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Geographical Setting of the Silk Roads

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

Mainland Southeast Asia
The huge peninsula that today includes Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and mainland Malaysia is a land of fertile, rice-growing river valleys and coastal plains, and rugged, forested interior mountain ranges. The narrow Strait of Malacca, between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, is one of the few navigable routes between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a historic choke-point for long-distance Eurasian maritime trade, control of the strait was a rich prize, much fought over by local peoples and invaders over the course of the centuries.

Despite its proximity to China, mainland Southeast Asia as a whole was more strongly influenced by Indian culture. Indian merchants traded across the Bay of Bengal to the coast of mainland Southeast Asia, as well as to the western islands of Indonesia. These merchants brought Hinduism wherever they settled in trading communities, and brought as well Buddhism which spread rapidly among local populations. Today, mainland Southeast Asia remains largely Buddhist.

Island Southeast Asia
This vast zone of islands—stretching from Taiwan through the Philippines to Indonesia —was settled beginning probably around the early 1st millennium BCE by the most remarkable mariners of the ancient world. These people, known as Austronesians or Malayo-Polynesians, became expert seafarers, moving from their homeland on China’s southeastern coast first to Taiwan, then down through the Philippinesto Borneo. From there they radiated in all directions in a process of exploration and settlement that paved the way for vigorous interisland and long-distance maritime trade that conveyed goods between southern China and India. In time, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and eventuallyEuropean ships plied these waters.

Several times over the long history of the Silk Road, trade shifted to this maritime route when conditions made overland trade difficult. A strong and enduring Arab presence in island Southeast Asia led to the conversion of most of the region’s population to Islam beginning in the 13th century.