Siem Reap Trip Report July 2008

Jul 19th, 2008, 02:40 PM
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Siem Reap Trip Report July 2008

Hi everyone, I posted my Vietnam report on the Vietnam forum and promised to post the Cambodia section here. We spent 2 weeks in Vietnam and 3 nights/4 days in Siem Reap. Because of the way our flights worked out (award tickets to Hanoi and home from HCMC) we did Cambodia in the middle -- adding the cost for multi-entry visa to Vietnam. But we flew Silk Air nonstop from Danang to SR, making it as efficient an itinerary as possible given the circumstances. That also meant we got from Hoi An to Siem Reap without having to connect. The flight -- at $269 per person -- was quite expensive and only runs twice a week. But all the flights to Siem Reap are comparatively expensive. Most agents have not heard of this nonstop flight from Danang. We flew back to Saigon on Vietnam Airlines for $180. We booked the Silk Air flight online and the VN airlines flight through Tonkin Travel in Vietnam, with whom we booked many of our VN hotels/flights.

I will try to answer some of the questions that come up often on this forum.
E-VISA - we decided to compromise and bring photos but do our visa on arrival at SR. There were no lines so it probably made no difference, so I can't answer if one is faster than the other. This took all of 5 minutes or so. The airport staff were the only surly people we met the entire trip -- not a single smile as they processed our visas.

WHERE TO STAY - I had really wanted to be right near the Old Market area and was leaning towards the Steung Siem Reap. Others suggested it was not such a big deal to be right there and we might enjoy a little more "luxury" at a hotel with nicer pool and amenities. I think for us the advice was correct. First of all, we were able to get an off-season "stay 3 nights/pay for 2" at the Victoria Angkor, so at $125 per night it worked out to $83 a night for a very nice hotel. We booked this through Ponheary, who got the special rate thru her travel agent friend. She could have gotten us good rates at a number of hotels including HDLP. After seeing HDLP, I'm glad we didn't pay the extra to stay there. The Victoria was very nice, the location worked out fine, and the pool area was particularly nice for spending mid-day breaks. We had a deluxe room overlooking the pool and the room was fine, although nothing special. The shower was not great -- no matter what we did water got all over the bathroom when we showered. We ended up putting pool towels on the floor! The breakfast was okay, not great, and internet was expensive at $3 per hour in a stuffy room. But the hotel itself is lovely. Someone described it as similar to the Jim Thompson house in BKK and I would agree with that. I'm sure we would have been fine at any number of hotels.

What I did like about the Victoria was the pool menu. It was very reasonable and we could have a quick lunch at the pool during the mid-day breaks. The food was quite good for lunch -- actually better than the breakfasts. The service everywhere at the hotel was very attentive.
We did not have a problem with mosquitoes in our room as others had reported. In fact, we only got bitten once and didn't really see any mosquitoes, but did see other flying things.
We could have walked to the Old Market/Pub Street area, but took Tuk Tuks for $2 or $3 most nights. Actually, it turned out we only ate dinner on Pub St one night and the other nights picked restaurants not right in Pub St area, but ended up walking there afterwards and then tuk-tuk'ing back to the hotel. That's why the location really didn't make much difference. If someone was going to be there only one night and was really rushed, then staying close to Pub St. might be better.

