Uncle Thom

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Asia » Cambodia » North » Angkor
August 10th 2008
Published: August 10th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

South Entrance to Angkor ThomSouth Entrance to Angkor ThomSouth Entrance to Angkor Thom

The causeway is short and the moat that surrounds Angkor Thom is not as wide as Angkor Wat, but notice the mean looking faces of the statue. Scary.
A train of elephants comes parading out of the south gate of the Angkor Thom compound as I was walking down the short causeway that leads to the entrance. The elephant drivers are all wearing green uniforms fashioned in traditional Khmer clothing. Tourists eagerly point and click at these humongous creatures lumbering out of the south gate of Angkor Thom. One foolish tourist got so close, practically a foot away from the elephants hind legs, that she could have been easily stomped on if she had moved in any closer. An inch of a step closer would have definitely crushed her little body like an aluminum beer can on a junkyard car crusher or a little ant on a steel-toed boots. It amazes me as well that these elephants could pass through the gates easily and comfortably. It’s not like they have to squeeze in tightly to make it through the eye of a needle. They pass through the entrance easily like an eighteen wheeler passing through the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, the gateway to the Wild Wild West of the United States continent. That’s because the designers of these ancient compounds purposely made the entrances large enough to
A Parade of ElephantsA Parade of ElephantsA Parade of Elephants

These sonovaguns almost crushed one of the tourists taking pictures of them.
allow these lovely elephants to move in and out of the compound with enough clearance so that they can haul in the sandstones from the mountains a few hundred miles away to build these structures. Pedestrians, bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars, vans, trucks, limousines, and everyone steps out to the side to let these gargantuan creatures hog the road. They stomp out proudly and leisurely like they were the kings of the jungle.

Blue Bayon

The voice of the legendary Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison is on my mind as I pass through the south entrance of the Angkor Thom complex. He once wrote a song called Blue Bayou, a soft and warmed hearted tune about a man who leaves behind a loved one in the backwoods of Louisiana, saving nickels, saving dimes, working ‘til the sun don’t shine, and thinking about the happy times he left behind on Blue Bayou, and he's going back someday, come what may, on Blue Bayou. Roy Orbison is one the greatest Rock ‘n Rollers in the history of the genre. He was rockabillying it out before rockabilly was cool. He wrote fabulous songs like Pretty Woman, Only the Lonely,
Bayon EntranceBayon EntranceBayon Entrance

Tourists getting pictures with the monks
In Dreams, Crying, You Got It, Running Scared, Love Hurts, and whole lotta of other songs that you maybe familiar with but didn’t know that Orbison wrote them. Blue Bayou, for example, was popularized more by the 70s pop star queen Linda Ronstadt than by Orbison himself. That was back in the late seventies, when I was too young and innocent to really understand anything about music, politics, and just life in general. Jerry Brown was the governor of California then, and he dated Linda Ronstadt for awhile during that time. Jerry Brown was, and is still is, probably, an elitist sonovagun. A pretentious Zen master who rode in the wave of the organic and holistic new age nonsense back in the seventies, he wanted the whole world to follow in his footsteps, and he almost succeeded. The Dead Kennedy’s, due to his wanton hubris, wrote a song about him called California Uber Alles. Here’s a sample of the lyrics to that song.

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles
And never frowns
Soon I will be president...

Carter Power will soon go away
I will be Fuhrer one day
Inner GalleryInner GalleryInner Gallery

I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
Your kids will meditate in school!

California Uber Alles
California Uber Alles
Uber Alles California
Uber Alles California

Great lyrics but the music itself is uninspiring to say the least. It’s typical punk rock. Use only two or three chords. Keep strumming those three chords until your fingers bleed. During the chorus, switch the order of the chords and add a pause between the lyrics. And do the same dadgum thing all over again for the second verse.

