Wednesday, 29 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 15. LUANG PRABANG







21/01/03: Colleague still ill; miss early bus to Vang Vieng; get later bus to Vang Vieng, which takes seven hours; book into French place; try yellow curry with colleague L, M and the mysterious R; go to Hive Bar.


And so to Luang Prabang, a town some way north, accessible by way of Route 13 – at least that’s the plan. My colleague has other ideas, as her torpor continues to prevail.
On her way to catch the early bus, L kindly pays us a visit to petition for our company. We are forced to decline on account of the six hours the journey is scheduled to take: my companion has not the confidence her metabolism can hold out for that duration. If we notice an improvement in her constitution then we might gamble with the later public bus, we tell L, otherwise we’ll try again tomorrow and hopefully meet up with her in Luang Prabang then. L shows understanding, provides us with an approximate address and bids us farewell.
My colleague isn’t interested in eating so I have breakfast alone. I’m not sure how I feel about spending another night in Vang Vieng now, but have resigned myself to it being the case. So when I return to our hotel to find my colleague willing to make the push for Luang Prabang after all, I’m ambivalent. It’s for the best, I suppose, but it gnaws that we’ll be travelling alone, without the protection of any familiar faces. Actually, the people of Laos have generally been so casual – so unthreatening in every way – that, lest I speak to soon, I don’t really know what it is that so concerns me.

The bus, when it arrives, appears to have no room for us, having come all the way from Vientiane with its capacity already pushed to the limit. Not that this is considered a problem: there are brightly coloured plastic stools put aside for just such an eventuality, on which my companion, myself, and a stray Italian will be obliged to perch upon for the whole of the journey.
It’s a back-breaking seven hours that follow, immured in this vehicle. This is Public Bus: cheaper, slower, over-crowded and devoid of air-conditioning. Fortunately, the absence of any controlled ventilation is of no concern because almost all the windows have been opened, possibly on account of the abundance of vapours. Apart from the many cages containing fowl stowed away under much of the seating, there is a very small child on board suffering from something like dysentery – emitting an audible lugubriosity worthy of such impairment – and two middle-aged gentlemen smoking what I can only assume is opium through what appears to be quite a substantial home-made wooden bong.
In fact, the first couple of hours of our journey are a joy, tracing the valley floor through some spectacularly lush scenery. Then the terrain starts to shift upwards and, accordingly, Route 13 adopts a more serpentine strategy. A different sort of view presents us from here – a haze-tinged, vertiginous type of spectacle. It’s a bit like being on board the coach that finishes off The Italian Job, but without the cockneys or the burglarized gold.
When we make the occasional stop, our Laotian travellers disperse in all directions to relieve themselves within the privacy of the surrounding woodland. Nobody’s too proud, woman the same as men, although I think better of it in case it takes me too long and the coach pulls away, leaving me at the mercy of the local Hmong militia.
These genuine insurgents are thin on the ground, most Laotian Hmong having either assimilated or emigrated, and aren’t supposed to be particularly active anyway. The very visible military presence along Route 13 suggests otherwise, although they do look pretty relaxed, hanging out in roadside cafes and smoking cigarettes for the most part.

