or kingdom conquered their homeland.  After 1000, their descendants did some trading with the African mainland, and members of some African tribes came to Madagascar, so today’s Malagasy are half Asian and half black.  To get an idea of how impressive the Malay achievement is, just measure the distance across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from Easter Island to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  It is 13,966 miles, or 203 degrees of longitude.  The Malays sailed more than halfway around the world!

Meanwhile back in Vietnam, the Dongson culture enjoyed its best years.  Around 500 B.C., craftsmen began making large bronze drums covered with various scenes, pictures of people riding in boats, fighting battles, or conducting important ceremonies.  These remarkable examples of metallurgy were buried with the dead, or served as urns to hold cremated remains.  They probably had some sort of religious significance, because many of the tribes living in the region today believe that a person needs a drum to contact his ancestral spirits.  To the northwest, around Lake Dian in China’s Yunnan province, another bronzeworking culture sprang up after 1000 B.C.  The Dian people produced not only drums but also drum-shaped containers to hold the local form of money, cowrie shells.  The lids of the containers are even more elaborate than the drums; they have miniature figures of people and their surroundings on top, a complete diorama.  One of the fanciest displays shows 127 people gathered around a platform bearing 16 drums, with a thatched roof stretched over the platform and a giant bronze drum standing nearby.  Both cultures were eventually conquered by the Chinese:  the Dongson in 111 B.C., the Dian in 109 B.C.

One more achievement deserves to be mentioned here.  Two thousand years ago, at Banawe, in the northern Philippines, somebody left an amazing work of engineering; they carved the mountains surrounding a huge valley into terraces so that rice and other crops may be grown on the slopes.  Each terrace has a small wall to hold in the water needed for wet-rice agriculture; some claim that if you laid those walls end-to-end, they would go all the way around the world.  Other places in China and Southeast Asia have land that has been terraced to permit agriculture in rugged terrain, but Banawe is one of the largest, and certainly the oldest.  Moreover, the project was done using stone age tools, and it must have taken years, maybe more than one generation, to complete the job.  Today’s residents in the district, a tribe called the Ifugao, still maintain and use the terraces, and the terraces are considered the “eighth wonder of the world” by Filipinos.  But Banawe and the journeys across the oceans mark the end of the time when Southeast Asia was a technological leader; for most of the two thousand years since then, Southeast Asia has borrowed most of its culture from other nations, rather than inventing its own.  Which leads us to our next topic.


Behind the Malays came the Mon-Khmers, the Vietnamese, the Tibeto-Burmans and the Thais, all forced to move by Chinese expansion.  At an unknown date (no later than 300 B.C.), the Mon-Khmers separated into two tribes:  the Khmers, ancestors of today’s Cambodians, and the Mons.  We also believe the Vietnamese are distantly related to the Mon-Khmers, because the Vietnamese language shares a few common words with the Mon and Khmer languages.  If this is correct, the Vietnamese split off from the other groups at an earlier date, before any of them left China.


The Khmers followed the Mekong River downstream, but because the Malays got to Cambodia first, the Khmers had to pause in Laos.  They would have to wait until the seventh century before they could move into Cambodia.  As for the Mons, they left the Mekong valley and went west, eventually settling in Thailand, southern Burma, and part of Malaya.  You may not have heard of the Mons, because today they are an insignificant group.  Most of the Mons now live in a Burmese province, just east of the Irrawaddy delta; estimates of their numbers range from 800,000 to 8 million, with 1.1 million the most likely figure.  In ancient times, though, they were an important conduit of civilization.


When the Mons reached the Bay of Bengal, some of them took to the sea and settled the Nicobar Islands.  However, they left the neighboring Andaman Islands to their Negrito inhabitants; we saw them in the previous episode.  Eventually, Mon seafarers made contact with India, which was ruled by an outstanding king named Asoka (also known as Ashoke).  If you want to hear a podcast about India at this time, I recommend the four-episode series on the Maruyan Empire by the Lesser Bonapartes, which they recorded in January 2015.  Anyway, around 260 B.C. Asoka became a Buddhist, and to convert as many people as possible to his new faith, he sent Buddhist missionaries to the lands surrounding India:  Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.  All of these missionaries enjoyed success; the ones in Southeast Asia converted the Mons completely, thereby beginning Burma’s preoccupation with Buddhism that lasts to this day.  By 200 B.C. there was a small Mon state in southern Burma, with its capital at Thaton, and it enjoyed regular commerce with India and Sri Lanka.

Indian interest in Southeast Asia increased when India and China began to trade with each other, around 125 B.C.  The trip between India and China was not easy; the direct route was over the Tibetan Plateau, a grueling hike only the hardiest traders were willing to try.  Alternatives by land were not much better: either a trek through the mountainous jungles of Burma, Yunnan and Sichuan, or a long, roundabout path through barbarian-infested Central Asia.  Indian merchants searched for a water route, and they found it in Southeast Asia’s seas.  Most of those ships traveled through the Malacca Strait, between Malaya and Sumatra, and that strait has been the world’s busiest waterway ever since.  Soon the Malacca Strait developed a problem in the form of local pirates, but overall this was the quickest and easiest way to travel between Asia’s two main centers of civilization.  An alternative to Malacca was the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, that meant sailing for an extra 90 days on the west coast of Sumatra, with no port to stop in on the way; few sailors or passengers looked forward to such a trip.

Although India was already a multi-religious land, Buddhists led the way in exploring the outside world for a while, because Hindu priests, the Brahmans, forbade their followers to travel overseas.  This prohibition seems to have been caused by many fears the stay-at-home Brahmans had.  First and foremost, there was the fear that a Hindu riding on the sea would lose his caste; in other words, he would become one of the lowest-ranked people in Hindu society, the so-called Untouchables.  There were also concerns that Hindus might not be able to perform their daily rituals in a foreign land, or they might not reincarnate if they died abroad.  On top of all that, because Hindus were not allowed to marry someone outside their caste, any potential spouse who wasn’t a Hindu was off-limits.  However, word came back to India that Southeast Asians were friendly, and they had some valuable commodities, like rubies, hardwoods and spices.  Because the Buddhists had success trading with the natives, eventually some Hindus tried their luck in overseas ventures, and because they were successful, too, they were forgiven for violating the prohibitions of the priests.  After that, Hindu merchants were allowed to travel too, provided they performed the proper purification rituals when they returned.  Now there were no restrictions on the introduction of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.

The monsoon cycle helped in the spreading of that culture.  The currents and winds of the Indian Ocean change with the seasons, so ships would often have to wait in a Southeast Asian port for months until favorable winds came.  While they were waiting, the crews of those ships had plenty of time to meet the natives.  Indian missionaries converted the natives to both Buddhism and Hinduism, and soon the local rulers were calling themselves maharajahs and imitating the courts of India down to the smallest details.

The only places in the region that did not see regular visits from the Indians were the Philippines, which were too far from the India-China trade route, and northern Vietnam, where Chinese influence was too strong.  Still, Indonesian merchants would eventually bring some aspects of Indian culture to the Philippines, and while the form of Buddhism practiced in northern Vietnam, Mahayana, came from China, even that had gotten started in India.  By the time the first century arrived, the coasts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam were dotted with Indian-style city-states.

Join me next time when we look at the kingdoms founded by the Malays and Mons in the first century and afterwards, the first Southeast Asian states we know anything about.  Then if we still have time, we will cover the next migration, that of the Tibeto-Burmans.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!