I get on my tuk-tuk and off we go to the temple of Bayon, with the sound of Roy Orbison’s voice still singing that popular tune Blue Bayou in my head. We chug along a paved road until we hit the south side of the temple, then turn right for fifty yards and left for another twenty until we reach the east entrance to Bayon. My driver drops me off and we agreed to meet at the north entrance after my sightseeing. I figured it should take me a good two hours to see all the essentials;
Playful monkPlayful monkPlayful monk

Orange robed monk skipping around the compound
monuments, carved stone faces, statues, and bas-reliefs - pronounced baah-ri-leef. I put on the ear buds of my headphones in my ear and turn on my ipod, choosing a playlist I created with songs from The Who, Nine Inch Nails, Aretha Franklin, The O’Jays, Donovan, and many other artists whom I can’t remember at the top of my head right now, but they’re a great list of songs, and I chose them specifically because I love listening to these list of songs over and over and over again until the batteries run dry. Then I recharge the batteries, put on my headphones, and do the same dadgum thing all over again until the batteries run dry again. I lower the volume ever so slightly so that I can hear the tunes but not block out the sounds and conversations of other people around me. As a matter of fact I don’t like to block other people out by putting on a set of headphones like most people do. The only reason that I am putting my headphones on right now is to block out that imaginary song that I keep hearing in my head, Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou, and replace
North Outer CourtyardNorth Outer CourtyardNorth Outer Courtyard

Me getting my picture taken
it with something else, like one of the songs in my ipod playlist, perhaps something like Aretha Franklin’s Freeway of Love. It’s not that I don’t like that Roy Orbison song but the mood isn’t right. I need a song that lifts my feet up and keeps me jumpy, twisty, and makes me wanna boogie-woogie. Let that boy boogie-woogie, cuz it’s in ‘m, ‘n it’s gotta come out.

The first tune is by The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. The sound of keyboards rising, the guitars riffing, the drums rolling with the bass setting the rhythm and keeping the beat of the tune. I walk to the beat of the tune with my head swaying to and fro in rhythm with the lyrics of fighting in the streets and some revolution about to come from Roger Daltrey’s voice. I walk around like I am the coolest person on the face on the planet. The tourists around me are looking at me like I’m from some other planet, or maybe that I am high on some kind of drug, or both. I am in Cambodia and listening to The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again in my ipod while hiking up

Tourists milling around and admiring the ruins
the steps to the temple of Bayon, and that’s reason enough for me to walk around like Fonzarelli.

The temple of Bayon is not as enormous as Angkor Wat, nor are the towers constructed similarly. Whereas the towers of Angkor Wat are “corncobbie” in design and shape, the towers of Bayon are carved out on all four sides with faces of Buddha looking people, and this is evident as you approach the temple from the terrace of the East gopura, or entrance. The entrance, like all entrances in the whole Angkor area, is guarded by a statue of some kind, and surrounded by naga balustrades on either side. In this case it is guarded by a mean looking lion with big sharp teeth and sharp marble shaped eyes, ready to pounce on an intruder. Thank goodness it is only a statue because it would scare the beejeesus out of anyone with even a remote thought of trespassing. A group of Japanese tourists cuts in front of everyone else at the terrace to pose for a picture with the façade of the Buddha-faced Bayon towers in the background. At this point I began to notice the beige shirt-wearing people with
Central TowerCentral TowerCentral Tower

Me in a pretentious pose at the central tower of Bayon
nametags chaperoning tourists. They are in fact tour guides from the Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association, or KATGA for short. I found out later that they can be hired for $20 a day to show you around the temple and point out key features and explain the meanings behind this enormous and complex madness of a structure. Twenty dollars was a little too much in my opinion. I already bought a guidebook for almost twenty bucks and besides, it’s more fun to figure things out on your own even after the fact, especially after the fact, when you’ve absorbed and internalized everything in.

The entrance itself to the temple isn’t as magnificent as that of Angkor Wat partly because it is crumbling and is in a major state of disrepair, but also because it’s not as enormous. Some of the statues in front are also crumbling, some are beheaded, and some are barely recognizable at all. The outer wall that surrounds the Bayon temple has a gallery of bas-relief of apsara dancers and marching soldiers. As you pass through the outer enclosure you will encounter yet again another bas-relief gallery of the inner enclosure. To the left and right,
Buddah FaceBuddah FaceBuddah Face

One of the many Buddha like faces carved out on the towers of Bayon
about twenty yards away, are highly elevated cruciform libraries with very steep steps. As I was pulling out my camera to point and click a group of tourists from South America approached me to ask if I would be kind enough to take their picture in front of the wall of bas-relief in the inner gallery, which I did because I’m a nice guy. I was surprised that there were plenty of South Americans here. The group I just met is from Argentina. I handed back their camera and asked one of them if he could take a picture of me standing in front of the inner terrace, posing like a pretentious little twit that I am. I walked around some more in front of the inner gallery towards the north library area. There was a group of South American tourists being chaperoned by a KATGA guide. The guide spoke passable Spanish and was joking around with the South Americans. The guide tried to explain something to one of the South American guys;

Guide: Había originalmente 54 torres, pero sólo 37 son permanentes, intiende?

