At about the time that the ancient peoples of Western Europe were absorbing the classical culture and institutions of the Mediterranean, the peoples of mainland and insular Southeast Asia were responding to the stimulus of a civilization that had arisen in northern India during the previous millennium. The Britons, Gauls, and Iberians experienced Mediterranean influences directly, through conquest by and incorporation into the Roman Empire. In contrast, the Indianization of Southeast Asia was a slower process than the Romanization of Europe because there was no period of direct Indian rule and because land and sea barriers that separated the region from the Indian subcontinent are considerable. Nevertheless, Indian religion, political thought, literature, mythology, and artistic motifs gradually became integral elements in local Southeast Asian cultures. The caste system never was adopted, but Indianization stimulated the rise of highly-organized, centralized states. [Library of Congress]

Towns and cities did not appear in any number until around A.D. 700. Trade was conducted on rivers. Maritime trade extended inland and ventured across oceans. The first large civilizations were Angkor and Pagan, that were at their peak around the 12th century. Smaller civilizations that preceded them included Funan, the Mons and Champa (the Cham) that were strong in the first millennium.

Chinese Culture Spreads to Asia and Then the Pacific

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese, Cambodians, Filipinos and Indonesians originated from southern China. The Austronesian family of languages of which are spoken as far west as Madagascar, as far south of New Zealand, as far east as Easter island and all Philippine and Polynesian languages most likely originated in China. A great diversity of these languages is found in Taiwan, which has led some to conclude they originated there or on the nearby mainland. Others believe they may have originated in Borneo or Sulawesi or some other place.

The ancestors of modern Southeast Asian people arrived from Tibet and China about 2,500 years ago, displacing the aboriginal groups that occupied the land first. They subsisted on rice and yams which they may have been introduced to Africa.

Pottery and stone tools of southern Chinese origin dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Taiwan. The same artifacts have been found in archeological sites in the Philippines dating back to 3000 B.C. Because there were no land bridges linking China or Taiwan with the Philippines, one must conclude that ocean-going vessels were in regular use. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori of New Zealand are found in Taiwan.

Southern Chinese culture, agriculture and domesticated animals (pigs, chickens and dogs) is believed to have spread from the Philippines through the islands of Indonesia to the islands north of New Guinea. By 1000 B.C., obsidian was being traded between present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and present-day New Britain in Papua New Guinea, 2,400 miles away. Later southern Chinese culture spread eastward across the uninhabited islands of the Pacific, reaching Easter Island (10,000 miles from China) around 500 A.D. Chinese researchers Feng Zhang, Bing Su, Ya-ping Zhang and Li Jin wrote in an article published by the Royal Society: “There has been controversy regarding the origin of Polynesian populations, which have been classified as a part of the Austronesian linguistic family. The express train hypothesis, a well-accepted theory on the origin of Austronesian (Diamond 1988), postulates that Proto-Austronesian originated in Taiwan and began to expand southward ca 5000–6000 years ago, by way of the Philippines and eastern Indonesia, and eventually navigated eastward to Micronesia and Polynesia. The ‘express train’ refers to the swift migration in the last leg of this journey starting from eastern Indonesia. Pertaining to East Asian diversity studies, the hypothesis of Taiwanese origin (referred to as the Taiwan homeland hypothesis) requires careful examination. [Source: “Genetic studies of human diversity in East Asia” by 1) Feng Zhang, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, 2) Bing Su, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, 3) Ya-ping Zhang, Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-resource, Yunnan University and 4) Li Jin, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University. Author for correspondence (, 2007 The Royal Society ***]

To test the Taiwan homeland hypothesis, Su et al. (2000a,b) examined 19 Y-SNPs in 551 males from 36 populations living in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Surprisingly, there is a virtual absence of the Formosan haplotypes in Micronesia and Polynesia. However, the presence of all the Polynesian, Micronesian and Formosan haplotypes in Southeast Asians suggested that Southeast Asians might be the ancestral population for Formosan and Polynesian (Su et al. 2000a,b). Recently, Jin and colleagues examined 20 Y-SNPs and 7 Y-STRs in 1325 males from 29 Daic, 23 Polynesian and 11 Formosan populations, and showed that Taiwan is unlikely to be the homeland of Austronesian; and that Austronesian is not a genetically monophyletic group. Furthermore, the NRY evidence supported the idea that Polynesian and Formosan derived from Daic separately (Li Jin 2005, unpublished data). ***

