Laos is a small, landlocked country located in the interior of Southeast Asia's strategic Indochinese Peninsula. Laos was part of the KHMER EMPIRE before 1353 when the Laotian prince Fa Ngum assumed the throne of Muong Swa (Luang Prabang) and founded the kingdom of Lan Xang. Theravada Buddhism, adopted from the Khmers, became the state religion.
The Lao kingdom reached its zenith under King Souligna Vongsa (r. 1637-94). After 1707 dynastic feuds divided the kingdom, and three competing kingdoms emerged--Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak.
In the 19th century, annexation by Thailand was averted by an appeal for French protection. In 1893, Laos became part of French Indochina. The population of Laos is ethnically complex, with each ethnic group closely tied to related groups outside the country's borders than to the Laotian nation.
The dominant group are the LAO, who account for nearly 50% of the total population and are concentrated in the alluvial flood plains along the Mekong River valley and its tributaries. The Lao Teung, occupying middle elevations in the highlands, practice a low-yielding slash-and-burn form of agriculture. They are regarded as the original inhabitants and constitute about 25% of the total population. At higher elevations, above 1,067 m (3,500 ft), are the Hmong (MEO) and Man (YAO) hill tribes, which account for about 13% of the total population.
Also separate are the tribal Tai, who practice a religion different from that of the lowland Lao. The official language is Lao, which is the language of the Lao ethnic group and is similar to Siamese. The Lao Teung all speak languages of the Mon-Khmer family, and the Meo and Man languages are regarded as belonging to the Miao-Yao language family. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, which remains an important part of Lao life under the Communists. The Lao Teung, tribal Tai, and other hill tribes practice various forms of animism and ancestor worship.