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Area: 236,800 sq km
Population: 6.3 million
Languages: Lao, French, English, ethnic languages
Religions: Buddhism, Animist, Christian
GNI per capita: US$740
Currency: LAK (kip);1USD = 8,760 kips

Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th Century under King FA NGUM. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. 

Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country, widely covered by largely unspoiled tropical forest. Less than 5% of the land is suitable for subsistence agriculture, which nevertheless provides around 80% of employment. The main crop is rice, which is grown on the fertile floodplain of the Mekong River. Vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton are also grown. 

Laos is one of the world's few remaining communist states. A gradual return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1986. It became a member of ASEAN in 1997. The government has implemented gradual economic and business reforms since 2005 to somewhat liberalize its domestic markets. Its long-term plans for reform include high-profile projects such as the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project. Outside the capital, many people live without electricity or access to basic facilities. But Laos is banking on the anticipated returns from a billion-dollar dam scheme, intended to generate electricity for export to Thailand, to boost its economy and infrastructure.