By the time we reach Luang Prabang, dusk is in full effect. Luang Prabang reveals itself to be larger and more vigorous than I was expecting, although the incurious placidity of the Laotian people continues to put me at ease. The Southern Bus Terminal (with public lavatories!) lies on the city’s perimeter, so it’s still another half hour before we reach Sisavangvong Road – by way of a tuk-tuk shared with the Italian guy – where L assured us she could be found.
It’s about 21.00 by now and, rather fortuitously, we run into L almost within minutes of our arrival. Less fortuitously, it is too late to book ourselves a room in the same guesthouse, but she very kindly walks with us for 30 minutes until we find somewhere with a berth to spare, albeit slightly over budget and riddled with lace and teak, where French is the default language. It’s just for one night – L will reserve us a room at her gaff for tomorrow – and, accommodation arranged, we accompany L to meet M (Mk.2) – another member of L’s ever increasing network of travelling chums – to have something to eat.
I think I’m starting to develop a kind of traveller’s guilty conscience. The buying of coffee and beer aplenty can be justified, because these things are reliably cheap, and I think we’ve opted for more than our share of public transport. Where food has been concerned I’ve probably been a little more extravagant. It’s not like I haven’t taken to the local fare either, but too often I’ve ordered meat and potatoes where I’d be better served ordering rice and vegetables. I have decided to expiate for all those pork chops I ate in Bangkok and make a firm effort, when faced with any given menu, to go native, or even to avoid altogether the sort of establishments where the local cuisine plays second fiddle to more western-style cuisine. Tonight I’ll be having the yellow curry, which will not disappoint.
I instantly take to M (Mk.2). He’s from Greenwich in London, a handsome lad and another one of those well-travelled types, although he’s only been on his current tour of duty for a couple of weeks. This is M (Mk.2)’s second night in Luang Prabang and he’s now sharing his room with L, purely for economically practical purposes – a common practice amongst hardened travellers. He knows of a place called the Hive Bar just the other side of Mount Phou Si. It sounds like a bit of a hike but Mount Phou Si is nothing more than a hillock (all be it an impressive one) in the middle of town with a monastery clambering all over it. Dinner finished, it takes about 10 minutes to circumnavigate this holy knoll through Luang Prabang’s suddenly deserted streets.
Hive Bar itself is basic in build but has been designed with a degree of imagination. In the low light, the exposed brickwork, minimal wooden furniture and red-painted walls are quite striking. It’s not too dissimilar from that Belgium-run place in Trang, but with more customers. I’m surprised by the amount of people drinking here, and I even recognise a few from being in Vang Vieng. We don’t stay out for long because it has been a long and arduous day, but suddenly the move to Luang Prabang is looking like an auspicious one.


22/01/03: Move to Phoun San Guesthouse; walk up Mount Phou Si; Kwang Si Waterfall with colleague, L and M (Mk.2); food with same plus R; Maylek Pub plus Welsh L & K, who have just arrived from Vang Vieng; Hive Bar with colleague, L & M (Mk.2).

23/01/03: Scandinavian Bakery (disappointing); boat up the Mekong to Tham Ting with L & M (Mk.2), and Welsh L & K; stop off at a whiskey distillery on the way back; Organic Bakery for coffee; emails; Nazim for curry; Hive Bar with all, plus ‘Yam & Sasha’.

What majesty the Mekong! A wide murky brown deluge of water breaching China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, not compromising in mass – or so it appears – along the way. Almost as wide in Luang Prabang some 300 clicks upstream from Vientiane, the river is aesthetically utilised to an impressive degree. A result of geography, for sure, from Mount Phuo Si the surrounding hills channel wisps of smoke from up high, a feature of the slash and burn agricultural methods practised by the surrounding tribes. A place of profound 'Laoness' Luang Prabang oozes character. Not as nonchalant in manner as Vang Vieng, and over three times the size, it still possesses the same stoicism that makes Laos the endearing country that it is.
The days can be spent enjoying the finest coffee in any one of the sophisticated cafes dotted around town. Feeling more active? Then why not take a boat up the Mekong? In the evening, travellers regale at the Hive Bar, a joint far classier than merits the modesty of this easy-going country.


Phou San Guesthouse will do. It’s an older build a bit like the guesthouse we stayed in back in Vientiane, but without the scarier elements. Crucially, it opens out onto Sisavangvong Road where the bulk of the cafes and restaurants are, and the close proximity of Mount Phou Si begs its ascent. After breakfast, I walk up thing to take in the view and have a look at the two working Buddhist temples housed there – Wat Tham Phou Si and Wat Chom Si – and the vista is impressive.
As is the insouciance of the young monks who live and work there. Becoming a monk in Southeast Asia is a bit like entering into National Service: it is expected that all boys ordain as a monk for at least a couple of months, to earn merit for their family and to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Although not compulsory, to avoid doing so would be frowned upon. Besides, for those too poor to attend school – or from families too poor to spare them – becoming a monk allows them a basic education they might otherwise lack.
(Theravada) Buddhism isn’t as dogmatic as most religions, and so I don’t get the feeling these young men see doing their time as any sort of chore. They seem quite a jolly bunch, keen to interact with foreigners, generally hanging out, some even smoking cigarettes.
            I’d be quite content to spend the rest of the day getting to know these surroundings, walking up more hills – if there are any – looking at more Wats and drinking copious amounts of Laotian coffee. But L has other ideas and we’re very much part of them. Given that we sort of owe her our company in return for arranging our accommodation, the ineluctable reality of situation is that we’ll be accompanying her to Kwang Si Waterfall.
M (Mk.2) is going too? Maybe it’s not such a bad idea...

