Southeast Asian Maritime Routes ca. 800-900 CE

Southeast Asian Maritime Routes ca. 800-900 CE

There have been many works in this area done by numerous scholars but frequently we found out several identifications of place names in ancient texts are far from accurate and the result of the drawn maritime routes map is misleading and unthinkable – one example is shown in the attached picture. This article in its simplest form is an attempt to reconstruct the maritime routes of Southeast Asia ca. 800-900 CE.

However, IMO these documented maritime routes were not necessarily as overall reflecting the major trading routes of Southeast Asia. Some or maybe many of them instead preferred to use overland or trans-peninsular (crossing the Malay Peninsula) routes that can save the lead-time and also less risk of being harassed by pirates.

Route 1: Jia Dan’s itinerary records, Xin Tangshu juan 43B.18b
Jia Dan (730-805 CE) is a Chinese scholar and geographer. He is an official of the late Tang period and has compiled many important geographical works including a description of the major maritime trade route from China right through to the Persian Gulf (ca. 800 CE). The work is now lost, but this route was recorded in the Xin Tangshu. The details of the Indian Ocean routes may have been provided to the Chinese scholar by Arab or Persian mariners, as it was from the middle of the eighth century onwards that the Chinese sources show the replacement of Kunlun (Southeast Asian) traders arriving in China by Arabs and Persians. The itinerary records:

“Sailing to the southwest for a further three days brings one to Zhanbulao hill, which is located in the sea, 200 li east of the Huanwang kingdom. After that, the ship steers to the south for two days and reaches Lingshan hill. After one more day of sailing, the ship reaches the Mendu kingdom. After another day, the ship will arrive in ancient Da kingdom. Steering for half a day brings one to Bentuolang region/island. After two further days, one reaches Juntunong hill. After another five days of steering, one comes to a strait [1st Chi], which was called ‘Zhi’ by foreigners. The strait is about 100 li from north to south with the Luoyue kingdom on its northern coast and Foshi kingdom on the southern coast. Sailing to the east [accurately south-east] from Foshi for four or five days, one arrives at the Heling, the largest kingdom in the Nanzhong zhou [Southern central region/island]. Again, the ship steers westward [accurately north-wesward] out of the strait [2nd Chi, i.e. Singapore Strait], and three days later arrives at the Gegesengzhi kingdom. An island in the northwest [accurately southeast, or Foshi in the northwest of Gegesengzhi] of Foshi, there are many pirates and the seamen are quite scared of them. On the northern coast is located Geluo kingdom, and on the western [accurately north-western] coast of Geluo kingdom is Geguluo kingdom. Thereafter, the ship sets sail again from Gegesengzhi and reaches Shengdeng region/island after four or five days. With another five days’ sailing to the west [accurately north-west], the ship arrives in Polu kingdom and arrives at Poguojialan region/island after six days. Sailing north for four days brings the traveler to Lion kingdom, the northern coast of which is 100 li away from the southern Indian coast”
<< Xin Tang Shu, juan 43, “Dili Zhi” (Geography), p. 1153 >>

Route 2: Akbhār al-Sīn (an anonymous text sometimes known as the Book of Sulaimān or Akbhār al-Sīn wa’l-Hind)
This text is the earliest Arab account of Southeast Asia. It dates from the mid-9th century but contains materials from earlier periods. It refers to the ships’ arrival at Kalah-bar, noting that this place is a kingdom under Zabag @ Javaka @ Suvarnadvipa. The itinerary records:

“Then the ships travel to a place called Tiyūma, which has fresh water for anyone who desires it, and the distance to it is ten days. Then the ships set sail for a place called Kadrang and arrive there after ten days. There one also finds fresh water. Such are the islands of India, wherever you find springs you will find fresh water in them. At Kadrang is a high mountain where slaves and robbers sometimes hide. The ships next reach a place called Sanf situated at a distance of ten days….When the ships have taken fresh water they set sail for a place named Sundur Fūlāt, which is an island in the sea, ten days distance.”

