“The Thailand Travel Diary” Part Five
20 minute read
Previously in Part Four of “The Thailand Travel Diary” – Leaving Koh Tao, a weird sweaty wide-eyed nerd on a bus, avoiding the weird sweaty wide-eyed nerd in a service station, scaring and confusing the locals, arriving back in Bangkok, having faith restored by a taxi driver, embarrassing myself in a bus station, meeting a cool older German couple, life needing laughter, hahah, that was laughter, reaching Kanchanaburi, reflecting on times gone by, feeling relaxed at a retreat, ah, so relaxed, hearing a cow with a cow bell, ting-ting, moo, banana pancakes and coffee, morning wildlife, squished into a tiny bus, Erawan waterfalls, squished into a tiny bus again, Kanchanaburi feeling like home, the generosity and kindness of the Thai people, the good will out
Day 14 – Thursday (Kanchanaburi)
Today was going to be a lazy day.
I had made no plans whatsoever and I decided to spend it locally, just mooching around Kanchanaburi and seeing where it would lead me. After another hearty breakfast I set off on foot towards the famous (re-constructed) bridge on the River Kwai.
On the way there I was stopped by a man on a motorbike who offered me a ‘free lift’. But I was apprehensive.
The last time I jumped on the back of a motorbike it almost ended in disaster. This was back in 2004 when I was further north at Sukothai Historical Park making my way around the ancient temple ruins. I was desperate to make my way out to the furthest temple but was conscious of running out of time and so I ended up somehow getting a lift off a guy on a motorbike. I showed him the temple on the map that I had, and then we set off. He kept driving and driving and driving, and just when I thought I was being kidnapped and was preparing to take drastic action, the motorbike suddenly stopped. We were at the temple. The driver disappeared, and it soon materialised that my map wasn’t to scale. I was miles from the main site, it was midday, nearing 40 degrees, and I only had a few mouthfuls of water left in my water bottle. Dehydration was beginning to hit. After experiencing the most bizarre feeling of déjà-vu (in which I was convinced I’d been at this exact temple at some other time or in some other life), I conceded that I was in trouble. My head was pounding, and my legs were buckling, but then out of nowhere I saw a policeman in the distance. Was it a mirage? No, he was real, and when I reached him he understood exactly what the problem was. And this man who was soon to become a hero to me proceeded to flag down a pick-up truck, and once he explained to the driver what was happening, he helped lift me up into the flatbed of the truck and then drove me back to the visitor centre. I purchased a two litre bottle of water and drank it all at once. Since that day I’ve been convinced that water, when you need it most, is the best drink you will ever have in your life.
And so on this Thursday morning in Kanchanaburi I decided to keep away from motorcycles. I said no thank you to the driver and kept on walking. He then insisted he just wanted to practice his English and so could I please jump on his bike. But once again I politely refused, smiled, and kept on walking.
The bridge was teeming with tourists who had gathered at the start of the bridge to take group photos. I decided to walk past them all and to venture all the way over to the other side, and the further I walked, the quieter it got. When I reached the other side of the bridge it was silent and I sat down on the edge, leant against one of the railings, and then closed my eyes and lost myself in thought. I was in a nice shady spot underneath the canopy of the trees, and it was warm and almost silent except for the sound of birds singing. I stayed here for some time.
It was my final evening at Apples Retreat and I sat in the restaurant in my usual spot eating the most glorious Massaman curry I’ve ever had in my life. I was going to seriously miss the food when I returned home.
The earlier part of the evening subjected me to some really annoying party boats moving along the river, one after the other. These party boats were full of people doing karaoke, and it was truly awful. Thai music isn’t exactly the best music in the world as it is, but to have Thai men and women singing really badly and screeching away at levels that are enough to break triple-glazed glass is really more than the average person can take.
