After a decade and a half of isolation from the outside world, this landlocked, sparsely populated country is enjoying peace, stabilising its political and economic structures and admitting foreign visitors. The official language of Laos is Lao, as spoken and written in Vientiane. As an official language, it has successfully become the lingua franca between all Lao and non-Lao ethnic groups in Laos. Traditional culture in Laos has been influenced by various strains of Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai cultures. The lowland Lao share the same ancestry as many Thai tribes, so the similarities between Lao and Thai culture are especially strong. This can be seen in Lao sculpture, classical music, dance-dramas and cuisine. The lack of foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional South-East Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, travellers who have made it to Laos tend to agree that this country is the highlight of South-East Asia.