Tourist: Intiende, perfecto!

The wife of the South American tourist laughed when she
Another Buddha FaceAnother Buddha FaceAnother Buddha Face

The latest count is 37 faces like these in Bayon
heard me laughing as I listened to the guide say intiende? to her husband while I was taking a picture of the bas-relief in the inner gallery right in front of me. The guide went on singing Guantanamera as he followed the South Americans towards the inner enclosure of the Bayon. The other South Americans, the one I met earlier and took a group picture of, said something about the couple being from Paraguay. They were speaking in Spanish and their voices were kept low enough, down to the hush-hush level, so that no one could hear except them talking amongst themselves, and me of course, because I was eavesdropping. Although my knowledge of Spanish is limited, I could pick up enough of the language to understand these people’s prejudice against Paraguayans, whatever that may mean.

I lingered around the inner gallery a little bit longer while the South Americans moved on, the Argentineans going in the opposite direction of the Paraguayans. I don’t really understand the politics behind their relationship so I didn’t pursue it, the conflict and the behind the back stabling like I would have if the encounter had been between say, the Koreans and the
Stairway to HeavenStairway to HeavenStairway to Heaven

These steps leads to the palace of enlightment
Japanese, Chinese and the Japanese, or any other Asian nationality and the Japanese for that matter. In public the Chinese, the Koreans, and all the other Asians play nice-nice with the Japanese but behind closed doors the Japanese are the most hated Asians in Asia. This has something to do with WWII the big one, as Archie Bunker would say, I’m sure, but it is also much more than that. I in particular don’t have a problem with the Japanese but if I said that to another Asian he or she would certainly look at me as if there’s a hole in my head. I don’t find the Japanese dangerous. Laughable maybe, but not dangerous.

This inner gallery seems to be a popular spot for tourist. The KATGA guides were eagerly explaining the meaning of the carvings in the gallery. I looked on in amazement of the fine details and the artistry. There’s a parade of soldiers marching and preparing to go to war interposed with a market scene with baskets of vegetables and apsara dancers in contorted positions, one arm in an L shape with open hand facing up and the other in the opposite the direction, with
West Outer CourtyardWest Outer CourtyardWest Outer Courtyard

Nice facade on the outer coutyard
legs and feet going in directions that seem to be physically impossible unless your body was made of rubber. If you tried that at home you will most definitely break a bone and pull every muscle in your body. This apsara dancing business is not for ordinary human beings.

One of the KATGA guides was speaking French to another Cambodian guy, which is odd because they speak the same language. The French speaking Cambodian guy bumped in to me and said something like pardonez mwa, or something ridiculous like that. I told him that’s okay. I have no idea if he understands English, I just assumed it because English is the language of commerce in this wonderful planet of ours. Thank god for America. If America had not kicked everyone’s behind back in WWII the big one, as Archie Bunker would say, we would all be speaking German. The Cambodian guy is a fifty-ish man with a potbelly and round Buddha-like face. He seemed like a really nice guy, the only problem is that he started chatting to me in French. I told him I’m not much of a French speaker. I only really speak one language fluently, English.
Buddha in the mid-day sunBuddha in the mid-day sunBuddha in the mid-day sun

This was a nicely captured photo
“Oooh, from United States?” he asked. I said yes. He seemed rather disappointed, at least that’s what I saw on his face. He had difficulty communicating in English. He had difficulty communicating in Khmer even though he is Cambodian. He is traveling with his family, a group of six or seven people. I wasn’t really sure how many people was part of his family but he introduced me to as many of them as he could. There was the wife, two lovely young daughters, a teenage son, and perhaps a grandmother. I was unsure exactly of who was who because there was a great deal of misunderstanding. He was mostly speaking in French, added a few Khmer words in between, and some English. Every time he tried to speak Khmer he would look at the tour guide and shook his head, as if to ask if what he said was right or wrong. The tour guide would nod his head in agreement. The tour guide said to me in English: “this gentleman here was born in Phnom Penh but has been living in Tolouse, France for thirty years”. So that’s the problem.

