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And 3 more 'L's at the end
I chose February to make my tour of Laos,
hoping the weather would be perfect for what I had in mind. With the exception
of a single day (on the Mekong River), it was.
Having toured all other South East Asian
countries, I was experienced enough to be aware of the long flight time from
the UK - the time difference - the temperature - not to mention the jet lag
effect. So, as usual, flew into Bangkok first, spent three days acclimatising
and preparing for what I expected would be quite a 'punishing' schedule. I used
Thai Airways new A380, which was quiet and comfortable for the 11 hour + direct
Taking a domestic flight from Bangkok to
Chiang Rai is easy enough, with a choice of airlines, both full service and
budget. Mine landed in the late afternoon so I could spend one night in a hotel
reasonably close to the Thai/Laos border at Houi Xai, where I was to cross into
Laos at 8 am the following morning.
Not having bothered to obtain a Laos visa
in the UK, I, along with many others, queued patiently for about 30 minutes,
presented my passport, together with an easily completed entry application form
- plus the appropriate fee ($40 in my case) and passed through seamlessly.
A note of caution: Only NEW unfolded US
Dollar bills are acceptable here and throughout Laos. I easily obtained mine,
online in the UK.
Travelling solo, I was using the services
of a reliable and knowledgeable tour operator (Asia Tour Advisor) who had been
happy to arrange an itinerary based upon my individual needs. This meant that
from the moment I crossed the border, a guide plus driver would accompany me
throughout the next 14 days. This worked perfectly, ensuring that I maximised
every experience. I might add that the overall cost was only a fraction more
than taking the tour as part of an organised group. Flexibility is the major
factor for me when visiting a country for the first time.
Specifically for this tour, my central aim
was to sample what I hoped would be what the majority of the more mature and
independent traveller would enjoy most and then produce this article based upon
what I found.
So, once firmly on Laotian soil, my driver
opened the car door, I climbed in and off we went the few miles to the Houi Xai
main pier, where I was to board one of the specially designed boats, some 150
foot long, for a two day cruise southwards on the mighty Mekong River.
As the scheduled departure time was 9 am
and being the first passenger to arrive, I had the opportunity to stroll around
the pier area to compare boats operated by other than the one booked for me
(Nagi of Mekong). I was quietly content to note that the 'Nagi' craft seemed to
be of a higher class. That observation proved to be correct.
On time, now being joined by 15 other
passengers (the boat could cater for twice that number) we cast off and our
journey began. On board were comfortable seats, a lounging area with padded
benches, refreshments ready and waiting, an English speaking guide and of
course, a toilet. Alcoholic drinks were available at a surprisingly low price.
This first day, the boat sailed for 7
hours, with the current, at a relaxed speed of about 10 knots covering a total
of 150 kilometres, before docking at Pak Beng in the late afternoon. This
section of the river snakes between rock formations of many sizes and around
every bend a new vista emerges to attract camera lenses. We made one stop
en-route at an ethnic Laos village, a primitive and extremely basic way of life
for sure, yet smiles were everywhere, with children frolicking both in and out
of the river.
Back on board, the captain's wife prepared
us a hot lunch, fruits and desserts. Both coffee and tea were available at all
Pak Beng is a small, isolated spot located
on the east bank of the river. Hotels and all other tourist accommodations are
built on the hillside overlooking it. Getting to yours means a lung-puffing
climb up a rugged road, so, not surprisingly, I (and everyone else apparently)
welcomed the line of local men wearing bamboo 'harnesses' on their backs, who,
for an appropriate sum of Kyats, humped passenger's luggage to their chosen
The Mekong Riverside Lodge was where I was
to lay my head. Here, the wooden bungalows had been built on the very edge of
the hillside, affording spectacular views westward across the opposite
countryside as well as north and south vistas of the Mekong. Perhaps my
favourite memory here, was, after showering, donning a clean T-shirt and shorts
and having ordered an ice cold BeerLaos to be brought to my balcony, watched
the sun set - its rays glistening on the river's rippling surface and
flickering through the branches of faraway trees, while I sipped and savoured
the local brew. Hmmm.