AMOUNT OF TIME -- We were very happy with 3 nights/4 days and could have easily added another day. Not sure I would have wanted to be there less time, especially since it's so expensive to get there and there is a lot to see and do. If you think of temple visit times as "slots" I used 4 "slots" to visit temples and my bf used 5. A slot is about 8-11 a.m. or 3-6 pm the time of year we were there.
I think 4 slots is enough for most people.
RAINY SEASON - we really worried about the heat and rain and it turned out to be fairly mild weather and very little rain. For us, beginning of July turned out to be ideal weather. We could have even visited some temple sites in the middle of the day. I hear April and May are much hotter.
The rain only got in the way for about 30 minutes one afternoon and we were treated to beautiful rainbows.
I did take the advice on this forum and Trip Advisor and got closed toe Keen sandals, which were ideal - especially the one day it was muddy. I put them in the washing machine when we got home and they were fine! One day I wore them with socks and I also wore sneakers and socks a couple of times. My bf mostly wore Ecco Yucatan walking sandals (open toe) and was fine. It was nice to have sneakers to change into every once in awhile, but certainly not necessary.
We did need very good tread on the bottom of our shoes, so not to slip -- especially in the rain.
Shorts were fine as long as they were not too short. I wore both capris and shorts and my bf wore shorts every day.
I did apply sunscreen with DEET just to be careful, especially at dusk and evenings, and always wore sunscreen. We chose to take Malarone as the CDC recommended, but it probably was not necessary. Everyone has to make their own decision on that, but definitely have a good insect repellent.
alison is offline  
Jul 19th, 2008, 06:05 PM
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nice report, thanks
rhkkmk is offline  
Jul 19th, 2008, 06:22 PM
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Thanks for your report.

People feel differently about the temples. We used 11 or 12 "slots" to visit the temples... and we wished we had more time!
Kathie is online now  
Jul 19th, 2008, 06:30 PM
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OUR GUIDES - We had booked Ponheary for the first 2 days and Dara for te second two days. It's clear that the Ly family is just a lovely family and I woudn't hesitate to send high school or college kids to stay at their guest house and volunteer at the schools with which they work. While we were there Ponheary had many such volunteers there and was a bit distracted by them with phone calls and logistical arrangements. What Ponheary should really be doing (if resources were available and her income wasn't required at home) is traveling abroad raising money for the Ponheary Ly Foundation (if you are reading this board, you are probably familiar with it. If not, do a word search or check offwego's postings). She was great for visiting the school near Bantrey Srei and we certainly enjoyed our time with her visiting the temples. However, Dara is much more focused and an in-depth tour guide when it comes to the temples. He is such a lovely person, too, and we learned so much from him about the temples and the civilizations that existed there. Both Dara and Ponheary have very sad tales to share about life under the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime. Dara is also excellent about photography. I would not hesitate to recommend either of them but felt Ponheary is, at this point, way more interested in the schools and the foundation than in being a temple tour guide. Also, we chose to purchase breakfast for the children rather than some of the more extensive opportunities like providing uniforms, sponsoring a field trip, etc. Both of us work for charitable organizations and deal with causes all the time. While we were happy to help support the kids this way, we were not traveling with our own children or grandchildren and this was, after all, our vacation. I really don't want to be blasted on this forum for saying this, but we were made to feel guilty that all we were doing was providing breakfast and kept being pitched about all the other opportunities for giving and told how much more others did for the school children.

We still had a great experience and I am so glad that we did see the school and do recommend to everyone that you do some sort of community service. For those traveling with children, it would be a wonderful experience for them to be involved in a more hands-on way. And just think....if every one of the 2 million visitors helped the locals who have had such a tragic recent history, how much better off they would be.

OUR TEMPLE ITINERARY - We saw Angkor Thom/Bayon/Terrace of the Elephants our first afternoon temple-visiting slot. After the rain that cut it short a bit - but gave us beautiful rainbows -- Ponheary took us to photograph Angkor Wat in the special late-afternoon light.

The next day was also with Ponheary and that morning we visited Bantrey Srei and the primary school nearby along with the landmine museum. Seeing the school was quite interesting, especially watching the 6th grade girls scrubbing the cauldrons using well water. Check out the bulletin boards in the classroom for photos of the kids on field trips. Also, Lori (offwego) has posted about specific school supplies that are needed.

The ride back through villages and rice paddies is interesting and I loved stopping to get the palm sugar candy beside the road....and what a bargain for 3 for $1.