But one good thing about this awful karaoke was that it got me thinking about a conversation I’d had with Iva and about the movie, Lost in Translation (if you’ve not seen Lost in Translation then the link here is a karaoke scene that appears in that movie). One of the many themes that I like to write about on Lossul.com is human connection; the desire for it, the need for it, and the circumstances under which this can happen. Iva and I had both spoken about how it’s possible to sometimes be surrounded by people, and yet feel completely alone. And sometimes we can even be surrounded by people that we know, and yet still feel alone. But then there are times when we can meet a complete stranger, just like when the Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray characters meet, and even though you’re complete strangers you can somehow give each other exactly what you need most; connection.
Sometimes it feels like people are merely paying lip-service and nodding along to whatever you’re saying but without ever really listening. It’s like all they’re really doing is waiting for their chance to speak. I once heard somebody say that “we were born with two ears but just one mouth; and there’s a reason for that.” So very true. And so when we do meet someone where it’s a two-way street and you just ‘get’ each other, it’s one of the most perfect feelings there is. Sadly it doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, well, they really are special moments. Strangely enough, it really is possible to feel closer to somebody you’ve known for just 20 minutes than it is somebody you’ve known for 20 years. That’s a crazy thing, but it’s also pretty amazing; just one of the many beautiful quirks of life.
I decided that tomorrow morning I’d head back to Bangkok by train. There were only two trains each day, and the one I needed would leave at 7.20am. I could have chosen to have a lie in and take one of the hourly buses, but instead I decided that I’d get up at dawn, leave early, and take the train. Trains have always felt more authentic, more old school, and they provide much better views of the country you’re travelling through. My mind was made up.
I finished off my beer and walked over to say goodbye to the older lady who taken such good care of me. I thanked her for her hospitality, and although I’m not sure just how much she understood of what I said, a smile is universal, and we both knew that it was the nicest possible goodbye.
Day 15 – Friday (Kanchanaburi to Bangkok)
When my alarm sounded at 5.30am it suddenly didn’t feel like such a great idea to get up for the train. I kept psyching myself up to get out of bed, but all of a sudden this felt like the comfiest bed in the world. I kept willing myself to move, but I also couldn’t stop thinking that I could just switch off my alarm and have another three hours of sleep followed by a banana pancake breakfast. But after about fifteen minutes of berating myself I finally got up and fell off the mattress onto my knees. I closed my eyes and almost fell asleep in a kneeling position, but then I finally started to move and crawled my way over to the bathroom and into the shower.
Half an hour later I was showered, changed, my backpack was loaded up, and I was ready to leave. I took one final look around and then walked outside and closed the door behind me, leaving the key hanging in the lock.
As I left Apples Retreat, which was still fully closed up from the night before, I started to walk towards town with the sun slowly rising in the distance. Once I’d made it back over the bridge and into town, I climbed aboard a rickshaw and completed my journey towards the train station. Kanchanaburi was slowly waking up with street vendors setting up their stalls and dogs rolling around and playing in the road.
The sun was now edging further up into the morning sky and soon after arriving at the station I got talking to the only two people who were currently at the station, Liezl and Nadia; both from South Africa. They were also heading to Bangkok and we spoke of our mutual appreciation for Kanchanaburi and the routes our journeys had taken us up to this point.
Shortly afterwards I was approached by a guy who was looking to purchase a ticket to Bangkok. He was Gareth from York, and was the first fellow Englishman that I’d met on the trip. Gareth was a really cool guy; a freelance I.T. man who had been travelling for two months and who was also returning home tomorrow. Married for twenty years, he told me that this was the first trip he’d done like this in twenty-five years, but his wife had always accepted that he was a traveller at heart and that one day he’d head off on another trip once his children were fully grown. And now here he was, heading back to England after two months travelling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. How cool is that? Marriage really doesn’t have to mean the end of freedom; it just means you need to find the right person.