The management are of Bangladesh origin, so
it came as no surprise that beautifully cooked Tandoori dishes were on the
dinner menu. Every guest I spoke with gave the place a 'thumbs up' both for the
standard of accommodation and the food on offer. The only 'downer' was the
renovation and additions being built,
with, of course, the inevitable noise and smells during the daytime. When those
are completed, that slight irritant will disappear.
Marks – 8 out of 10
Day two saw us board at around 8 am to cruise further south for 180 kilometres. Unfortunately, according to our guide, unusually the sky turned grey, the wind increased, the waves grew in size and the temperature dropped. Down came the boats transparent side-blinds and out came the lovely and soft blankets. We sang songs, joked (because by this time we had kind of 'bonded'), played cards, tapped away on our tablets and mobile phones, welcomed the hot, freshly prepared food, drank a beer or two, snoozed on the comfy benches and watched the scenery through the flapping plastic.
All was not gloom and doom though because
by mid afternoon the sun appeared just as we arrived at the famous Pak Ou
Caves. They are accessed by flights of steep stone steps which should be used
with extra care. Inside, as one would expect, are statues of the Buddha and
many religious relics and offerings. Although the caves are of historical
importance, they seemed to me to be somewhat neglected. Overall, this
experience ranked quite low in my opinion.
An hour or so after leaving the caves, we
arrived at our final destination, Luang Prabang, said our goodbyes, climbed
into our respective cars for the short drive into this small, compact but
thriving city and to our hotels.
Mine was the Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel.
This was a great choice. Down a side road but only about a 15 minute walk to
the city centre and its unbelievable Night Market, which is a Mecca for
tourists and locals alike, to see, examine and buy from an absolute plethora of
goods. I was to stay in Luang Prabang for three nights, which would give me
ample opportunity to explore some of the city's well-advertised attractions, as
well as those hidden away.
As for the hotel, small, personal, really
excellent rooms, bathtub, snugly comfortable bed, breakfast brought and served
to your room's veranda, well-trained, helpful and friendly staff. The
combination which always satisfies.
Marks – 9 out of 10
Over the three days, I planned to visit the
Wat Visoun with its stupa and shrine - interesting
but not impressive.
Wat Xieng Thong where the Tree of Life mosaic
structure is a clever example of what can be done with tiny bits of glass and
ceramics - a good place to compare old workmanship with new.
Xieng Mane and Charn Villages by boat
across the River Khong, where the local inhabitants make and display their
artistic talents in throwing pottery and weaving cloth - well worth the effort
of trekking for about an hour and meeting such nice, simple people.
Wat Chompet - for its great view of the
Traditional Hill Tribe Ethnology Art
Centre. Housed inside a modern structure where photographs and examples of Laos
hill-tribe living are displayed plus the odd basket making demonstration - of
fair but of limited interest.
Kuang Sii Falls. Really magnificent. Not at
all difficult to reach by car, followed by a gentle stroll. The waterfalls are
in separate tiers within a forest area, where one can swim in the light green
but sparkling water, loll under a ledge and let the water shower you or merely
sit and let it cool your feet. It's a photographers dream location which gives
many variations of light and shade mixed with both vibrant and soft, colourful
hues - Don't miss these!
Black Hmong Village. Somewhat chaotic where
the tribespeople vie to sell their handmade souvenirs. Unfortunately, I found
this to be salesmanship at its very worst, a feature that I noticed was
unwelcome by the many tourists who were given little or no chance to examine,
or even stop for a second to look, without being harassed to buy. Trying to be
helpful, I, with my guide who translated for me, spoke to the head woman to
pass-on a little of my hard learned selling skills (not yet forgotten – even
after 25 years of retirement). With some trepidation, I waited for her
reaction. It was a big smile, a series of approving nods. We shook hands and I
left her to perhaps coach the villagers to modify their selling techniques - Go
and find out!
Night Market. Already mentioned but needs a
bit of elaboration. The entire main street of the city is closed to traffic
after nightfall. Then hundreds of stalls are erected under tarpaulins and
canvas. I went into sensory overload trying to absorb the quantity and
diversity of the offerings. European backpackers seemed to dominate numerically
among tourists from around the world. The feeling of anticipation and stimuli
was certainly obvious.
