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This land-locked mountainous country is gaining a reputation as an ecotourist destination. Its many rivers criss-crossing the country and unspoilt national parks are ideal for activities such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The capital, Vientiane, and the other major towns have been spared major modern developments with traditional and colonial architecture still dominant.

Tourism newcomers
Laos is one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Until 1988, tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but now it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company, although plenty of backpackers do it independently. The number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years as more and more people discover the delights of this laid-back country of mountains and rivers.

Unspoilt and undeveloped
For now, Laos remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow paced. Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars. But those who make the effort to explore further afield will be well rewarded with luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century.

History of Laos
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the 15th century by Fa Ngum, himself descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracking back to Khoun Boulom. Lan-Xang prospered until the 18th century, when the kingdom was divided into three principalities, which eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. In the 19th century, Luang Prabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, and shortly thereafter, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. Under the French, Vientiane once again became the capital of a unified Lao state. Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French under Charles de Gaulle re-asserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semi-autonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. Moreover, the French remained in de facto control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. Under a special exemption to the Geneva Convention, a French military training mission continued to support the Royal Laos Army. In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.

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