Route 3: Tarīq min jānib fāris ilā’l-Mashriq “The Route from the Persian coast to the East”, Kitāb al-Masālik wa’l-mamālik “The Roads and Districts of States”.
This text is written by the Arab geographer Khurdādhbih (ca. 820 – 912 CE), writing during the period 846-885 CE. It is reflecting a reverse image of Jia Dan’s itinerary from East Asia to the Persian Gulf. The itinerary records:

“From Alankabālūs [i.e. Langabālūs], to the island of Kilah [i.e. Kalah] is six days. This island belongs to the kingdom of Jābat al-Hindi. It contains famous mines of al-Qal’ī tin and plantations of bamboo. To the left and at two days from [the island of Kilah] is the island of Bālūs, inhabited by cannibals. It produces excellent camphor, bananas, coconuts, sugar cane and rice. From there to the islands of Jāba, Salāhit and Harang, two parasangs. [The island of Jāba] is large.…. From these islands after fifteen days one reaches the Spice Islands. The distance between Jāba and Mā’it is small….. On leaving Mā’it, one finds to the left, the island of Tiyūma. From there one goes in five days to Qmār…. from Qmār to Sanf is three days…From Sanf to Lūqīn which is the first step of China, is a hundred parasangs either by land or sea”

Notes on the toponyms:

  1. Zhanbulao (hill) – Could be easily identified as the Cù Lao Chàm Island, off the coast of modern Hội An port city and this is generally accepted by scholars.
  2. Huanwang (kingdom) – Should be located near My Son Sanctuary. As noted by Do Truong Giang (2016: 21):

“As Chinese accounts and archaeological evidence show, is undoubtedly the Trà Kiệu Citadel where served as the political center of nagara Amaravati in the 9th century.”

The Xin Tangshu provides another account of Champa in the name of Huanwang:

“Huanwang, originally Linyi, is called Zhanbulao and also Zhanpo. It is situated 3,000 li by sea south of Fuzhou. Its land area east to west is more than 300 li and 100 li north to south. It is bounded to the west by Mount Wuwen of Zhenla and is bordered on the south by Benlangtou zhou.”
<<G. Gobble, Maritime Southeast Asia: The view from Tang-Song China 2014: 9)

  1. Lingshan (hill) – Usually has been associated with Cap Varella, near the Cả pass in Phú Yên province but this does not accord with the course of this itinerary. Instead of Cù Lao Re island (suggested by Southworth) and Cape Sa-hoi (speculated by Gungwu), Lingshan is more likely located near Qui Nhơn. As noted by Do Truong Giang (2016: 22):

“The new discoveries in Bình Định province suggest that Lingshan should be associated with a position around the modern Quy Nhon city, Bình Định province. It is interesting that there is still a pagoda in the name of Ling Shan located at the top of the mountain in Phuong Mai peninsula, which lies between the Thị Nại bay and the eastern Sea/South China Sea. A Champa statue with few Sanskrit words carved on its back is still visible to researchers and thus suggest that this position once was a temple during Champa period. It should be noted that Thị Nại gulf, just next to the Ling Shan Pagoda, is a very good water area for huge trading vessels. Nagara Vijaya, where the Thị Nại port and the Ling Shan temple located, was emerging as a rival of nagara Amaravati in the north by 9th century, and thus it is possible that this area was on the maritime itinerary of the Chinese…. The two-day journey from Cù Lao Chàm to Ling Shan in Bình Định province is also acceptable.”

  1. Mendu (kingdom) – Undoubtedly located at the estuary of the Ba/Darang River in present-day Phú Yên province. As noted by Do Truong Giang (2016: 23):

“Previous studies tend to place Men-tu in Bình Định province. But I believe that Men-tu was in fact located at the estuary of the Ba/Darang River in present-day Phú Yên province. The presence of a complex of citadel, inscriptions and sculptures in this area during the 8th and 9th centuries CE would confirm this interpretation.

  1. Da (kingdom) – Should be located near Nha Trang where Po Nagar temples located. As noted by Do Truong Giang (2016: 23):

“Kuda Guo is largely identified with nagara Kauthara of Champa where there is a famous complex of Po Nagar temples locates. There is one, inscription there date to 8th century (C38A, B, C, and D1), and two another inscriptions found there in 9th century (C37 and C31 C2).”

  1. Bentuolang (region/island) – Identical to Panduranga where is generally located near Phan Rang. As noted by Do Truong Giang (2016: 23):

“In the 8th century, there are two inscriptions from this region [Phan Rang], i.e. C217 and C216. In ninth century, there are much more inscriptions were found in this region, including those of C24, C25, C23, C19 and C14.”