Add to this the many choices available as
to what and where to eat and it becomes obvious just why the magnet of Luang
Prabang's night market creates such an attraction - this is definitely a
Leaving the city on the morning of day
four, I elected to sit in the front passenger seat of the car, which would be
driven for 7 hours up, down and across various mountain ranges to reach Xieng
Khuoang, the area during 1964 and 1973, which was devastated by American
bombing. More munitions were dropped here per head of population, than anywhere
else on Earth.
The drive itself was electrifying, the
words 'hairpin' 'bend' and 'steep' can hardly describe what my driver had to
negotiate. The experience of driving, up, over and down the other side of
Hardknott Pass in the English Lake District, pales into insignificance when
compared to navigating these Laotian mountains.
Once back on level ground, we headed for
The Mulberry Organic Farm, an 'extra' to my planned itinerary very kindly
suggested and arranged by Mr Thoon of Northern Travel Agency in Luang Prabang.
This visit turned out to be educational and enlightening. I had little or no
idea just how versatile the Mulberry bush could be or how important it was for
the production of silk and the extraction of coloured dyes. I was shown around
the whole establishment from the fields of cultivation, to the feeding of silk
worms and the intricate manufacture (by hand!!!) of beautifully crafted silk
cloth and garments - most definitely a stopping place.
The Plain of Jars. Certainly an odd name
and on arrival a similarly odd scene confronts the visitor. Across areas many
times larger than football pitches, are randomly placed, historically old
'concrete' structures resembling stone
jars varying in height from around 3 feet to 5 feet and around 2 feet in
diameter. A few had 'lids' made of the same material and all were sunk into the
ground by approximately a quarter of their height. There did seem to be an aura
of tranquility enveloping the place, with visitors noticeably speaking in soft
No specific data as to the exact reason for
these Jars to be made and sited where they were, was available in historical
books. The most educated 'presumption' by archaeologists, is that they were
constructed to store the bones of the dead once their flesh had disappeared,
similarly, I suppose, as todays practice of placing an urn of ashes of a
deceased person in a cemetery - Whatever the reason, it is a most interesting
My lodgings for one night was the Vansana
Plain of Jars Hotel. A corporate hotel with a corporate feel. Its location was
fine, being built on a plateau overlooking the town and surrounding
countryside. Accommodation was bungalow style with a small balcony to the rear.
However, these were its only redeeming
factors. The bed was hard and most uncomfortable and no hot water was available
to the bathroom's basin. The small TV set was of the ancient box style with
limited reception and programmes.
The worst bit about this place was the so
called 'breakfast'. Simply awful. Every so-called hot dish was warm at best and
cold at worst. Variety was limited indeed. Coffee stale and bitter, fruit
almost non existent. I made do with a piece of white, flowery bread spread with
raspberry jam and a cup of warm tea without milk, as that latter substance
smelt 'off'. My advice ... book elsewhere.
Marks - 3 out of 10 (merely for the location)
Mid afternoon the next day saw me in a
small building at the local airport. It was the departure 'lounge', the arrival
'lounge' the ticket 'office' and the immigration centre, where about 70
passengers were gathering for the flight to Vientiane. Laos Airways operates
ATR 72's, which are turboprop aircraft with a high wing configuration. I used
this aircraft 3 times on my tour and didn't have a single complaint. They were
clean, on time and comfortable. The cabin crew were courteous and efficient
and, what was a surprise to me, served tasty refreshments even on flights
taking less than an hour.
Two nights booked in the capital city,
where I would be based at the Vientiane Golden Sun Hotel. Being under recent
new ownership, this quite large hotel has a disjointed feel. The staff seem
unsure of their responsibilities, are poor in communication and sloppy. The
swimming pools are not very welcoming and certainly not squeaky clean. No
staff, or phones are available to request service, guests are left to fend for
themselves. The road entrance and impressive view of the hotel's front is in
stark contrast to what's inside.
Breakfast was a dismal affair. Choices were
very limited and certainly not well prepared. Fortifying the inner man for a
day's exploration of the city, was unavailable.
To cap it all, on the morning of my
departure, I was to have received a wake-up call at 0400 hours to prepare for
my 0630 flight to Pakse. The call never materialised. However, my ex army
training had kicked-in the night before, when I repeatedly instructed my memory
to awaken me at the correct hour. It obeyed. Luggage packed, the elevator used
to the ground floor and me hauling it into the reception area, I was met with NOTHING!