As we all boarded the train, the four of us instinctively sat together; Gareth and I sat opposite each other, and Liezl and Nadia were on the benches next to us. And that’s how it is; travellers sticking together. And the really cool thing is that none of us really spoke all that much and we just enjoyed the train journey in our own ways. I was listening to my music and Gareth sat watching the countryside pass by through the open windows. Nadia lay down on the bench and dozed off, and Liezl listened to her music while taking in the views. There were no glass windows on the train and so the cool morning air passed through the carriage, but with the mixture of sunshine it provided a pleasant mixture of cool then warm, cool then warm. The gentle rhythmic rocking of the train made it really hard to stay awake and I kept nodding off, in and out of sleep.
Gareth and I had already swapped contact details, but as I’d only spoken briefly with Liezl and Nadia we’d not done the same. As I sat listening to my music I ripped a small piece of paper out of the back of my journal and wrote my contact details down. I leaned over, made eye contact with Liezl, handed her the piece of paper, smiled, and then closed my eyes and went back to sleep. I had no idea if I’d hear from her again, but I knew it was better than just saying goodbye.
As the train drew closer to Bangkok, the surrounding shacks in which people were living were so close to the train that it would have been dangerous to place any limbs outside of the window. This is something that Gareth almost found out for himself as he began to poke his head out of the window just as a tree branch hit the side of the carriage. We both looked at each other as if to say, “wow, that was a little too close.”
Finally the train came to a stop and we all made our way outside, thanked each other for the company, and then very coolly went our own separate ways as we began our journeys to different areas of Bangkok.
Half an hour or so later I was sat back outside The Green House on Rambuttri having a plate of noodles and a lunchtime beer. For my final night in Bangkok I’d treated myself to a room at the Riva Surya Bangkok hotel which was situated alongside the Chao Phraya river. However it was too early to check in and so I spent an hour outside The Green House, people watching and sending a few text messages back home. I’d needed to log in to the Wi-Fi and so I stopped one of the waitresses and asked:
“Excuse me. Could you tell me the password for the Wi-Fi please?”
She smiled and said “I love you.”
I was taken aback by this sudden declaration of love, but I couldn’t help but feel flattered. Slightly embarrassed, I continued:
“Oh, thank you very much. I love you too. But what is the password for the Wi-Fi please?”
“No, no. The password is I LOVE YOU.”
I was partially relieved, but also partially disappointed that she didn’t actually love me. Oh well. There’s plenty more fish in the sea Elliot.
I typed in the password, logged onto the Wi-Fi, and then completed the one task that really confirmed I was about to go home; the online check-in for my return flight.
The hotel room was incredible. There was a king size bed, a shower with one of those huge rainstorm showerheads, and the decor and the lighting was incredible. A set of sliding doors revealed a balcony that had two sofas and overlooked the pool and the Chao Phraya river. It was just a shame that I wouldn’t get to fully appreciate it all as I’d be spending most of the day out and about in Bangkok and then I’d have to be getting up and leaving in the early hours.
Over the past few days I’d been thinking of how to spend my final day in Bangkok, and although I’d decided on how to spend the latter part of the evening, considering what to do for the afternoon and early evening had been a little more difficult.
I’d originally intended to visit the new Lumpinee Stadium to watch the Muay Thai as Friday night is a big night for the sport. But part of me was unsure about going as all my previous visits had been at the old Lumpinee Stadium; a real backstreet dive of a stadium in which I always chose to go to the third class area at the top. This was always a great experience, shut away behind wire fencing with the locals who were gambling and placing bets in frenetic fashion complete with hand gestures to a guy who’d be taking down the bets. The place had an incredible atmosphere about it and felt like something you’d see in the movies; I loved that place.
Although admittedly I have not yet been to the new stadium, I would imagine it to be like comparing the old-style terraced football grounds to the more modern all-seater stadiums. In the end I’d decided not to bother going and instead I was going to go and watch a movie.
A short while later I was in a tuk-tuk flying at crazy breakneck speeds. The young driver was a really cool little dude who had no sense of fear whatsoever as he drove head-on into oncoming traffic before swerving back in line at the very last moment. I’d managed to haggle the price down quite significantly and I couldn’t help but feel he wanted to punish me by trying to scare me to the point of (a) being physically sick, or (b) soiling myself. Fortunately the ride didn’t result in either of these outcomes, and when I paid him I was determined to appear unrattled despite my legs feeling like jelly as I walked off towards the Siam Centre.