I’m jealous of M (Mk.2), for he is hiring a scooter to drive himself to the falls, while the rest of us will take a songthaew. It’s that old insurance conundrum again, and I’ve never taken charge of a motorised velocipede in my life. What’s more, one hears tales of unscrupulous companies who charge customers for extant damages, holding their passport to ransom, or whatever it is they’ve been obliged to leave as security. Even M (Mk.2) seems slightly hesitant, providently inspecting his bike for any potential blemishes that might later be ascribed to him. And what if you take a wrong turn and get lost, or run out of petrol? Still, I’m still sorely tempted.
The journey takes almost three quarters of an hour, which is longer than I had anticipated. The falls are only 18 miles out of town but the negative condition of roads slows us down considerably. The corollary of this is the bucolic landscape we pass through: paddy fields, woodland and the open road. And when we finally arrive, even the car-park connives to perpetuate some sort of pastoral idyll, with perfectly formed trees protecting us from the midday sun.
The falls themselves operate on a number of physical levels, forming a number of shallow travertine pools at the top of an almost sheer hill, before cascading – there’s no other word for it – 50 metres and collecting in turquoise blue terraces at its base. I guess it is worth seeing, although to really make the most of these terraced pools one should probably bring a swimming costume (I still don’t have one). I break loose at one point and climb up the side of the falls, ending up in a field that resembles any other field. And then I descend in search of coffee, only to find that they don’t offer the Laotian kind here, only instant.
As is often the way, the journey back seems much quicker than the journey out. We’d left for the falls late in the morning, so it neither is nor feels as late as it otherwise might, given the productivity of the day. Despite this – or maybe because of this – people are quite willing to take dinner sooner rather than later, allowing for an hour to freshen up beforehand. This pleases me because I like to get my evening meal out of the way early, allowing plenty of time to drink, unencumbered from the restraints digestion can often impose.
But there are other reasons to expedite dinner, too.  L has arranged to meet up with R (I don’t know where she picked this one up, but he is a middle-aged Englishman) and after that she’s supposed to be meeting Welsh L & K at some place called the Maylek Pub. I have no idea when or how this was organised but can only deduce that emails were involved. Does this woman ever stop?
Actually, the night turns out to be a bit of a damp squib: R is running late but eventually shows up at the Maylek Pub, accompanied by a rather young and bashful Laotian “man”, and Welsh L & K are suitably tired after their six hour journey from Vang Vieng. After a few drinks, it’s left to me and my colleague and L and M (Mk.2) to wind up the evening back at the Hive Bar.

You can imagine my delight on discovering another branch of the Scandinavian Bakery in Luang Prabang, and so you can probably also imagine how disappointed I am when it turns out this particular wing doesn’t adhere to the same formula. They don’t use those little forms here, and so choice is restricted, and I’m sure the juice is concentrated rather than fresh. But it makes do as a rendezvous, for L has roped us into another one of her excursions, although this time Welsh L & K have been added into the mix. Pak Ou Caves is our destination, about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang, depending on the currents, and with six people to share the cost it’s a steal.
            The craft that will take us there is long and narrow – a bit like a gondola on a diet, but with a roof. As with the fishing boats we observed in Thailand, its propellers are fixed to the end of a long piece of scaffold, allowing the vessel to navigate shallower waters. This is just as well because it is dry season and the Mekong is not at its deepest, giving rise to bizarre currents ebbing this way and that.
After about an hour or so it doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress at all, although there’s little in the way of landmarks with which to accurately gauge, save for the odd fishing boat. The terrain is a little bit of a let-down, in fact, until we approach the Pak Ou Caves themselves. Beyond, the river dissolves into tantalisingly steep gorge, but we’ve come as far as we’re allowed on this trip.
Pak Ou Caves is actually a pairing of two: Tham Ting (the lower cave) and Tham Theung (the upper cave), situated directly opposite where the Ou River confluxes with the Mekong (‘pak’ meaning ‘mouth’). Tham Ting itself is a sort of hole carved – or eroded – into the side of the overhanging rock face that borders a large portion of the Mekong’s west bank. In this orifice resides thousands of effigies of Buddha, of varying dimensions and in various poses, put there who knows when by God knows who. Tham Theung offers more of the same but with a better view.
On the way back we’re cajoled into stopping off at a whiskey still, responsible for the God almighty stench that we cut through on our way upriver, wherein we’re given a free taste of some of the pokey blends distilled there. In the unlikely event that you find this stuff potable, you can actually buy a bottle.
And then swiftly back to Luang Prabang with the flow of Mekong firmly on our side.