A snappy search found the duty porter/receptionist asleep behind a desk. At
that precise moment, my guide and driver arrived dead on schedule. I tossed my
room key to the sleepy eyed man and left.
Marks – 2 out of 10
There are many better hotels available - choose one of those.
Vientiane itself is an interesting city. Of
course the French influence is evident, wide roads and many colonial style
buildings and even traffic lights! I had a busy schedule to fit in to the time
I was to spend here, so, as with Luang Prabang, I will merely list the places
visited and underline the highlights.
Khualao Restaurant. This is an evening time
hot spot for tourists but cleverly managed within the environment of French
architecture. Only one dinner session, which is 99% pre-booked. As guests are
served, a quintet of musicians play local favourites to a delightfully high
standard, sometimes accompanied with singing. The sound system is such that
normal conversation is possible, that is of course, if you can drag yourself
from concentrating on the performances. Add to that entertainment a number of
man and woman classical dance sequences and the evening comes to an end much
too quickly - Book and go!
Wat Sisaket. This is Vientiane's oldest
temple housing thousands of miniature Buddha statues - well worth visiting.
That Luang Stupa. A very sacred place for
Laotian people. It's a large, gold-covered Buddhist stupa sited in the centre
of the city. First built in the 3rd century, it has undergone a number of
reconstructions and renovations. Nonetheless, it is an imposing structure.
Unfortunately, on my visit, more work was underway which prevented entry.
Patuxay Monument. There's no doubting what
was in the mind of the architect, as this structure is very reminiscent of the
Arc de Triumph in Paris. Built in an area of wide boulevards, immaculately kept
gardens and open spaces, sightseers wander around, cameras pointed as guides
deliver their scripts and vendors ply their wares - A really nice spot to relax
and take-in the scenes as they unfold.
Buddha Park. Absolutely NOT religious or in
anyway pious, this 'park', located alongside the Mekong River and the
impressive Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, was the brainchild of a mystical monk.
Sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu origin have been created and placed over a
large area of grassland. Some are grotesque, others semi-realistic and yet more
creations purely of the mind. All are made of concrete castings, some
mindbogglingly huge (like the massive 'reclining' Buddha), some small and
intricate. I know of no other place on Earth where such a display has been
created - Funny, clever and highly entertaining.
After an early morning flight, I arrive at
Pakse a little after 7 am to be greeted by another guide and driver. Chatting
for a few minutes and having studied my planned itinerary again on the plane,
we decided not to go to my chosen hotel there and then but instead, drive to
Saravanh Province, via the town of Tateng. Reason?...the tumbling water and
lush vegetation around Tad Fane Waterfall, would be almost devoid of tourists
at such an early time and that would allow me the maximum flexibility I always
wish for. Before getting to the falls, we made a stop at a small roadside 'farm'
where coffee and tea are made. Naturally we took advantage of the hot brew
offerings, sat and chatted with the locals for a short time before being
escorted around their village for a look-see.
Pushing on, we took a turning off the main
road onto a dirt track, finally arriving at a seemingly dead end. Without
words, my guide simply pointed to my camera and opened the car door for me to
exit. I followed him along a narrow soil-impacted trail which twisted this way
and that through dense woodland until we came to a gap in the trees.
The sight which confronted me was indeed
impressive. There, on the other side of a steep-sided valley (which,
incidentally I was perched less than a foot from its precipitous edge) two
waterfalls plunged over 300 feet to the river below. Neither are wide and
certainly nothing like the Niagara Falls, but for sheer wonder, they are
certainly ones to ensure one takes plenty of photographs to remember such a
stunning display of nature - Do make sure this place is on your itinerary.
Back on the main road our next stop was to
be at the Tad Lo Waterfalls. There are three of them, all very different to the
ones seen earlier. Probably the most popular is the one first encountered. It's
about 60 feet high and drops vertically over a rocky outcrop into the river
below. Fortunately for me, the 'dry' season had only just begun so there was
plenty of water cascading. Visitors could – if extremely daring – step across
large boulders from the riverside and out to the very edge of the fall. Certainly
not for the feint hearted, but for the local youths, a chance to show their
'daring dos' as they leapt out, arms flailing, to slice into the pool below
feet first - A great place to both admire, wonder at and photograph.