After a mid-day break, we had a very busy afternoon slot seeing Ta Prohm, Preah Khean and climbing Pre Rup for sunset. As I had mentioned, it was not unbearably hot, so this was not too rushed or uncomfortable and we really enjoyed all these temples.

The next morning was a very comprehensive visit to Angkor Wat with Dara. We loved that.

During the afternoon slot my bf went with Dara to some other temples -- smaller ones where there were fewer visitors -- and he really enjoyed this time with Dara.

I don't need to go into details of the temples here as you can read about them in many guidebooks and learn about them from the guides. Having a guide definitely added to the enjoyment. And it was wonderful to have an a/c car waiting for us when we would exit the temple. The Ly's driver, Mr. Hong, was also wonderful and accommodating.

I spent the 3rd afternoon swimming, lazing a bit and going to the Old Market and Artisans d'Angkor shop near Pub St. Never did make it to the main shop where you can see demonstrations.

Our 4th day we wanted to go to a remote Tonle Sap village rather than the closer-in, and much more touristy, Chong Khneas. By going to Kamphong Phluck we were able to see the floating village of Chong Khneas AND the Kamphong Phluck village on stilts. Because it was only the beginning of the rainy season, Kamphong Phluck was not completely underwater and we could walk down the main "road" of the village.

This was a very interesting day that cost us an additional $60 for the boat ride on top of the $30 for the guide (Dara) and $30 for the car/driver. Many of the guesthouses offer this as a day trip, too, and some of them include a home visit with lunch. It makes for a fairly long excursion. We left before 8 a.m. and were back by 1:30 p.m., in time for 2 p.m. late check out and 5:20 p.m. flight to SGN. Travel time depends on time of year. We took a road to near Chong Khneas and then a motorboat of some kind through that floating village and then through very thick swamp that the boat's contraption had to cut through and then sped along the lake for a full two hours before getting to the village. There was one other tourist we saw at Kamphong Phluck.

It was quite interesting to see the houses with steep stairs so that they will not be submerged when it is the height of the rainy season. Children greeted us trying to sell us notebooks and pens for use in the one-room school house. They go to the market and buy these and then are 'middle-men' to get the very few tourists to buy them for $5 for each set. We bought sets from two different kids and took them to the teacher/students at the school. The other sellers were very sorry we didn't buy from them and tagged along with us the entire visit hoping we would relent and buy more. If we hadn't been short on USD we had with us we probably would have.

We used an outdoor squat toilet at one of the homes and bought candy from their little "store" to give to the village children. I was almost mobbed as I tried to give only one piece to each child and word got out that there was candy delivery and heaps of children showed up. Needless to say, I was very popular.

We visited the school and the monastery and there was some sort of communal meal going on where the village women were all dressed up and making huge portions of lunch in cauldrons and feeding the villagers and the monks, who were all chanting. It was all very lively and colorful and we were certainly seeing a slice of life.

We really enjoyed this visit and were glad we had made extra time for it. If you don't have a 4th day you might not have time. Others have enjoyed the much shorter boat ride near Chong Khneas to watch the sunset.

RESTAURANTS -- Our first dinner was at Khmer Kitchen. It was good, but not sure we ordered well. We had a fantastic dinner at Abacus and I really recommend you go there and eat outside in the garden patio if it's a nice night. It definitely has a French influence. The fresh fish was great and the desserts were really special. They used their special pepper in the apple crisp and pepper ice cream accompanied the chocolate cake. Definitely the most creative desserts. It was a great meal and, at $50 for 2, was among the most expensive of our trip. We also had dinner at Viroth's one night, a particularly lovely setting but, again, we may not have ordered well on the Cambodian food.

2 lunches at Blue Pumpkin were great. Loved the lemon yogurt shakes and everything else we had there. The couch seating upstairs is something to see. Also the ice cream and bakery goods are excellent.