By assessing mtDNA variations in 640 individuals from nine tribes from Taiwan, Trejaut et al. (2005) showed the prevalence of several haplogroups (B4, B5a, F1a, F3b, E and M7) in the Formosan populations, which indicated that Taiwan was the common origin of the Austronesian populations. In addition, a new sub-haplogroup (B4a1a) was defined according to the sequence data, which supported the origin of Polynesian migration as being from Taiwan (Trejaut et al. 2005). One explanation for the inconsistent results, mainly between the NRY evidence and the mtDNA data, is that the migration pattern of the Proto-Austronesian populations may be different for the paternal and maternal lineages. ***

Chinese Culture Displaces the Indigenous Culture

Inventions such as the animal harness and iron-making gave the ancient Chinese a technological advantage over their Stone Age neighbors. As people of Chinese origin moved across Asia they displaced and mixed with the local people, mostly hunter-gatherers whose tools and weapons were no match against of those the Chinese. It is also likely that many of the indigenous people died form diseases introduced by the people from China just as the original inhabitants of America were killed off by European diseases for which they had no resistance.

Even these Negritos adopted Chinese-influenced languages. The ancestors of the hunter-gatherers lives on in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands. Seafarers that originated Southeast Asian colonized Philippines, Indonesia, Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Easter Island, New Zealand and even Madagascar in the first millennium A.D.

Not everyone agrees with these theories. Based on links between ancient Chinese history, the early Thai language and archeological discoveries in Southeast Asia, the scholar Paul Benedict has argued that Southeast Asia was a “focal point” for the cultural development of ancient man. There is some evidence that the earliest known agriculture and earliest metal working took place in Southeast Asia. Benedict is author of “Austro-Thai Language and Culture “.

Dai, Tai, Lao and Thai People

Hill Tribe migrations

The Dai People of China, Thai people of Thailand and the Lao of Laos are part of the larger Tai ethnolinguistic peoples found in Southeast Asia and southern China. Their languages are languages are classified as part of the Tai–Kadai family of languages. The majority of them are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Other Tai people include the Shan in Myanmar and the Lao in Laos. Each group speaks its own Tai language or dialect and has customs and characteristics unique to the region they live in. Almost all Tai people are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.

Traditionally, Tai groups ruled over polities known in Tai language as muang, multi-ethnic domains of variable extension in which the Tai groups would occupy the rice fields of the lowland areas and exert political domination over mountain-dwellers -mainly Mon-Khmer or Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups such as Bulang, Akha-Hani or Lahu. [Source: Ethnic China]

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic. In Thailand, these Austro-Thai groups belonged to the Thai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer language families. The Thai-Kadai is the most significant ethno-linguistic group in all of Southeast Asia, with 72 million speakers extending from the Brahmaputra River in India’s Assam state to the Gulf of Tonkin and China’s Hainan Island. To the north, there are Thai-Kadai speakers well into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and to the south they are found as far as the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

“In Thailand and Laos they are the majority populations, and in China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) they are the largest minorities. The predominant Thai half of the Thai-Kadai group includes the Ahom (Assam), the Siamese (Thailand), the Black Thai or Thai Dam (Laos and Vietnam), the Thai Yai or Shan (Myanmar and Thailand), the Thai Neua (Laos, Thailand and China), the Thai Lü (Laos, Thailand and China) and the Yuan (Laos and Thailand). The less numerous Kadai groups (under a million) include such comparatively obscure languages in southern China as Kelao, Lati, Laha, Laqua and Li.”