Nearby is the Tad Lo Lodge providing
accommodation in 14 rooms. I did walk around the grounds and viewed the rooms
from outside. Being near to the waterfall, its location cannot be faulted. The
American manager, with whom I held a short conversation, showed what I would
call 'over enthusiasm' for his establishment but guests I spoke with were much
less satisfied with their stay. One couple, were quite scathing about the poor
staff morale and lack of skills.
The issue which upset yours truly was not
about the Lodge, as I had not personally experienced a stay there. It was the
state of the two captive elephants, chained to the ground ready for tourists to
mount them for a 90 minute ride. Even a little knowledge of these magnificent
animals should tell us that the sign of an elephant's distress, is when it
constantly sways to and fro – and when it needs water to drink, it raises and
lowers its trunk repeatedly. Both these animals displayed these symptoms. I did
'waylay' the mahout and questioned him about the situation. His answer was to
the effect that management decided how many hours the elephants would be
tethered ready to ride and he added a 'rider' that every evening he took them
to a stream to bathe. I also asked where the drinking water trough/tub was, as
none was in sight. All I received in reply was a shrug.
My chosen accommodation for my two nights
in Pakse, was aptly named the Pakse Hotel. Its location could not have been
better, being in the city centre, close to the market, shops and restaurants.
Managed by a Frenchman and his wife, their influence is manifest. Excellent
rooms with all the needed facilities, highly trained staff and a rooftop
restaurant serving both European and Laos dishes as well as an extensive choice
of wines. I ate there twice and each time every table was occupied. A
pre-dinner drink as one watches the sun drop slowly beyond the horizon, is
certainly an opportunity not to be missed - A really excellent place to stay to
explore the city, its environs and countryside attractions.
Marks – 9 out of 10 (only because it lacked a swimming pool)
The car once more, driven further south to
Don Khong, where I was to have an overnight stay. Mid morning and we stopped at
the World Heritage Site of Wat Phu. This is totally different to any other
temple to be found in Laos.
During the Khmer civilisation of the 9th -
12th centuries, they built this wonderful site, to become the centre of their
operations. War and continuing strife made the leaders desert the area and move
across the border into Cambodia, where they then built the now famous Angkor
Wat City of temples. The ruined architecture is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
It is little wonder that this site is on most people's agendas. Built on a
hillside, the entire area is almost barren of trees and shade against the
fierce sun is at a premium. A sun hat or parasol is a 'must have' accessory, as
well as a pair of reasonably fit legs, if you are to explore all of this site's
secrets - Take it slow, take it easy and take your cameras.
Another long drive and I finally arrived at
Don Khong, to stay at the Pon Arena Hotel. A mile or so drive along a potholed
local road, which follows the river bank, and the hotel is reached. My room had
direct access to the small infinity swimming pool...the first thing I headed
for after opening my suitcase and rooting out a pair of trunks. With the air
temperature exceeding 33 degrees it was a relief to let the cool water ease
away the stiffness of certain muscles.
As for the room, large patio window
overlooking the pool and the river was a bonus when sitting inside with the AC
set low. The kingsize bed with its very comfortable mattress was the reason I
overslept my original thought about wake-up time. A flat screen TV, fridge and
beverage making facilities summed up the main room. The bathroom was fitted
with modern kit including a full size bath. I dined in the evening and was
totally satisfied with the menu choices as I was with the 'beer battered' fried
The only negative during my stay was the
standard and quality of the very limited breakfast buffet - but that can be
offset by the benefits of the hotel's location.
Marks – 6 out of 10
From car to boat (the 'long-tail' variety)
for a delightful cruise downriver towards the Don Khone area. I did a quick
check-in at the Sala Donekhone Hotel (more about it later) because my guide
wanted me to maximise the daylight hours to visit the 'Corridor of the Devil',
known officially as the Liphi Waterfall. “Oh, no”, you might think at this
point, “not another waterfall?” Well, yes because each is so very different. At
this one you can watch the local fishermen demonstrate their prowess as they
stand at the very prow of their flimsy looking canoe-type boats to cast and
haul up their nets. Those that shun this method use handmade wicker baskets
strategically placed where only their owners know the fish await. Much larger
(width wise) these falls follow the more traditional 'horseshoe' pattern and
are hundreds of yards wide. A number of paths and trails lead to different
sections of the falls so, those of a stronger constitution than mine can
venture further for even different viewpoints.