Later that evening a large group of us (the same who I had spent the day with, plus Yam and Samya – a double act who were slowly creepy up the bill) sampled the curry at Nazim. I opted for the Tikka Massala, which proved to be a good choice. I’d normally go for something a bit more aggressive but they don’t hold back on the spices in Southeast Asia. In fact, the curry at Nazim was so good that on any given night during our stay in Luang Prabang, at least one member of our growing entourage could be found dining there.
After dinner, we all bowled down to the Hive bar. There were to be no heightened levels of intoxication, though; it had been too civilised a day for that. Besides, everyone was stuffed.






24/01/03: Power cut; random café with L; Xieng Thang with colleague and L; tea at Nazim with M (Mk.2); Hive Bar with all.

25/01/03: Emails; Scandinavian Bakery on my own; walk around town on my own; Nazim with colleague, L, M (Mk.2), Welsh L & K, Yam & Sasha; party at Yam & Sasha’s; Hive Bar with companion, L & M (Mk.2).

26/01/03: Scandinavian Bakery on my own again, and back later with my colleague; see photo exhibit by Henri Thenard; coffee/stroll/beer with colleague, Welsh L & K; bookshop and Hive Bar with companion; a new bar for tea; drink back in Welsh L & K’s room.


I had to put a stop to L’s tour operations. I enjoyed our trips, and I appreciated her efforts, but Luang Prabang had so much to offer of its own that one just had to spend at least a couple of lazy days there. I managed three.
            The next day we had a peek at Wat Xieng Thang – replete with smoking monks – possibly the most impressive temple in Luang Prabang, if not radically different from all the others. For high tea, I hooked up with M (Mk.2) for a second visit to Nazim, before meeting up with the rest at – wait for it – the Hive Bar.
I shunned the invitation to join ‘the gang’ for a return visit to Kwang XI Waterfall, and to swim in the lagoon there, and seized the opportunity to spend some time alone. I took breakfast at the Scandinavian bakery – for despite it not living up to the Vientiane branch’s precedent, it was still one of the better cafes in town – wrote some postcards, and then wandered aimlessly, taking photos of this and that, trying hard to appreciate how far flung a place I’d found myself in. I made good progress before the midday sun beat me back; the nights may be cooler than in Thailand and the humidity lacking, but at two in the afternoon it can still get pretty hot in northern Laos.
Yet Luang Prabang was far from being off the beaten track. It had hotels and European styled cafes, and gift shops selling local art at exaggerated prices. It had ex-pats and it had an airport. The rich and famous have been known to holiday there, and what I was getting out of it wasn’t really very different: I may not have had a pool to lounge beside, or petals spread across my freshly made bed – or even a freshly made bed – but I was looking at the same things, breathing the same air and eating the same quality food – to my uninformed palate, at least. Further, I had the protection and the good company of the biggest entourage since my time spent on Koh Phangan. What could be better?

On their return, Kwang XI Waterfall has everyone gushing – they’d even been allowed to stroke some dopey tiger. (I allude here to rumours that such beasts are, more often than not, tranquilised for your pleasure. In this case the tiger was a young orphan, possibly mollified by trauma, and my colleagues had been informed that nothing could have been further from the truth.) The day’s success begets another visit to Nazim and a low-key party at Yam and Sasha’s, who, like L and M (Mk.2), are co-habiting for financial reasons.
But there is agitation amongst the ranks. L is quietly casting specious aspersions as to M (Mk.2)’s character, making out that he’s been giving her something of the creeps. In turn, I’m not sure how thrilled Welsh L & K are about L’s company. The signs are there that Welsh L & K could be the most convivial people we’ve met yet – K and my companion seem to be hitting it off, in particular – but I feel our association with L might be getting in the way of this incipient comradeship developing any further. Yet, when the party finishes prematurely, L and M (Mk.2) accompany me and my colleague to the Hive Bar with no apparent ill feeling between them. Is L two-faced or merely fickle, I wonder?

