1999 was the first time in 29 years that Cambodia saw a full year of peace. The country, called Kampuchea by its people, was launched into civil war after a coup dethroned the king in 1970. He joined the communist rebels, the Khmer Rouge, in an attempt to regain power. The resulting struggle saw three million Cambodians die in what has come to be known as the "killing fields."
Cambodia's population is just under 14 million, 95 percent of whom are Buddhist. The Khmers, the original inhabitants of Cambodia, are still the largest people group. There are also small Malay, Vietnamese and Chinese populations in the country. Martial arts and boat racing are popular national sports.
Cambodia is heavily forested and boasts mountains, the Mekong River and the Gulf of Thailand at its western coast. The famous Angkor Wat temple is a large tourist attraction. There is also widespread sex tourism.
Close to 75 percent of the country's workforce earns a living through subsistence farming, but the nation is still greatly impoverished. Cambodia was ranked the third most land-mined country, with thousands injured from unexploded mines that were left behind after the war.
China, with 1.3 billion people, is the world's most populous country. Officially called The People's Republic of China (PRC), it is the world's fourth-largest country in area, slightly smaller than the United States. It is divided into 22 provinces, with the capital city of Beijing having a population of 12.6 million people. China's major religion is atheism, followed closely by Confucianism and Buddhism.
With a booming population, China instituted a "one child" policy in 1979, with each family limited to one child per household. Exceptions are made for those who live further in the country and those who give birth to twins or triplets—with much envy from others.
The first missionaries to China arrived in A.D. 635 and established at least 11 churches. The pervasive Confucian philosophy remained, however, and with the rise of Maoist Communism in 1949, all churches were suppressed. Many purges and the ongoing consolidation of power cost at least 35 million Chinese lives.
Today, Christianity in China is highly restricted, but tens of millions of Bibles are produced by a government-approved press, and registered Christian churches worship openly in most parts of the country.
Following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, the government tightened political control throughout the country, resulting in increased persecution for unregistered churches. Persecution is reported in most parts of China, and "underground" Christians are arrested, tortured and some are even put to death. Although there is intense persecution of many believers in China, they are faithful to reach out with the Gospel despite extreme consequences if caught doing so.
When Communist forces took control of Laos after the Vietnam War, the regime declared Christianity its number one enemy. Nearly two-thirds of the country's believers fled at that time.
The Communist regime is still in power today. In recent years, Laos' economy made steps toward improvement, but it is still largely impoverished. Subsistence agriculture comprises 80 percent of the country's employment, along with a growing tourism industry.
Laos, known as the "The Land of the Million Elephants," is one of three countries that comprised the former French Indochina. It is a landlocked nation, with mountainous terrain covered in dense tropical forests. The population is just under six million, and Buddhism, heavily mixed with animistic practices, is prevalent in the society.
The main language spoken is Lao, along with French and other dialects. People groups are distinguished by altitude—descending from the higher ground to the lower—including the Hmong, Khmer and Thai as well as the Sino-Tibetan.
Thailand is sometimes referred to as "The Land of Smiles," reflecting the friendly, welcoming nature of the Thai people. The name is also said to be a reflection of the country's deep roots in the Buddhist religion, which was brought to Thailand by Indian merchants. Buddhism has become much more than a religion in Thailand. It is part of the country's national identity, making it difficult for the Thai people to receive the Gospel message.
Thailand has the distinction of being the only South Asian country to have never been colonized or ruled by a European country. Originally known as Siam, it has been an independent nation since 1238. The country is a constitutional monarchy, with the members of the royal family given near god-like status. In spite of their long history of independence, the Thai government is unstable. There have been at least 17 coups and attempted coups during the past 100 years. The most recent coup occured in May of 2014.
Two of Thailand's 19th-century kings introduced Western-style education, and today the country enjoys a 96 percent literacy rate. Since most Thai television stations are controlled by the government, the people turn to newspapers for news with less bias. The Thai newspaper market is the largest in all of South Asia, with an estimated 13 million copies distributed each day. This nation of readers responds quite well to Gospel literature.
Thailand has a thriving, diverse economy, with strong trade throughout the world. Unfortunately, the burgeoning economy has not led to a significant increase in the standard of living for Thai citizens. The average annual income is just under $3,000.
Thousands of tourists are drawn to the country each year by its natural beauty and friendly people. They come to see the ancient royal ruins and impressive Buddhist sites, soak up the sun on the country's magnificent beaches and do some bargain shopping. Unfortunately, others come to take advantage of the lucrative sex trade, especially in the larger cities. The open prostitution has led to an alarming rise in AIDS, now one of Thailand's leading causes of death.
Culturally, the Thai people enjoy music and performing elaborate traditional dances. Thai boxing is the country's most popular sport. Takraw, a game similar to volleyball but played with the feet and a light rattan ball, is also popular.