Laos, officially known as the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Mostly rugged and mountainous, the landscape of Laos is crisscrossed by a number of tributaries to the Mekong River which flows along its western border. Historically, this rough landscape divided the population into small groups of people living in towns and villages scattered throughout the area. The current population, numbering around six million, remains mostly scattered in the rural countryside, thus maintaining the country's ethnic and linguistic diversity. The official language of Laos is Lao, the language of the Lao people who comprise a slight majority of the population. There are also dozens of other languages spoken by the various ethnic groups that make up the remainder of the population. Owing to its rural, farm centered population base, Laos has but a few cities centered along the Mekong River valley which are small when compared to the large cities of most other Southeast Asian nations. Over time the Lao people and several related groups in the area developed writing systems similar to many of their neighbors, such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. These alphabets were borrowed from earlier writing systems brought out of India hundreds of years earlier. Many others lived without any writing until modern times.
Written literature in Laos began as engravings on stone many hundreds of years ago. These stone engravings were generally used to mark the extent of various ancient kingdoms' power over the area. Over time the use of palm leaves as writing material became popular. During the time when the first Lao kingdoms were established in the area, some 600 years ago, palm leaf manuscripts were used to record such things as religious teachings, royal chronologies, medicinal knowledge, and early literature in poetic verse. Other types of materials were occasionally used to record information by hand as well, such as mulberry paper. The methods of recording information on handwritten manuscripts have been passed down through the generations until today. In more recent times European explorers, traders and missionaries introduced printing to the people of Laos, especially when France took control of the area in 1893. Printing in Laos during the French period was limited early on and began to increase towards the end of French control after World War Two. When Laos became an independent country in 1954, and following the revolution culminating in 1975, the people of Laos were able to continue printing on a limited scale. The number of books produced in Laos has slowly increased over time from only a few dozen per year to several hundred now. Along with information in printed formats, electronic information is also available, though Laos has been touched by the electronic revolution much less than many of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Even so, electronic documents are now being produced in the country at an increasing rate each year.