Origin of Tai People

The forebears of the modern Thai, Dai and Lao were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas. During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Tai-speaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese. [Source: Library of Congress]

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic and their original homeland a matter of academic debate. While most scholars favour a region vaguely stretching from Guangxi in southern China to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, a more radical theory says the Thais descended from an ocean-based civilisation in the western Pacific. The oceanic proponents trace the development of symbols and myths in Thai art and culture to arrive at their conclusions. This vast, non-unified zone of Austro-Thai influence spread all over Southeast Asia at various times. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

“In Thailand, these Austro-Thai groups belonged to the Thai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer language families. The Thai-Kadai is the most significant ethno-linguistic group in all of Southeast Asia, with 72 million speakers extending from the Brahmaputra River in India’s Assam state to the Gulf of Tonkin and China’s Hainan Island. To the north, there are Thai-Kadai speakers well into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and to the south they are found as far as the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. In Thailand and Laos they are the majority populations, and in China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) they are the largest minorities. The predominant Thai half of the Thai-Kadai group includes the Ahom (Assam), the Siamese (Thailand), the Black Thai or Thai Dam (Laos and Vietnam), the Thai Yai or Shan (Myanmar and Thailand), the Thai Neua (Laos, Thailand and China), the Thai Lü (Laos, Thailand and China) and the Yuan (Laos and Thailand). The less numerous Kadai groups (under a million) include such comparatively obscure languages in southern China as Kelao, Lati, Laha, Laqua and Li.

Migrations of Tai People

There is dispute as to the movements of the Tai-speaking peoples to the area they now occupy. “According to tradition, the Tai entered northern Thailand and displaced earlier inhabitants, who included the modern-day Akha, in about the eighth and ninth centuries. Gehan Wijeyewardene wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: No evidence is available to verify these claims. Tai came into contact with the Han in the fourteenth century. Nineteenth-century European scholars suggested that the kingdom of Nan Chao (seventh to thirteenth century) was Tai. This view is now generally rejected. Tai speakers probably formed only a small, nondominant section of the population. [Source: Gehan Wijeyewardene,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “ “A linguistic map of southern China, northeastern India and Southeast Asia clearly shows that the preferred zones of occupation by the Thai peoples have been river valleys, from the Red (Hong) River in the south of China and Vietnam to the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. At one time there were two terminals for movement into what is now Thailand. The ‘northern terminal’ was in the Yuan Jiang and other river areas in China’s modern-day Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and the ‘southern terminal’ along central Thailand’s Mae Nam Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya River). The human populations remain quite concentrated in these areas today, while areas between the two were merely intermediate relay points and have always been less populated. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

“The Mekong River valley between Thailand and Laos was one such intermediate zone, as were river valleys along the Nan, Ping, Kok, Yom and Wang Rivers in northern Thailand, plus various river areas in Laos and also in the Shan State of Myanmar. As far as historians have been able to piece together, significant numbers of Austro-Thai peoples in southern China or northern Vietnam probably began migrating southward and westward in small groups as early as the 8th century AD – most certainly by the 10th century. [

“These migrant Thais established local polities along traditional social schemata according to meuang (roughly ‘principality’ or ‘city-state’), under the rule of chieftains or sovereigns (jâo meuang). Each meuang was based in a river valley or section of a valley and some were loosely collected under one jâo meuang or an alliance of several. Wherever Thais met indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers in the move south and westward (into what is now Myanmar, Thailand and Laos), they were somehow able to displace, assimilate or co-opt them without force. The most probable explanation for this relatively smooth assimilation is that there were already Thai peoples indigenous to the area.

Tai Groups in Northern Southeast Asia and Southern China

J. H. Freeman, a missionary of the American Presbyterian Mission at Chiang Mai, who spent 15 years in northern Thailand wrote: "“We are at work in northern Siam (Thailand) among the Taiy Yuen, and other tribes [Lao, Lit, Kung, and Tai-niieh), who together are known as Lao or Laos. They are the largest compact section of the Tai race, having in common a written character and a speech which differs so little that for 600 miles southeast to northwest and about the same distance southwest to northeast N.E. one can understand them all readily, whether in Siamese, French, British, or Chinese (western Yunnan) territory. They number, say, six million. To the south of them are Siamese numbering three million, a kindred people, but using a different written character, and a speech not readily understood by our people, mixed with Cambodian, etc. West of the Salween River in Burma are the western Shans, numbering about two hundred and fifty thousand, whose speech differs also through Burman influence.''[Source: “Among the Tribes of South-west China” by Samuel R. Clarke (China Inland Mission, 1911)]

