Landlocked and situated between Thailand in the west and Vietnam, Laos can trace its history back to the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants) which arose in the 14th century. It was a part of the protectorate of French Indochina in the 19th century and was not fully independent until 1954. The capital city is Vientiane, renamed by the French because they couldn't pronounce its Laotian name. Its pleasantly relaxed atmosphere makes it feel like a small town and (after checking out the many Buddhist temples) there are some great riverside bars and restaurants to check out. The essence of Laos is to be found amongst the rugged mountains, forested valleys and well-tended farmland of the north, where hilltribes such as the Lanten, Hmong and Akha continue to practice their traditional agriculturalist way of life. Here, too, it is recommended to travel on the Mekong River and spend time amongst the colourful markets and temples of the attractive regional centre of Luang Prabang. Of all the South-East Asian countries, it is reckoned by many travellers that Laos provides the most authentic and unspoiled experience.