by Charles Kimball

Behind the Malays came the Vietnamese, Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Thais, all forced to move by Chinese expansion. At an unknown date (no later than 300 B.C.), the Mon-Khmers split into two tribes: the Khmers, ancestor's of today's Cambodians, who migrated down the Mekong River; and the Mons, who went west to settle Thailand, southern Burma, and part of Malaya. Today the Mons are an insignificant race, numbering only half a million and living in a small area just east of the Irrawaddy delta, but at this time they were an important conduit of civilization.

When the Mons reached the Bay of Bengal, they made contact with India, which was ruled by an outstanding king named Asoka in the mid-third century B.C. Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to convert the Mons, thereby beginning Burma's preoccupation with Buddhism that lasts to this day. By 200 B.C. there was a Mon state, with its capital at Thaton, and regular commerce between India, Sri Lanka and Thaton.

Indian interest in Southeast Asia increased when India and China began to trade with each other in the second century 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 and Yunnan, 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. The area with the most traffic, the Malacca Strait between Malaya and Sumatra, soon 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, but that added 90 days to the journey, with no port to stop in on the way; few sailors or passengers looked forward to such a trip.

With the Indian ships came Indian culture. Because the currents and winds of the Indian Ocean change with the seasons, ships would often have to wait in a Southeast Asian port for months until favorable winds came, giving those on board ample time to meet the natives. Indian missionaries converted the natives to Buddhism and Hinduism, and soon the local rulers were calling themselves maharajahs and imitating the courts of India down to the smallest details. By the first century A.D., the coasts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam were dotted with Indian-style city-states.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball