Laos is located in southeastern Asia. It shares major borders with Thailand to its west and Vietnam to the east. Myanmar (Burma) and China border Laos on the north; Cambodia lies to the south. Much of the western border with Thailand is defined by the Mekong River. The country is landlocked, mountainous and heavily forested.
The nation has its origins in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), established in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum. For three centuries the kingdom dominated the region, including large parts of Cambodia and Thailand in addition to all of the territory occupied by present-day Laos. After a long decline, Laos came under the control of Siam (Thailand) between the late 18th and late 19th centuries—then under the control of France as part of French Indochina. The country became destabilized by the wars in neighboring Vietnam, eventually resulting in a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975.
The politically and ethnically dominant group is the Lao people, who occupy the lowland areas of the country. The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group which migrated southward from China in the first millennium A.D. They make up about 69% of the total population. The heavily forested and mountainous parts of the country are occupied by numerous smaller ethnic groups.
In the years since the Communist takeover, religious groups have experienced varying degrees of pressure and persecution. While Buddhism has made somewhat of a comeback, the Christian church is viewed as subversive to traditional Laotian values.