I went inside and climbed the steep

Notice how the tower with a Buddha like face is framed in this picture
steps towards the inner sanctum of the upper terrace, up to the central tower with eight alcoves. You can get a nice view of the complex from one of these alcoves. Buddha-like faces are carved in every tower that exists in Bayon. I whipped out my handy dandy camera and I circled around the central tower, pointing and clicking at anything and everything that looked even remotely interesting. Symmetry and repetition is a theme that once again comes to mind as I toured and observed this magnificent structure. There are cruciform terraces in each corner of the terrace. I am high above in the central tower with a good view of the things below, watching tourists snap pictures of each other. There are courtyards in every corner as well, fronted by those cruciform terraces that I mentioned. I stepped down from the central tower on the west side and walked around the gallery in the inner closure of that side to look at the bas-relief and to watch and observe people. Then I walked down to the outer courtyard between the inner and the outer enclosures. The heat and humidity is brutal. I am sweating profusely and the back of
Northern ExposureNorthern ExposureNorthern Exposure

The northern facade of Bayon
my shirt is completely drenched, so I took off my shirt and wiped my whole body off with it. There was a little bit of water left in my bottle so I drank the rest of it. It’s about twelve thirty in the afternoon and I figured I should take a break and have lunch in one of those ubiquitous vendor shacks on the side of the road in the temple area, have a Khmer style meal or something maybe. So I walked around the corner from the west side of Bayon to the north. There are blocks of stones everywhere covering the courtyard. As the temple was crumbling from neglect back in the sixteenth century the stones fell to the sides of the courtyard. As of this moment there are restoration projects actively trying to put these stones back to where they belong, but there are so many of them. It’s going to take many, many more years before all of this mess can be cleaned up and once again make this place into what it once was back in the reign of Jayavarman VII.

As I walked around the corner on the north side of Bayon the magnificence of the North Library struck me like a ten-ton hammer. It whacked me upside the head like a Maplewood baseball bat on a cowhide cover of the ball. The sight might seem unremarkable to a pedestrian but for me I was astonished by the steepness of the steps and the elevation of the structure. There were young tourists climbing down from above, holding onto every stone in the steps for fear of losing balance and falling off ten feet down. The library is not that high but falling onto a hard rock will surely be an unpleasant experience. I was walking towards the library and looking at the young tourists holding on for dear life, so thoroughly absorbed that I didn’t realize I was walking shirtless, and that’s usually not a good thing in a modest country like Cambodia. The other Asian tourists were looking at me as if I was being rude. The European tourists didn’t give a damn one little bit. As a matter of fact one of them did the same thing. One tall and lanky European tourist took off his shirt and exposed his wiry and hairy body to the embarrassment of the Asian ladies shading by the bulletin board beside the North Library. I quickly realized this was a no-no and put my shirt back on. The hairy tourist had no idea he was being offensive. He just kept smoking his cigarette with his shirtless body as if there was nothing wrong with it, which in other parts of the world would have been perfectly fine, but not here in Cambodia, where modesty rules.