SHOPPING - Silk purses for $4 each are a bargain and really nice, especially for gifts. The Cambodian spices also make nice gifts or are a great remembrance. At the night market we found some items that weren't quite as ubiquitous -- nice place mats made out of some sort of grass/reed that was also used to make purses, notebook covers, backpacks, etc. I also got some little purses at the night market for gifts that I didn's see anywhere else -- they have some little purses inside sort of like Russian dolls. Those were $3 each. My bf got these wooden bird mobiles (hard to describe) that he really liked.

The higher priced stores had some really beautiful handicrafts as well. I had already bought a lot of silk shawls in Hoi An, so I didn't even look at the silk -- but there was a wide variety of it.

At the night market there was a stall selling spices by the gram where the prices were lower by 2/3 than buying them pre-packaged at stores like Artisans d'Angkor.

You can do last minute shopping at the Artisans d'Angkor at the very beautiful airport when you are leaving if you didn't have a chance during your visit to SR.

The bar scene is very lively on Pub Street - but we felt very old and out of touch walking through it.

Our time in Cambodia was great. I wished we had time to also visit PP.

I think it helped to prepare for the trip by re-watching "The Killing Fields" and reading a very sad memoir, "First They Took My Father." We also got Dawn Rooney's book from the library and photocopied relevant pages about the temples. My bf liked reading these a lot as we visited those temples. That was TMI for me.

The 3 nights/4 days going to SR did add a lot to the cost of the trip to Vietnam with the expensive air fare, guides/car/driver each day, visas and $25 departure tax. (you can definitely do it cheaper than we did.) But we really felt it was worth it. And, as everyone says, go now before it is either completely over-run or they have to limit the number of visitors or places to visit. Some areas are already roped off either for safety or while they are being renovated.

It also feels nice to give to whatever local businesses one can. Unfortunately, we did not stay in a locally-owned hotel and did not eat most of our meals at locally-owned restaurants. That is something I might take into consideration if I were to plan this trip again.

alison is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 12:35 PM
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So would you recommend affirmatively asking Ponheary for Dara instead (don't want to cause any friction at the Ly family Thanksgiving table). Was there anything "neglectful" or the like about Ponheary - obviously, it's nice that she does this general support for cambodian kids/education, but at the end of the day she's your guide and should give you complete attention as such.
Nontaco is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 01:18 PM
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i think you make an interesting ovservation about the ly's...
rhkkmk is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 02:27 PM
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Good report alison - Fodorites need to know the latest info presented in a balanced way. Thanks for posting.
Craig is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 03:16 PM
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Alison-thanks for the report. Clearly no penalty applies.

It's very interesting to read about your interaction with Ponheary. Ours was exactly the opposite. She was so distracted, she cancelled our school visit and just said she would take the supplies we had brought to the school at another time. My guess is that she is so driven that she has many different moods.
Gpanda is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 03:17 PM
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First of all, I signed on with trepidation....I thought I might be banned from Fodors for blasphemy. I felt that I had been as diplomatic as possible -- stressing the positive -- when I discussed tour guides in SR.
(BTW, I will stay OUT of the lounge....)

But to answer Nontaco's question, I actually think a combination of Dara and Ponheary is the way to go. If you are planning a school visit, or any activity with the children, I would have Ponheary as your guide that day. For major temple-seeing, my bf and I would both recommend Dara. Actually, hearing different perspectives from guides is often a good idea.
And, for folks on a budget, I would look into staying at their guest house. I think it would be very interesting to meet their entire family.

I ran into Terry and Jen (both Fodorites) in SR and hopefully they will post about their experiences soon. We missed the GTG with them by just a few hours.
alison is offline  
Jul 20th, 2008, 06:09 PM
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Greetings from Memphis, Tennessee !!!
Bookmarking for a future trip. Thanks for sharing Alison. Will read more thoroughly when we get settled in Fairbanks, AK in a couple of days.
bmttokyo is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 06:13 AM
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I'm surprised to hear the criticism of Ponheary, especally from such an exalted Fodorite as Gpanda. While she seems to occupy a unique" space" guide through her charitable work, seems like the flip-side is some problems - in a way is the guiding almost secondary to her charitable work? It's also a bit off-putting what others said above that she gave almost a "hard sell" on the charitable stuff....
Nontaco is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 07:15 AM
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Everyone is different. What bothers one person may not be a problem for another.

