What is South Asia? Despite the subregion in Asia being the most populous on earth, many people aren’t sure about the location of South Asia or exactly which countries are considered "South Asian."
South Asia can loosely be described as the eight nations around the Indian subcontinent, including the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives that are situated south of India.
Although South Asia (also referred to as Southern Asia) only occupies approximately 3 percent of the world’s land area, the region is home to over 24 percent of the world’s population (nearly 1.9 billion), making it the most densely populated place on earth.
Lumping the eight countries of South Asia together under a common label almost seems unfair; the cultural diversity of the region is astounding. The label "South Asian" applies more to the geographical location than any religious or cultural similarities.
For instance, not only is South Asia home to the largest Hindu population (unsurprising, given the size of India), it’s also home to over 510 million Muslims.
South Asia is often mistakenly confused with Southeast Asia, however, the two are completely different subregions in Asia.
The Countries in South Asia
Aside from the Indian subcontinent, there aren’t any hard geological boundaries with which to define South Asia. Differences of opinion sometimes exist because cultural borders don’t always mesh with political delineations. Tibet, claimed by China as an autonomous region, would ordinarily be considered a part of South Asia.
Per most modern definitions, eight countries officially belong to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):
- Afghanistan: population 31.6 million (2018)
- Bangladesh: population 166.3 million (2017)
- Bhutan: population 817,000 (2017)
- India: population 1.35 billion (2017)
- Maldives: 444,000 (2017)
- Nepal: 29.6 million (2017)
- Pakistan: 212.7 million (2017)
- Sri Lanka: 21.7 million (2018)
Sometimes Myanmar (Burma) is unofficially included as part of South Asia because it shares borders with Bangladesh and India. Although Myanmar does have some cultural ties with the region, it isn’t yet a full member of SAARC and is generally considered to be a part of Southeast Asia. Myanmar is currently a member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
Rarely, the British Indian Ocean Territory is also considered a part of South Asia. The 1,000 or more atolls and islands of the Chagos Archipelago strung between Indonesia and Tanzania only amount to a combined land area of 23 square miles!
The United Nations’ Definition of South Asia
Although most of the world simply says “South Asia,” the United Nations’ geoscheme for Asia labels the subregion as “Southern Asia.” The two terms can be used interchangeably.
The United Nations’ definition of South Asia includes the eight countries listed above but also adds Iran for “statistical convenience.” Ordinarily, Iran is considered to be in Western Asia, although what countries are considered to be in Western Asia is an ongoing debate.
South Asia, Not Southeast Asia
South Asia and Southeast Asia are often confused with each other or used interchangeably, however, doing so is not correct.
The 11 countries that make up Southeast Asia are: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor (Timor Leste), and Brunei on the island of Borneo.
Although Myanmar currently has “observer” status in the SAARC and has applied to be a full member, it is currently a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Some Interesting Facts About South Asia
- India has the highest nominal GDP in South Asia (US $1,939 per capita as of April 2019), meanwhile Afghanistan’s per capita nominal GDP is only US $585.
- The Maldives, a popular honeymoon destination in Asia, is the smallest country in Asia — both by land size and population. All islands combined provide only 115 square miles for the 444,259 inhabitants. The Maldives is considered under threat by rising sea levels caused by climate change.
- The Maldives and Sri Lanka — both island nations — have the highest literacy rates in South Asia, with 98.6 percent and 92 percent respectively.
- Although Sri Lanka enjoys a high literacy rate and relatively low poverty rate compared to the rest of South Asia, 22 percent of the population was considered "undernourished" in 2015.
- All 14 of the tallest mountains on earth (known collectively as the “Eight-Thousanders”) are located in South Asia, however, Shishapangma — the shortest peak — is technically in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
- Two nations in South Asia have nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan.
- Although Pakistan is a nuclear power and has the second-highest nominal GDP in South Asia, the literacy rate is only 58 percent; more than 21 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line (US $1.25 per day).
- Sadly, Sri Lanka has the highest rate of suicide in South Asia. But they also passed the Maldives to take the top spot for longest life expectancy in South Asia (77.1 years for both sexes per the CIA World Factbook).
- Afghanistan has the lowest life expectancy, nearly the worst in the world, with an average longevity of 52.1 years per the CIA World Factbook.
- Only Sunni Muslims can be citizens of the Maldives.
- Sri Lanka is only slightly larger than the U.S. state of West Virginia, however, more than 22.5 million people call the island home. That’s roughly the populations of Sweden, Norway, and Finland combined.
- In 2010, Bhutan became the first country in the world to completely ban the sales and production of tobacco products.
- Television and internet access weren't allowed in Bhutan until 1999.
- With a reasonable level of fitness, anyone with enough tenacity can hike to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Trekkers who visit Everest Base Camp during May get treated to seeing preparations by Everest climbing teams. The ordinarily empty base camp is bustling with helicopters, film crews, and potential climbers.
Traveling in South Asia
South Asia is huge, and traveling through the region can be daunting for some travelers. In many ways, South Asia certainly presents more of a challenge than the familiar Banana Pancake Trail destinations in Southeast Asia.
India is a very popular destination, particularly for backpackers who get to enjoy a lot of bang for their budget. The size and pace of the subcontinent are overwhelming. Luckily, the government is fairly generous about granting long visas after completing the necessary paperwork. Visiting India for a shorter trip has never been easier with the Indian eVisa system.
Trips to Bhutan — what has been called "the happiest country on earth" — must be arranged via government-blessed tours that include the country's extraordinarily high visa costs. The mountainous country is about the size of the U.S. state of Indiana and remains one of the most closed-off nations on earth.
Traveling in Pakistan and Bangladesh present numerous challenges, but with time and the appropriate amount of preparation, can be very rewarding destinations.
Mountain enthusiasts won't find any better on earth than the Himalayas in Nepal. Epic treks can be done independently or arranged with a guide. Walking to Everest Base Camp is an unforgettable adventure. Even if you don't intend go trekking, Kathmandu itself is a fascinating destination.
Sri Lanka could easily become your favorite island in the world. It's just the right size, incredibly blessed with biodiversity, and the vibe there is one of optimistic growth. Sri Lanka shares some of the "hectic" attributes of India (overcrowded public transportation for one), but Theravada Buddhism — the same branch observed by Thailand — prevails. Surfing, whale watching, a lush interior of flora and fauna, and excellent diving are just a few of the reasons to visit Sri Lanka.
The Maldives is a beautiful, photogenic archipelago of tiny islands. In many instances, only a single resort occupies an island. Although the water is pristine for diving, snorkeling, and sunbathing, the Maldives may not be the best choice for intrepid island-hoppers.
At least for now, Afghanistan is inaccessible for most travelers.
Life Expectancy in South Asia
Averages for both sexes combined. Per CIA World Factbook 2018 data.
- Afghanistan: 52.1 years
- Bangladesh: 73.7 years
- Bhutan: 71.1 years
- India: 69.1 years
- Maldives: 76 years
- Nepal: 71.3 years
- Pakistan: 68.4 years
- Sri Lanka: 77.1 years
About the SAARC
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed in 1985. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was put into place in 2006 to facilitate trade in the region.
Although India is by far the largest member of SAARC, the organization was formed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Large Cities in South Asia
South Asia is home to some of the world’s largest “megacities.” Many suffer from overpopulation and pollution:
- Delhi, India (28 million people)
- Karachi, Pakistan (15 million people)
- Mumbai, India (20 million people)
- Dhaka, Bangladesh (19 million people)