  1. Juntunong (hill) – It is a reference to Pulao Condore, off the southern coast of Vietnam.
  2. ‘1st Chi’ (Zhi) & Loyue (kingdom) – This is the crux of the matter. “Zhi” is considered by some historians to be a rendering of the Malay term ‘selat’ and mostly think it is the Straits of Singapore. However, as noted by Prof Takashi Suzuki (2012: 130-2):

“… the Singapore Strait is too narrow, less than 10 kilometers width. 100 li means about 40 kilometers. Furthermore ‘selat’ has three meanings, ‘strait’, ‘narrow’ and ‘sound (bay)’. In this case, ‘selat’ might be the Bay of Bandon, of which mouth is about 40 kilometers from north to south…. There is another description in the Xin Tang-Shu, “The northward from Luo-Yue is 5,000 li sea water, and the south-west is Ko-ku-lo (哥谷羅)”. According to ‘the Jia-Dan’s map’ Ko-ku-lo is apparently located north of Lou-Yue if it was supposed to be located at Johore. The Xin Tang-Shu says that traders from various directions gather around Lou-Yue. However, actually Lou-Yue is located north of Ko-ku-lo (哥谷羅). So, apparently Lou-Yue is not Johore and located farther north. The customs of the resident of Lou-Yue are same as those of Dvaravati. Every year, the merchant-ship of Lou-Yue comes to Canton and reports to the local officials. So, I consider that the location of Lou-Yue was near the mainland of Thailand and the upper north of the Malay Peninsula, near Ratchaburi to Tenasserim.”

So, it is obvious that Loyue cannot be Johore and consequently “Zhi” must not be the Straits of Singapore but more likely Bay of Bandon, in the modern Surat Thani province. The ancient port over there is certainly Laem Pho. Loyue, which was situated near the northern end of the Peninsula undoubtedly adjoining the kingdom of Dvaravati on the mainland of Thailand. While the Bay of Bandon @ ‘Zhi’ was likely part of the territory of Foshi (Śrīvijaya) kingdom that adjoined the Loyue kingdom north of it. This is an important discovery that has gone unnoticed by historians. Without correcting these two locations, hence Jia Dan’s itinerary doesn’t seem to make sense.

9) Foshi (kingdom) & Heling (kingdom) – Foshi in this case, is undoubtedly a reference to Śrīvijaya. From the description, it is almost certain that the country of Śrīvijaya was located between Loyue country to its north and Heling country to its south. Meanwhile, the Xin Tangshu (which relates events of the 8th-10th centuries) gives definite locations for both Śrīvijaya and Heling countries. From calculations of the length of shadows, we could have the latitude of about 7 degrees and 17 minutes (North) and 6 degrees and 44 minutes (North) respectively. The texts say

“Shilifoshi is also called Shilifoshi 屍利佛誓…. At the summer solstice an erected 8 foot gnomon casts a shadow to the south of the gnomon 2 and half feet long.

“Heling, also called Shepo 社婆 and Dupo 阇婆…. On the summer solstice he sets up an 8 foot gnomon and the shadow on the south of the gnomon is 2 feet, 4.8 inches”

These information accords with the location of “Zhi” on the Bandon Bay. Starting from the end of the 8th century, most of the significant polities in Mainland & Insular Southeast Asia were under the control of Zabag group of kingdoms or empire @ Śrīvijaya Group who led the tributary mission to the Chinese court from Southeast Asia. Śailendra Dynasty who was the king of kings @ Maharaja of the empire used the name Heling, instead of ‘Śrīvijaya’ in her mission to the Tang court. Historians generally have been perplexed as to why the location Heling country which was supposed to be located in Central Java but located in the Malay Peninsula instead. This perplexity however has been clarified here

10) ‘2nd Chi’, Gegesengzhi (kingdom) & Tiyūma – ‘2nd Chi’ is likely a reference to the straits between the island of Singapore and the islands of Bintan and Batam which was the region/island of Malayu. It is almost identical to Mā’it of the Arabic text. Earlier in the 7th century CE, I-Tsing, a Chinese pilgrim stopped at Malayu 2 times on his way to India and return to China waiting for a suitable monsoon before journeys can be furthered. On leaving ‘2nd Chi’ strait or Mā’it, to the north-west, one can arrive at the Gegesengzhi within 3 days and to the north-east one can arrive at the island of Tiyūma. Gegesengzhi is unidentified but possibly situated either in the vicinity of the islands of Bengkalis and Dumai, off Kampar area on Sumatra’s east coast, or in the vicinity of Muar-Melaka on the Malay Peninsula’s west coast. The island of Tiyūma could easily be identified with Pulau Tioman, off Endau-Rompin area on the Malay Peninsula’s east coast.