I'd like to make a caveat about what alison says about feeling guilty: "we were made to feel guilty that all we were doing was providing breakfast." I make this comment not knowing Ponheary and not knowing Alison.

It is very common for people from wealthy countries to feel guilty when confronted with the enormous needs in a poor country like Cambodia. I would expect that to be especially true when talking with a person such as Ponheary, who, by all accounts, is intensely committed to making sure as many Cambodian children as possible get an education. That said, no one can "make" you feel guilty. Your feelings are you own. It may well be that Ponheary's personal investment in her educational mission and her talk of other giving opportunities felt like too much to Alison. But I'd say take this, as we should take all accounts, one person's perspective.

Alison, I appreciate your willingness to speak up about something you anticipated would be controversial.
Kathie is online now  
Jul 21st, 2008, 08:46 AM
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We have scheduled time with Ponheary for three days of touring in January and I'm a little uncomfortable about the recent post.

I had read about visitors touring the orphanages, schools etc. but didn't realize that it was going to be something that we were "required" to do although I certainly wouldn't object to making a donation of some kind.

In our travels we have always been excited and happy to buy local goods and support the community in that way but visiting schools and orphanages (I'm sorry if this sounds horrible and I know I may catch some heat for this) is not what we signed up for.

We ARE active at home with charitable work and try to do our part to help out the less fortunate in our hometown.

I've received emails from Ponheary several times and she never has mentioned donations or discussed her charitable work or donations etc??
jaspertl is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 09:01 AM
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First of all, I would like to say that I too do not want to give Alison the impression that she should not be able to say how she felt while with Ponheary and Dara. That being said, I think it's important to emphasize that this is her opinion,and take it as such. As Kathie said, there is a measure of guilt that a lot of us feel when visiting any place where the poverty level is below our own, whether that is in other countries or our own. We've been to several places like that, and understand what Alison means. I can even remember visiting New Orleans after Katrina and seeing the utter devastation and feeling a measure of guilt. Maybe it's what you DO with that guilt that makes the experience different for each of us.

Our time with Ponheary was one of the most wonderful experiences in our lives. Not only for the wealth of knowledge she shared about the temples and the ancient history of the area, but of HER history-living in that place in the time she did, and it made the experience all the more rich for it. Add to that the time we spent at both the Knar School and Wat Bo schools...I still get emotional when I think about it. We contributed money and bought breakfast for the kids there not because we felt pressured to do so, but because for that small amount of money we could do SO much. And we continue to help Lori and Ponheary as much as we can.

My suggestion to anyone considering using Ponheary as a guide would be to read about her and the work she's doing beforehand. Then decide for yourself if you want your time in Siem Reap to be just about temples and history, or about the people and their struggles as well. Then you can make an informed decision. In my opinion (and take it as such) your experience will be a much richer one for having spent time with Ponheary.
heymo is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 09:03 AM
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jas...i would just go forward with your schedule and i think you will find it perfect....

i agree with many of your feelings...

lets not blow this all out of proportion....alison was just posting some honest feedback, and i for one appreciate it...
rhkkmk is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 10:22 AM
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As the original poster, I would like to clarify. We had requested in advance to visit a school and to do something for the children, based on what we had read on this forum. Ponheary did not try to sell us on doing that. We were happy to do it and found it interesting and gratifying. Yes, one always feels guilt in impoverished countries, especially one like Cambodia that has had such a tragic recent past. Kathie is correct -- Ponheary didn't make me feel guilty; I managed that all on my own. I do admit, though, that the constant references she made to what others had done got a bit wearing. Was it my guilt that we hadn't done more? Perhaps it was (like most things) somewhere in the middle -- I may have felt guilty and she may have emphasized too much the contributions of others.