First: The language of the Tai people south and west of the Red River of Northern Vietnam is substantially identical with the Tai language spoken farther west, save that those farther west lack the religious, polite, and abstract terms which the Laos [Yuen, Khun, Lu, Lao, etc.) have derived from Pali, the language of Western Buddhism. They also lack almost wholly the written character which the Laos received with Buddhism from India. Other differences of vocabulary are slight. I could talk with them pretty freely on everyday subjects.

“Second: When you cross the divide from the valley of the Red River to that of the Sikiang (Xi River, a western tributary of the Pearl River in southern China) at Lang-son, Dong-dang, Bao-sac, Caobang, etc. — all in French Northern Vietnam — you find a people, the Thos and Mawngs, whose speech differs most widely from the Tai of northern Siam. But tone and pronunciation are quite close to the Lil, who are on both banks of the Mekong in French, British, and Chinese territory. There are many of them even in Siam. Their vocabulary does not differ essentially from Laos. The Tho people of Northern Vietnam pronounce vowels and diphthongs as do the Lu, and their vocabulary is not very different. I made a vocabulary of four hundred common words, and found only sixty-seven, or one in six, which cannot readily be identified with anything in the Chiang Mai dialect, but many more differ sufficiently to make them difficult to catch in conversation. Fully two-thirds of the words, however, in common speech are the same, having only slight differences in tone and pronunciation.

"Third: The country speech in and near Longzhou in Guangxi is the same as the Tho, and the people are generally called Tho or Tai-lo, There is, however, a large admixture of Cantonese and Mandarin in their words, and I found some difficulty in making them understand me. Nawng and Lawng are other terms used for these people: the latter to the south are said to differ little.

“Fourth: At Nanning (south Guangxi) I first came in touch with the Chawng. These people are found south of Nanning all along the French border, and appear to be the same as are found north of Wuchow (Guangxi). I did not see enough of them to be able to express very definitely any opinion about their language, save that it is Tat, and in general character the same as the Tho. They seem to occupy a very large area across the north of Guangxi, from Kweihn and Pinglo to Szecheng. They are also to be found in the south, and I have reports of them at various points between, as forming the bulk of the population”

Mr. Freeman mentions the large number of these people found in the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou, and referring to a list of Bouyei words as spoken around Guiyang, he says: ''I have seen The Chinese Empire, and there is no question that the people (i.e. the Bouyei) both in Guizhou and Guangxi are Tai. It is difficult to tell how closely related they are to our people in Siam” He also refers to the Li, the aborigines of Hainan, whom he calls Loi, and says they have many words like the Tai. Some of the Li or Loi are also found in the adjoining peninsula of Luichow in Guangdong.

Early Contacts with India and China

The first contacts between the people of Southeast Asia and empires of India and China are believed to have taken place between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100. Chinese and Christian traders are believed to have arrived in Southeast Asia while searching for a maritime Silk Road route to replace overland routes blocked by horseman tribes in Central Asia

From the A.D. 1st century, the Indianisation of Southeast Asia occurred through trading settlements that sprang up on the coastline of what is now southern Vietnam, but was then inhabited by the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. These settlements were important ports of call for boats following the trading route from the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China.

By the beginning of the A.D. 1st century, Chinese traders began to report the existence of inland and coastal kingdoms in Cambodia. These kingdoms already owed much to Indian culture, which provided alphabets, art forms, architectural styles, religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), and a stratified class system. Local beliefs that stressed the importance of ancestral spirits coexisted with the Indian religions and remain powerful today. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Indian influence started to spread to the region at the latest during the early centuries AD, when two kingdoms or chains of chiefdoms, Funan (c. 150–550) and Chenla (c. 550–800), flourished in the Mekong Delta area. The Khmer empire of ancient Cambodia flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries.Even from the beginning of the period of its glory, state centralism was concentrated in the region of Angkor, near the Tonle Sap or Great Lake. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

The predominant religion was Hinduism, most often in its Shivaistic form. Vishnuism, as well as forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, was also practised for shorter periods. One of the features of the syncretistic belief system was the elevation of the king to the realm of the gods. The conception of devaraja, which translates as “god-king”, is mentioned in the stone inscriptions that survive.