My movie of choice for today was the new Star Wars. I didn’t actually realise that it would open in Thailand at the same time as back home, but when I’d checked the listings I felt I couldn’t resist seeing this new blockbuster while away in a foreign land. Gigs, theatre, movies; they all feel so different when you’re away from home. I was getting excited now. Yes, this was a fantastic plan Elliot.
Or at least I thought it was a fantastic plan. Because half an hour later I was still walking around in circles and I had absolutely no idea how to get to the cinema. I even gave in and broke the ‘code-of-man’ in which it’s stated that we’re too proud to ask for directions; I asked, many times, but nobody could understand me, let alone help me. I was getting increasingly frustrated, but just as I was about to give up and start sulking I turned a corner in the shopping centre and there it was. It was right in front of me.
I’d found the cinema complex by pure luck, and after negotiating an automated ticketing machine, I finally had my golden ticket to see Star Wars!
I’d decided to treat myself to a luxury seat in the ‘Kings Balcony’ area. “Oh this is going to be grand,” I tell myself. However after reaching the very top flight of stairs and walking out onto the Kings Balcony expecting a royal welcome, it’s deserted. There’s nobody else up there at all, and to make matters worse when I reach my seat it’s absolutely awful. It’s on the front row of the balcony, but it’s that high up that I’m looking down on the screen and there’s also a plastic safety screen blocking half of my view. I decide that I can’t sit up here all by my lonesome and that I need to be in amongst everybody else, and so I exit back down the stairs and into the main cinema area. But where do I sit? It is allocated seating and I could end up sat in someone else’s seat and I really don’t want to end my trip by upsetting a local at the cinema.
I take a gamble and sit down towards the middle. Surely enough, ten minutes into the adverts a young couple turn up and look at me with an expression which is politely telling me to move. I nod, stand up, and move to the seat behind them. I’m now sat next to four really cool looking Thai teenagers with funky hairstyles and suddenly I feel really cool too. However, two minutes later a guy ends up stood over me with an expression that once again tells me to leave. So I get up and move to the other side of the four really cool looking Thai teenagers with funky hairstyles. However, to my left is a really obese Thai man who is stuffing his face with something that sounds like popcorn, but smells like shit. And the tub is massive and he won’t be finished any time soon. Seriously, it smells awful, and he sounds like a human waste disposal system.
An advert comes onto the screen in which a father and son are at a hospital talking to a doctor. It starts out with a really serious feel, but then turns very silly, but I don’t quite understand what’s happening and so when the cinema bursts into laughter I’m just sat there with a blank expression on my face. The obese human waste disposal system sat to the left of me looks across at me, laughing, with bits of food dropping out of his mouth; and so I decide to join in and start laughing, but perhaps a little too enthusiastically. His laughing suddenly stops and he’s now just sat there looking at me with a very confused expression on his face. I stopped laughing too. This felt awkward. I turned back around and once again another man is stood over me and this time I’m relieved that I have to move.
I make my way towards the back of the cinema and hope that this time I can stay where I am. Just before the movie is about to begin, a video slideshow comes up on the screen which features the King of Thailand. The entire cinema stands up to show their respect for the monarchy and so I get up on my feet too. Everybody is silent, their eyes are fixed on the screen and nobody moves a muscle. It’s an absolutely incredible sight and a really interesting experience to have. As the slideshow ends, everybody takes their seat again, and a few moments later the movie begins. Nobody else approaches me and I can now settle back and enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
With Thai subtitles.
Two and a half hours later I leave the cinema a very happy man. I loved the movie. Absolutely loved it. But now it was time to venture back to the hotel to get showered, changed, and ready for heading out to enjoy my final night in Thailand’s capital city. I was going to toast Bangkok in style.