Anywhere else and I’d be thinking of moving on. I think L already is, but Welsh L & K are a day behind our schedule. What’s more, they feel that they rushed Vang Vieng a bit – not realising fully what it had to offer but hearing all about it since – and fancy stopping off there again on their way back to Vientiane. This makes good sense if only to break up the journey, which would take about 10 hours, if taken in one hit. Welsh L & K have not made definite plans from there, but I gather that whatever they decide to do will involve returning to Bangkok first.
            My colleague and I had originally intended to head east from here into Vietnam, possibly stopping off at The Plain of Jars along the way. This strategy had run into problems when we’d tried to obtain the requisite visas back in Bangkok, on account of the Chinese New Year, its hold as national holiday in Vietnam and the subsequent closure of its embassies. We’d been led to believe that purchasing a visa at the border was a viable option, which kept open our options when we’d struggled to find anywhere in Vientiane to acquire one (in retrospect, this may also have been an option when effecting one’s transfer into Laos). Having said that, I’d heard some murky stories relating to Vietnamese Customs, of people becoming stuck at the border, possibly being refused entry for not having a visa, and of finding the locals less than honest when one they eventually settled down there. Whatever the truth behind these tidings, I have now become very wary of the idea of going to Vietnam – or at least towards the journey into its interior – but my colleague is still keen, as it transpires is L.
Fortunately for me, though, an imposing poster in the local internet café has piqued my companion’s interest. It is advertising some place in Cambodia called Angkor Wat, “where you interface with God,” which L has actually been to and cannot recommend highly enough. I say ‘fortunately for me’ but I know nothing of Cambodia, other than the starving children my grandmother demanded I consider whenever I failed to finish whatever food she’d prepared for my younger self. It is, in truth, a poorer and more alarming country than Vietnam, but if we decide to go there – and it looks like we might – then geography dictates that we must first return to Thailand.
I would actually suggest we stay in Laos, cut the rest of Southeast Asia loose, go see those jars and then maybe cross back over the Thai border to the west and move onto Chiang Mai – everybody raves about the place. There is a problem, though: our Laotian visas expire tomorrow. There are a number of ways to approach this situation. We can head for the border NOW – be it the border with Thailand to the west, or the opposite eastern division with Vietnam – take our chances and pay the fine for overstaying our visa if we are unable to make it there in time. Or we can submit our current visas for extension in one of the local travel agents and pick up our amended passport in Vientiane within five days, where someone will have driven it for the extension to be granted. In Luang Prabang we’re stuck in the heart of Laos, so a run for any of Laos’ border crossings is going to take the best part of 10 hours, whichever direction we take. I think I quite like the sound of Welsh L & K’s stopping off in Vang Vieng scheme.
After gingerly handing over my passport to a woman who assures me that all will be well, I look forward to a final day’s relaxation within the environs of Luang Prabang, our next major move pushed safely to the back of my mind. Alone, I stumble upon a gallery run by a French photographer called Henri Thenard, exhibiting photographs he’s taken of the local hill tribes, pretty much untouched by modern civilisation. Then I re-join my colleague to explore the town further. Later, we hook up with Welsh L & K. After a few drinks, they invite us back to their hotel room for more drinks. It is a pleasant evening and I decide that, if forced to choose, I’d be more than happy to follow their trail, rather than the pro-Vietnam L’s.






27/01/03: It’s Monday; get the 10.00 bus to Vang Vieng; book back into Amphone; food by the river with colleague, Welsh L & K and a few Germans; Xayoh café with Welsh L.

28/01/03: Breakfast at Sabaydee Restaurant; hire bikes and head north with my colleague, L, Welsh L & K – colleague has a crash; beer at sunset bar; drinks on guesthouse balcony; Pizza Falconi; Xayoh Café + Yam (but no Sasha!); more drinks on guesthouse balcony.