Influences of India and China on Southeast Asia

Rugged mountains separated Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia from China. As a consequence they were influenced more by Hinduism and Buddhism which came from India. Hindu kingdoms arose in Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, southern Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok.

On the side of Southeast Asia that faced India the influence of India was stronger than the influence of China. At the way stations and ports here, Indian traders brought heir ideas about Hinduism and Indian culture. Later some of these traders took up residence at the ports and communities of Hindus were established. As these communities grew their ideas about religion became more entrenched and were more widely disseminated. Khmer Civilization at Angkor Wat began as Hindu Civilization.

The Pallava kingdom ruled much of south India from A.D. 350 to 880, as the Indian culture arrived in Southeast Asia. In addition to religion, style of dance, its stories, architecture and gaudy color schemes were introduced. The First written language for much of Southeast Asia was Pali, a derivative of Sanskrit. Many written languages in Southeast Asia were based on it.

Of all the Southeast Asian countries Vietnam was influenced the most by China, partly because it was close to China and not separated by natural boundaries. Chinese influences found in Southeast Asia include Taoist thinking, Confucian morality, Chinese mercantilism, Chinese folk medicine, their weight and measure system and kite flying.

The first Hindus arrived as traders, while the first Chinese came as merchants and colonizers. Strong independent empires established themselves in Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Vietnam on the other was controlled, at war or recovering from a war with China.

Arrival of Hinduism in Southeast Asia

Hinduism preceded Buddhism into Southeast Asia. It was introduced around the sixth century B.C. to Southeast Asia by Indian merchants. Many of the great early civilizations of Southeast Asia-such as the Funan, the Chams in present-day Vietnam and the Khmer's in present-day Cambodia—were strongly influenced by India and Hinduism. Unlike Indian Hinduism, which favored deities like Vishnu and Shiva, Southeast Asian Hinduism revered nagas, who protected temples from evil spirits, and considered Garuda, the eagle mount of Vishnu, to be one of the most important gods.

Hinduism in Southeast Asia gave birth to the former Champa civilization in southern parts of Central Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indochina, Langkasuka Kingdom, Gangga Negara and Old Kedah in the Malay Peninsula, the Srivijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Singhasari kingdom and the Majapahit Empire based in Java, Bali, and parts of the Philippine archipelago. The civilization of India influenced the languages, scripts, calendars, and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations. [Source: Wikipedia]

Indian scholars wrote about the Dvipantara or Jawa Dwipa Hindu kingdom in Java and Sumatra around 200 BC. Southeast Asia was frequented by traders from eastern India, particularly Kalinga, as well as from the kingdoms of South India. The Taruma kingdom occupied West Java around 400. There was a marked Buddhist influence starting about 425. These seafaring peoples engaged in extensive trade, which attracted the attention of the Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Islamic traders, who reached the Aceh area of Sumatra in the 12th century.

Hinduism, the Khmers and Angkor Wat

Initially, the Khmers were Hindus. Angkor Wat originally was the center of royal phallic cult dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. A linga (the phallic symbol of Shiva) was installed in the temple’s main sanctuary. Later Vishnu became the most important Hindu god and his image was placed in the sanctuary at Angkor Wat. Under Jayavarman VII the Khmer converted to Mahayana Buddhism. Later, Theravada Buddhism was introduced by the Thais. It became dominate after the Khmer empire collapsed.

“Devaraja“, meaning “God King” or literally “the Lord of the Universe Who is King,” refers to the cult associated with the rulers of Angkor, who were regarded as a earthly representations of deities, capable of performing the same kind of role on earth that the gods performed in the heavens. Through a consecration rite, the kings were endowed with divine power and given the responsibility to protect the state and the people.