The young tourists finally made it down in one piece but they were strutting around like it was no big deal. One of the young tourists asked me if I would kindly take a picture of his group in front of the north façade of Bayon. I gladly obliged and snapped a picture of them with his fancy camera. They were a friendly bunch and like many tourists I’ve encountered in my travels, was curious about my place of origin and things of that nature, and so I told them about me, what I’m doing here, and where I’m going next, the usual conversations that happen between fellow travelers, except these people weren’t really travelers per se, they were just a bunch of young tourists from Malaysia visiting the temples of Angkor for the weekend. I conversed with the group for a good twenty to thirty minutes until they finally decided that they were hungry, and headed out. I was ready to take a lunch break myself but I was intrigue by the library. I wanted to climb up there so I went up and started grabbing onto the stones and stepping onto the steps. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. The hairy European guy followed me, grinning like a maniac and perhaps amused of our chivalry, a couple of brave and adventurous tourists climbing up the steps of the North Library of Bayon. One misstep could really put you in the hospital for quite sometime and I didn’t want to take that chance, so I grabbed on to anything to keep my balance. I finally made it up after five minutes although it should have taken at least half that. The European guy nearly passed me. I stayed up there for about ten minutes, enjoying the shade and the cool breeze that blew from the south. Out on the terrace new waves of tourists are arriving with those beige shirt wearing KATGA guides, snapping pictures of anything that looked remotely exotic and interesting. Meanwhile, I had to think about going down without falling off and landing head first onto the rocks. A couple of French women were climbing up as I was about to go down. I waited until they made it up before I went down. I even helped one of the up, the gentleman that I am. “Mercy” she said. “Your welcome” I said. I would love to chat but I have to navigate my way down without hurting myself. The French lady said in her nasally French accented English “eat iz naught dat toph”. Yeah it is, I thought, perhaps because I’m a wimp. It’s also tough for me because I am wearing hiking boots, and as I was climbing down I thought that it might have been easier if I just climbed barefooted like the French ladies were doing. Silly me, being outdone by a French woman climbing the steep steps of the North Library of Bayon.


Bayon was a nice experience, equally as complex and interesting as Angkor Wat, although not as enormous. But Bayon is only one of several temples and monuments inside the compound of Angkor Thom; there are the terrace of elephants and leper kings, Phimeanakas, Tep Pranam, Preah Palilay, Preah Pithu, the North and South Khleangs, Prasats Suor Prat, and Baphuon. I exited Bayon from the north and immediately saw my tuk-tuk driver lounging around, just waiting for me.

“Lets go eat”, I said.

“Where you want to go, sir?”

“Take me to your favorite vendor shack in the area”.

He kick started his two-stroke motorcycle and off we go, chugging along in the tuk-tuk, heading out to the south gate of Angkor Thom, and back to the western entrance of Angkor Wat where there’s a line of shacks selling food and souvenir items. We stopped in one of those shacks in the middle with a set of outdoor tables. It looked like a makeshift restaurant. There are several tourists sitting down and dining, laughing, talking, doing the usual touristy stuff. My tuk-tuk driver led me to a small table next to the hut where all the cooking appears to be taking place. The smell of stir-fried noodles and pork is wafting in the air. I ordered a bottle of water and a pot of hot tea. My tuk-tuk driver orders a can of coke. We were sitting there rather awkwardly because it was difficult to converse. His English is limited to a few phrases, mainly a functional set of words to take tourists to where they want to go, which is rather useless in a casual lunchtime chat. He kept asking me where I want to go next. I said Baphuon. He nodded. Five minutes later he asks me the same damn question. I said the same dadgum thing. He nods again. A man walks up to us to ask what we want to eat. My tuk-tuk driver says something unintelligible to me and I nod like I understood. He looks up at the man who wants to take our order and says something to him in Khmer, looks back at me, and says something unintelligible to me. Again I nod like I understood although I have no idea what he’s talking about. He could be ordering a raw beating heart of a cobra for me for all I know, and I yet I nodded like that’s exactly what I want, like an idiot. At this point I was hungry enough to eat anything, including a raw beating heart of a cobra. The man took our orders without writing anything down. We sit and wait for our orders to arrive. I look around the bunch of tourists dining at this place. They are the oft-traveled types, backpackers and vagabonds of world, grunge, unshaven, and they all look like they haven’t taken a shower in days. Mostly of the European variety. There are also some Asians; Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese. They’re not grunge looking like these European backpackers. My tuk-tuk driver asks me yet again where I want to go. I said Baphuon for the umpteenth time. He nods for the umpteenth time. This is the extent of our conversation. Him asking me where I want to go next, and me patiently telling him where I want to go next even though I’ve already told him where I want to go just a few seconds ago. The arrival of our food saved us from this rather awkward conversation. We chow down on a wonderful meal of stir-fried beef, Khmer style sweet and sour fish, boiled fresh vegetables, and a plateful of rice. Eating kept us preoccupied and reduced our conversation to “please pass the sauce” or a hand gesture to ask if I wanted more rice, stir-fry, and the like.