I’ve resisted the temptation to sleep in of late, and the more civilised pace of drinking has ensured I have succeeded. I am glad of this because the mornings in this part of Laos are something to behold. Night-time temperatures typically dip as low as 15°C and induce a strange morning mist that one doesn’t see in the country’s more southern provinces. Then, come about 11.00, the low lying cloud very quickly burns off to reveal the sun and the temperature quickly rises by about 13°C. It’s another reason to catch the early bus, because there’s not much worse than hiking your luggage around town and having to find taxis when the sun’s battering you about the head.
            Everyone is present and correct: myself, my colleague, Welsh L & K, and L. Being a fairly organised lot, on arriving at the bus terminal I’ve enough time to stroll across the road and inspect Luang Prabang’s local stadium. It’s a modest affair but a continuous concrete structure low enough in aspect for me to take photographs that do it justice.
            Our coach is in far better nick than the one that brought me and my companion here, yet only marginally more expensive. It’s also populated by a mere smattering of passengers, most of who are travellers (although we will pick up a fair few locals along the way). The journey is far less strenuous than before, and we even stop off at a relative service station of a café in a small town by the name of Pho Koun (I cannot verify the precise location). This is in stark contrast to some of the villages we pass through, which are completely subsistent and more representative, I should think, of the way the majority of Laotians live.
            No longer hampered by the aisle, I get to better appreciate the scenery this time around, although the heat haze obscures the view somewhat. We’re at least 1500 metres above sea level, and it could be significantly more. We pass the odd cyclist, presumably engaged in some sort of charity bike-ride, and I wonder whether they knew what they were letting themselves in for when they embarked on this ‘Tour de Laos’.
            We arrive in Vang Vieng at a reasonable hour, book back into the same hotel and are even given the same room. My companion and I nip out for a quick drink and then meet Welsh L & K for dinner down by the river, joined by a few Germans they’ve bumped into somewhere along the line. Everybody is tired but I manage to persuade Welsh L to join me for a few drinks in Xayoh. It’s not a foolishly heavy night by any means, but one could argue that it shouldn’t really be any sort of night at all.

Despite insisting on celebrating my return to Vang Vieng the evening before, I’m in relatively fine fettle today and, after breakfast, very up for hiring more bikes. Our destination is a winery four miles north of Vang Vieng in the village of Phoudinaeng, and everybody who caught the bus yesterday is involved. Their speciality is Mulberry wine, and they serve food as well, the organic and vegetarian slant appealling to Welsh L & K. None of this particularly moves me, but I like exploring the countryside and I could do with the exercise. The wine isn’t great but the tea is good and the plantation has a nice vibe about it. It makes for a relaxing hour, sat outside talking, those karst outcrops providing the perfect backdrop.
On our way back towards Vang Vieng we decide to take a detour towards the river that runs through it. I find a suitable dirt track and take the lead. About 20 metres along, I meet a field rampant with hairy, horned cattle. Aware that cycling into said field might not be the best thing to do, I hit my brakes and command my entourage to do the same. The inconsistently feeble nature of our bikes’ breaks ensures our party decelerates at varying rates, which precipitates a collision with my companion’s front wheel and Welsh L’s rear one. As a result, my colleague is thrown beyond her handlebars and face-butts the ground. Everybody pauses in macabre anticipation. Inspection of her face reveals grazes of varying severity to her chin, nose and mouth. My primary concern is the one to her mouth; has she split her lip or, even worse, broken any of her teeth? Fortuitously, there seems to be nothing serious amiss, but the expedition is curtailed and we make our way back to the establishment that hired us the bikes.
            Yet my colleague’s accident is not without its benefit: it seems to bring the group together and there’s no question that we’ll not be spending the evening in each other’s company (I felt my last night in Vang Vieng deserved this sort of send-off). Everybody is keen on the idea of eating out at the excellent Pizza Falconi, and the suggestion that we have a few pre-dinner drinks on our guesthouse balcony is met with real vim. Sure, the pain to my companion’s mouth prevents her from eating solids, and she can only just about manage to drink her vodka through a straw, but the alcohol serves as an emollient and eases her pain.
Later after dinner, we’re joined by Yam (no Sasha) at Xayoh Café for a couple of rounds, and we finish off with a few more beers on our balcony. My colleague may not concur, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my second stay in Vang Vieng.


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