11) Geluo (kingdom) & Gugeluo (kingdom) – Geluo is almost certainly the Kalah of the Arabic texts. It is noted in the Xin Tangshu (which relates events of the 8th-10th centuries), as lying to the southeast of Panpan (near Bay of Bandon) on the Malay Peninsula. The account further notes that Geluo was also called Geluo Fushaluo that comprised 24 districts and lying six days distance from Cambodia. Gugeluo, on the other hand, has been phonetically equated with the Qāqullah of the Arabic texts. As it is lying to the north of the Melaka Strait, to the west [accurately north-west] of Geluo and to the south of Loyou, Gugeluo is likely thus situated on the west coast of the peninsula. Hence, Geluo & Gugeluo could be easily identified with Kedah (at the mouth of Muda River) and Ko Kho Khao (at the mouth of Takuapa River). Both undoubtedly were significant ports in the 9th century CE on the west coast that could be connected to the east coast of Malay Peninsula through the overland routes.

12) Polu (kingdom) & Poguojialan (region/island) – Polu is almost identical to Bālūs of the Arabic text. It is likely a kingdom situated somewhere on the northern coast of Sumatra, near Aceh. Polusi, which is mentioned in several Chinese texts is Bālūs phonetically and could possibly be situated in the same region. Bālūs @ Barus at that time was not necessarily a reference to the region of modern Barus city, on Sumatra’s west coast. Poguojialan, on the other hand, is almost identical to Langabālūs of the Arabic text. It could be easily identified with the Nicobar Islands, which was a common stopover point(s) between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Langabālūs also identical to Langpolusi described in Xing Tangshu as to be situated to the west of Shilifoshi @ Śrīvijaya kingdom. The text says…

“Shilifoshi is also called Shilifoshi屍利佛誓…. There are 14 cities by means of which two kingdoms are divided and administered. The western [kingdom] is called Langpolusi 郎婆露斯.”

13) Lion (kingdom) – It could be easily identified with Sri Lanka which is identical with Sirandīb of the Arabic text.

14) Jāba, Salāhit and Harang – In this case, Jāba is unlikely a reference to the modern Java Island. Jāba is almost identical with Heling of the Jia Dan’s itinerary which is described as the largest region/island in the southern central. Jāba is described as having small distance from Mā’it. So, Jāba more likely is a reference to the Malay Peninsula in general. Both Salāhit and Harang are unidentified. Can both be referred to Shengdeng and Gegesengzhi of the Jia Dan’s itinerary?

15) Kadrang – Either Pulao Condore or Panduranga in Phan Rang. More likely Panduranga which is identical to Bentoulang.

16) Spice Islands – Moluccas Islands?

17) Qmār – The Khmer polity, likely around the Mekong delta.

18) Sanf – The Champa polity, likely near the My Son.

19) Sundur Fūlāt – Hainan Island.

20) Lūqīn – Unidentified. Probably a port in Hainan Island.


  1. Do Truong Giang, « Diplomacy, Trade and Networks: Champa in the Asian Commercial Context (7th-10th Centuries) », Moussons [Online], 27 | 2016, Online since 17 May 2016, connection on 06 September 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.3521
  2. Dashu Qin and Kunpeng Xiang, « Sri Vijaya as the Entrepôt for Circum-Indian Ocean Trade », Études océan Indien [Online], 46-47 | 2011, Online since 03 March 2013, connection on 05 September 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oceanindien.1379
  3. Geoffrey Goble (2014), Maritime Southeast Asia: The View from Tang-Song China. Nalanda Sriwijaya Centre, Working Paper Series No. 16
  4. G. Wade (2013), Maritime Routes Between Indochina and Nusantara to the 8th century, Archipel 85, Paris, 2013, pg. 83-104
  5. Suzuki, Takashi (2012), The History of Srivijaya Under the Tributary Trade System of China. Mekong Publishing Company, Limited
    - “Śrīvijaya―towards ChaiyaーThe History of Srivijaya (Renewed 10 November 2014)
  6. Michael Laffan (2005), Finding Java: Muslim nomenclature of insular Southeast Asia from Śrîvijaya to Snouck Hurgronje, Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series, No. 52
  7. G. R. Tibbetts (1979), A Study of the Arabic Texts Containing Material on South-East Asia, Leiden: Bril
  8. Wheatley, Paul (1961), The Golden Khersonese: Studies in The Historical Geography of The Malay Peninsula before A. D. 1500. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press



— September 28, 2023

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