Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. Its population is estimated to be 6.5 million. Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, which existed from the 14th to the 18th century when it split into three kingdom.
The ethnic Lao and some Tai groups are Theravada Buddhists. There are also beliefs usually labeled animistic and beliefs associated with shamanism that involve house spirits, village spirits, district spirits, city spirits, and spirits of the realm. At the higher levels these spirits overlap strongly with Buddhism and are embodied in stupas and temples.
Agriculture employs about 76% of the people, compared with 7% in industry and 17% in services. Rice is the main crop, and timber and coffee are both exported. The most valuable export is electricity, which is produced at hydroelectric power stations on the River Mekong and exported to Thailand.
Laos has the typical tropical monsoon (wet-dry) climate of the region, though the mountains provide some variations in temperature. During the rainy season (May to October), the winds of the southwest monsoon deposit an average rainfall of 50 to 90 inches (1,300 to 2,300 mm), with totals reaching some 160 inches (4,100 mm) on the Bolovens Plateau. The dry season (November to April) is dominated by the northeast monsoon.
Estimated opium poppy cultivation in 2008 was 1,900 hectares, about a 73% increase from 2007. Estimated potential opium production in 2008 more than tripled to 17 metric ton. Methamphetamine is a growing domestic problem.
The sovereignty of the former Kingdom of Laos was recognized by France in 1953. In 1975 the insurgent Neo Lao Haksat (Lao Patriotic Front) gained control of the country, abolishing the monarchy and establishing the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) was the only party permitted to present candidates at the election of 2011; however, four of the 132 seats in the National Assembly were taken by candidates described as independent.
Despite the political stability, the business environment has remained very shaky. Measures taken to improve education and health notwithstanding, the general level of education remains very low and the health system is still underdeveloped. Besides, Laos will be highly unlikely to succeed in attracting direct investment in sectors other than natural resources, although success on that score constitutes a crucial challenge for the country's future.
The people of Laos are of three main groups; the largest group is composed of Lao, who are closely related to the Thai. An Indonesian people, called Lao Theung (Mountain People), live in the highlands, and people of Sino-Tibetan origin, such as the Hmong (Meo) and Yao, inhabit the North mountains. Smaller minority groups include Vietnamese and Chinese.
Although diplomatic relations were never severed, U.S.-Lao relations deteriorated during in the post-Indochina War period after 1975. The relationship remained cool until 1982 when efforts at improvement began. Full diplomatic relations were restored in 1992 with a return to ambassadorial-level representation.
Average life expectancy was estimated at 54 years for men and women; infant mortality was estimated at 92 per 1000 live births. Common diseases are malaria, cholera, respiratory infections, diarrhea and dysentery, parasites, yaws, skin ailments, hepatitis, venereal disease, and tuberculosis.
The typical house is rectangular, built entirely of wooden planks and bamboo, with a thatched roof, and it raised off the ground on wooden pilings 1-2m high. There is a critical housing shortage in the towns, and many dwellings are substandard.