My bigger criticism was that she was very distracted by all the volunteers with whom she was dealing and that seemed to be her priority. When one hires a guide one expects (barring emergencies) fairly undivided attention, and her attention was definitely "divided" during the time we were with her. Did we still have a great experience? Yes. Would we recommend her? Yes. If you go back to my original posting you will see I was very careful about saying all this. My main recommendaiton was that if you are really interested in in-depth details about the temples, Dara may be the better choice of guide for you. Actually, Ponheary is the one who put this in our minds: She actually said to us that Dara was better with details on the temples.

And I will mention something else that I didn't mention in the original posting. Ponheary told us that if her 4-year-old nephew hadn't had other plans (I think with one of the volunteers), she would have brought him with her to join us. I was a bit surprised at that. When I hire guides, I would not expect them to bring children without our permission (again, barring unforeseen circumstances). She was also on her cell phone a lot about the Foundation and also about the volunteers.

Another way of looking at my posting is that it is a really strong recommendation of Dara as a guide and that those on a budget should consider their guest house. Dara was really an excellent guide and, as I said, anyone meeting both of them would want to be supportive of the entire Ly family.

I hope that some of the information in my trip report is helpful to others relating to location of hotels, restaurant recommendations, visit to Kamphong Phluck, etc., and not just about choice in guides.
alison is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 10:32 AM
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Jaspertl-I would definitely keep your date with Ponheary. My post was merely factual and not judgemental. With us, Ponheary was an excellent guide. Having read about her on Fodors and after a bunch of E-mails, we were just disappointed to not go to the schools. This was pre-PLF. Lori had not yet set it up.

Kathie had it right. Everyone has different impressions and experiences. There have been so many wonderful posts about Ponheary and the PLF. We do make a small contribution to the PLF. We support the work and were stricken by the poverty in SR.

Also, everyone should be free to post there own experiences. the fact that they may be vastly different than many others should not inhibit there being. The strength of this forum is that people share their experiences and others can make their own decisions. There are no right answers.
Gpanda is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 11:14 AM
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I guess the question that jumps to my mind is how John Teng and Saron (both of whom I've seen recommended on this board) stack up.....or perhaps a more nuanced question, what particular attributes do each have that distinguish (understanding that I doubt many on this board sample multiple guides).
Nontaco is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 11:24 AM
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I agree with all that has been said here...and Alison, I do hope you understand that I completely respect your opinion, to which you are absolutely entitled to. There are some aspects I agree with- Fifi (Ponheary's nephew you spoke of) was with us one of the days, and I had conflicting feelings about that. I can also understand that Ponheary being distracted by other volunteers would be somewhat disappointing. I guess I would just like to make sure that anyone who is new to this forum doesn't read your report and shy away from using Ponheary. She is a wonderful guide. I apologize if I seemed to come across as harsh- it was not my intent.
heymo is offline  
Jul 21st, 2008, 04:54 PM
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Thank you, Alison, for posting about all your SR experiences.

When I got to the part of your report that discussed Ponheary (with whom I have three days guiding set up later in the year) it did bring into focus bits and pieces of reports that I have seen from others. Namely, the presence of the little nephew - Fifi if I remember correctly- on numerous tours, and the large part that her charitable work usually plays in the days activities. I had no plans to do any breakfasts or school days or anything like that.

I do not plan on changing from Ponheary as my guide, but hearing of your experiences will help me better set expectations and plans with her for my own touring time. I very much appreciate what you have shared with us regarding how you felt on your trip. Also, I know Ponheary is very busy, so I will feel very confident in offering to her that if she feels she needs to spend time taking care of foundation projects during the days she had originally planned on guiding me I will be happy to spend some time with Dara.
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