“Devaraja“ was linked with Hinduism and has its root in an ancient Indian royal cults based on the concept that a king and one of the Hindu gods, usually Shiva or Vishnu, were spiritually linked. At Angkor, the “devaraja“ cult was used like pharaoh worship in ancient Egypt to help justify the state and put the population to work to build monuments and maintain the state.

The first Khmer capital was at latter-day Roluos, itself a pre-Angkorian capital, Hariharalaya. This conformed with the classic form of Khmer capital. Leading dignitaries would also build temples, both inside and outside the enceinte, which were dedicated, like the state temple, to Hindu divinities, notably Shiva.

Arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism reached Sri Lanka about the middle of the 3rd century B.C. From there and from India, some centuries later, it spread to Southeast Asia, reaching Cambodia, Sumatra and Java by the A.D. 3rd century and Burma by at least by the A.D. 5th century. It also took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong in there and in Indonesia until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

Buddhism may have arrived earlier. According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Suvanaphoum (the Golden Land) is the 3rd century B.C. Suvanaphoum was an emerging area of Indian and Chinese culture is thought to have embraed southern Myanmar, Thailand and eastern Cambodia.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Mahayana Buddhism may have been the first form of Buddhism to really take hold in Southeast Asia. It arrived in northern Burma from India and remained there from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India. Buddhist monks from India and China also brought with the knowledge of medicine and science from those cultures. Mahayana Buddhism is believed to have arrived in southern Southeast Asia via the Kingdom of Srivjaya in Indonesia or Funan, where it was practiced in the A.D. fifth century. In the 8th century the powerful Shri-Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana to the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. The Khmers were originally Hindus. In the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. Mahayana was compatible with the form of Hinduism and the god-king concept that existed in Cambodia at that time. It was expressed in Sanskrit. The Khmers converted to Buddhism in the 12th century under king Jayavarman VII (See Javyavarman VII, Cambodia) but continued to acknowledge Hinduism and worship many Hindu gods, particularly Shiva and Vishnu. The Khmers spread Mahayana Buddhism across Southeast Asia until their kingdom collapsed in the 14th century.

Buddhism had all but died out its homeland of India when it arrived in Southeast Asia. It provided a philosophical and oral framework for people that extended from Tibet to Vietnam. Even though Buddhism became the predominate religion, Hinduism and animism and local religions remained alive and fused together in a way that was unique to the region, embracing some Hindu deities and cult practices and absorbing some animist spirits. Many legends that became part of local folklore have both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Sometimes even different elements of the same religion came together in unique ways. The god Hara-Hara, popular in Khmer art, was a combination of Shiva and Vishnu.

Arrival of Theravada Buddhist in Southeast Asia

Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and was introduced to Southeast Asia in southern Burma, when it was inhabited by people known as Mon, by way of eastern India and Sri Lanka. The religion took hold in Burma in A.D. 1040, when the Burmese monarch King Anawratha converted to it. Theravada Buddhism mixed with indigenous beliefs (particularly the belief in spirits called nats) and was spread with the help of rich patrons who supported the monasteries and established new monasteries across country that educated the people. In the process, Mahayana Buddhism disappeared.

The Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand owes little to China because it was carried their by monks from India. The texts were in the Pali language and derived from Sanskrit. The Buddhism that was introduced to Cambodia initially belonged to a now dead sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Sarvastivada. Theravada Buddhism did not appear there and in Laos until the 14th century. In Thailand, there is little evidence of it until the 13th century.

In the 13th century the Thai people arrived in northern Thailand from southern China. They absorbed Buddhism from the Mons in the central plains. In the 14th century Thai monks schooled in Sri Lanka returned with reformed concepts of Theraveda Buddhism, and helped spread the religion to Laos and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism arrived in Cambodia slowly in beginning in the 11th century from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It offered a new ideology and undermined the Hinduism and the god-king elements of Khmer rule. Theravada Buddhism gained a stronger foothold in Cambodia when the Thais conquered Angkor in 1431 and was the dominate form of Buddhism by the 15th century. It was expressed through the Pali language.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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