After we finished eating and paid for our meal we lingered around the vendor shack for a little while just to relax and people watch while the rest of the diners left and headed for their next destination of sightseeing. My tuk-tuk drive quit asking me where I wanted to go next. A tuk-tuk carrying a load full of tourists stops in front of the vendor shack. A group of Chinese tourists steps off the tuk-tuk and starts chatting with the proprietor of the shack. The proprietor makes some hand signals and point in one direction or the other. At this point my tuk-tuk driver and me are the only ones left sitting around the compound. The Chinese tourists look at us somewhat curiously. I have no idea what they’re asking the proprietor. The proprietor tries to lure them in to the place, perhaps order some of that delicious sweet and sour fish or maybe some fried noodles. The Chinese tourists shake their heads, indicating they are not interested in eating, they just want directions. Doesn’t their tuk-tuk driver know the direction?
I indicated to my tuk-tuk driver that it’s time to go, so we both get up and headed back up to Angkor Thom. Baphuon is located to the northwest of Bayon. My guidebook says it is a five-tiered pyramidal tower of bronze. The entrance is just off to the south of The Terrace of Elephants. Like most temples around here, the main entrance faces east. I walk down the narrow causeway and approached a pavilion just before the main entrance with its enclosure. To the left of the pavilion is a murky pool. Three Khmer kids are splashing in the water. One of them yells “sir, one doughlah okee” to me. I laughed because they’re not even selling anything and yet they say this to me like they say to all the tourists that they encounter in the temple area.

There is absolutely no one here in the Baphuon temple except for me and the Khmer kids splashing around in the murky pool. The reason for this is because the temple is closed for restoration. The whole compound is locked up, so I couldn’t go in and have a look-see. That was unfortunate because from the outside the place looks magnificent. It has a lot of potential from what I can see. I was hoping to at least get in the first enclosure but even that’s off limits. It seems that the temple has crumbled significantly and any proximity to the compound is rendered dangerous to the public at large.


I walk back out on the narrow causeway of Baphoun and head up north to the Elephant Terrace, towards the entrance of Phimeanakas. A guy sitting around the terrace was eyeing and spying the unwitting tourists who pass by the area. I was one of those unwitting tourists who didn’t know what was going on until the guy started to give me his unsolicited guidance about the temple and the terrace. I looked at him as if to ask if he wanted something. He wanted something alright. Money. One doughlah. There plenty of guys like him around here, so you have to be careful. They are unlicensed and unofficial guides who get friendly with the tourists. They come up to you and start telling you meaningful facts about this and that, and before you know it they’ve become your tour guide without you even asking them to be. This guy followed me around even though I ignored him. Wherever I went he was there, and it became quite annoying after a while. I finally told him that I don’t have any money to pay for his services. He said “One doughlah okee”. I said not even one cent. He looked at me as if he didn’t understand. I said “No dollar”. He nods his head and said yes! I said “no!” He finally went away after five minutes when I ran away from him. Thank goodness he didn’t chase me. As I headed towards the Phimeanakas temple a teenaged girl selling scarves approaches me.

“Sir, for your wife, one doughlah”.

When that didn’t get any response she said

“Sir, for your girlfriend, one doughlah, two doughlah okee too”.

Again, I ignored her. That was not enough of a deterrence for her though because she kept following me around wherever I went. By now I’ve mastered the art of avoidance and ignoring. Avoid and ignore is my modus operandi by now. I walked around like she wasn’t even there.

The Phimeanakas is another one of those glorious temples that are closed down for restoration. Like Baphuon next door, it looks magnificent from the outside. It is a multi-tiered pyramidal rectangular palace with an interesting design, different from Bayon and the other temples around it. Unfortunately that’s all I saw of it because it is currently off limits to the general public. The young girl selling Khmer designed scarves was still by my side hawking her wares to me. I turned around and headed out to the entrance, the Elephant Terrance, and decided to call it a day. The young girl followed me all the way to the entrance and to my tuk-tuk. Even when I got on the tuk-tuk and the driver kick started the two-stroke motor, she was still working on me. We chugged out of there and left the young girl behind, and that’s how I finally got rid of her.


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