As promised, I relate more details of the Sala
Donekhone Hotel. Timber chalets built on stilts, which the owner has named
Floating Studios, really do float, rising and falling with the river's mood.
Although basic in construction, they are comfortable, functional and quite
delightful. Each has a private balcony and lounger, so what better place to
relax and watch the world go by. Sunset is a sublime time...time being the
operative word, as it passes without notice, until one's stomach grumbles to be
A real treat for me, was when, in conversation with the owner, a passionate believer in nature and the creatures it supports, he told me that he had rescued a golden Gibbon baby from certain death when its mother had been trapped and taken away by poachers. He'd built a very large enclosure bordered with wide sectioned wire mesh, installed natural climbing structures, trees, ropes and swings to give the now fully grown Gibbon the maximum freedom and exercise possible.
Gently introduced to it, I was entranced,
when, after a short time of eying each other, it came to me and allowed me to
'groom' it, stroke its head and hold its hand...magical! - If you wish to
explore the 4000 Island region (as it is known) this is the place to stay.
Marks – 8 out of 10
Somewhat reluctant to leave after only one night,
my itinerary made it necessary to move on. This meant taking a very pleasant,
small boat ride back to the mainland at Ban Nakasang. The size of the craft
allowed it's helmsman to cruise near to the riverbank and that gave me the
opportunity to observe many things which were not visible when in a larger boat
needing to navigate the middle of the river, which in this area is perhaps a
half mile wide.
From boat to car we set off further south
again to reach the Khone Phapheng Waterfalls – yes, another one - but this time
to experience South East Asia's largest and most impressive one. Sited not far
from the border with Cambodia, it's surrounded with lush vegetation and teeming
with wildlife. Each of my guides, as well as a number of hotel managers, had
told me that it was one of the loveliest destinations in Laos – and I can vouch
A mile wide with thunderous cascades of
water which finally come together to form a torrent that funnels itself into
the already majestic Mekong, it is certainly a sight to remember. Local
fishermen again pit their wits against nature and to watch them jumping from
rock to rock to attend their cone-shaped baskets as the water roars and swirls
around them, did, in my case, make me feel very apprehensive for their safety.
Everywhere one looked, sightseers stood in
awe, their cameras aimed - but those closest to the edges were forced to use
hand signals as a form of communication due to the number of decibels the falls
There was no doubting the spectacular
nature of the place was the highlight of my tour. Once having absorbed most of
the different facets of such a landscape, I went back over them but this time
with my cameras at the ready. Such a 'once in a lifetime' experience just had
to be recorded.
The camera's 64GB memory card was almost
full after two weeks touring this country of contrasts – and having downloaded
and edited both video and stills, the images are preserved and ready to trigger
The heading of this article reads (and 3 more 'L's at the end). I'll explain.
They stand for 'Land of Linear Litter'. Throughout
the tour, from north to south, on water and on land, in the streets of towns,
on the tracks in villages, on roads, verges, jungle paths, sightseeing
viewpoints, fields, carparks, pavements – around temples, pagodas, stupas,
restaurants and cafes, outside homes, shacks, shops and museums – there it was.
Plastics of every conceivable kind floating
downstream of the Mekong and being swept in large quantities to the river banks,
especially where boats moor and their passengers alight. It was indeed a
depressive sight to witness. Even more unfathomable, was the total ignoring of
it by the very people who reply upon tourist income.
Windblown plastic sheet/shopping bags and
the like could be seen trapped against tree branches which lined rural and
major roads, cardboard cartons and flattened boxes were in sight everywhere one
More astonishing was the amount and variety
of rubbish lying strewn in and around temples and sacred places. No one seemed
to care and added to it with abandon. It became a constant thought in my mind,
one which eventually prompted me to ask a number of hotel managers and tour
operators what they thought.
The universal replies I received were to
the effect, that – 'it was just the Laos
person's way, anything which was considered not to be of use, was discarded and
became someone else's problem'.
Perhaps, should any member of the Laos
Tourist Board or Government read this, it may send a warning shot, that
visitors to their country do abhor such practices. It may spur them into
creating a propaganda campaign designed to educate the population into have
more understanding of their beautiful country?
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