After a long hot shower and putting on the best clothes I could find in the bottom of my backpack, I left the hotel, jumped into a taxi, and then I was on my way. It had been such an amazing two weeks and had truly gone beyond all expectations. I felt that not only should I raise a glass to honour this wonderful country, but what I should really do is raise a glass from the highest possible point in the city. I was on my way to Bangkok’s Lebua at State Tower, and I was going up to the Sky Bar.
Fifteen minutes later we had arrived. I climbed out of the taxi, walked into the hotel, got into the lift, and then hit the button for the 64th floor. As the doors opened up I joined a short queue of people who were being greeted by a beautiful and very elegantly dressed Thai lady. It turned out that she was checking everybody’s dress code, but as I reached second in queue the couple in front of me got turned away on account of a small rip in the knee of the guys jeans. Oh great, so was this just a very fancy version of the bars back home with bouncers on the doors who take great pleasure in giving people their marching orders on account of what they’re wearing?
I suddenly start to think I’m going to be turned away too and that my plans for the final night will be foiled. It’s been such a great trip and the moment is going to be ruined! My jeans are smart, my black polo shirt is smart, but my shoes aren’t exactly the best as I really needed to pack light and so couldn’t bring anything too dressy. Stay cool Elliot. If you tell yourself you won’t get in, that will come across and you won’t get in. Believe you’ll get in. Believe you belong here. BELIEVE! And so at the precise moment that the very elegant Thai lady turns and looks at me, in the blink of an eye I become Mr Confident. I raise one eyebrow, give her a little smile, drop my voice an octave or two, and then say “Sawadee Khap” in my most seductive tone. She smiles and returns with a “Sawadee Khaaaaa”. I keep smiling and make sure our eyes stay locked so that she won’t look down at my shoes. But her eyes then slowly start to turn downwards and so I give a little cough and her eyes then return to mine. I smile and raise my eyebrow once again, and then she smiles and says:
“Have a lovely evening.”
And on that note I’m in! Oh Mr Smooth did it again. She might as well have said “Have a lovely evening Mr Bond.”
I started climbing the stairway and then as I reached the final few steps I was suddenly blown away by the sight of Bangkok’s skyline opening up right before me. It was absolutely stunning. For anybody that has seen the movie The Hangover Part 2, the Sky Bar at Lebua Tower is featured in the scene where Mr Chow and the crew aim to complete the ‘classic switcheroo’. The view looks stunning enough in that scene, but here, at night, in the real world, it is magnificent.
I made my way down the next set of steps and over towards the bar where I am greeted by a pleasant young lady who hands me a menu. After taking one look I was about to hand it back and then ask for the proper menu, because at these prices I’d clearly been handed this one as a joke. But I glanced across at the menu that the person next to me was holding and saw the exact same prices, so either they’d been given a joke menu too, or these were actually the real prices that I was being expected to pay! And so I did the only thing that a man could do in this situation and just smiled, played it cool, and ordered myself a whisky like it was nothing. But deep down inside I was crying; especially when I realised that there was an extra service charge added on top.
Once I’d gotten over the initial shock, I took my drink and wandered over to the railings to take in the full view of the city. The scale was so epic, and I had to take a couple of deep breaths to adjust to it. And then I felt myself relax, standing with one hand on the railing, while the other supported the glass of whisky. I took some time to reflect back over the past two weeks and all the memories came rushing back; how I felt on that first day, my two days with Iva, the crazy catamaran journey, and the luxury and the ambience of the Haad Tien. There was the adversary turned ally; the rock, and meeting Tatiana, Laura, Pamela, and Katja. There was the adventure of hanging on to the ladders on the back of the songthaew, the starry night skies, and the warm waters of Shark Bay. Then there was the return to Kanchanaburi, the wonderful people of Apples, the tiny bus to Erawan, the bus driver, the taxi driver, the hospitality of the Thai people, and the unrelenting feeling of having been a part of something magical for the past two weeks. And finally, there were a few other adventures and stories which I’ve not included, because sometimes it’s important to save a few things just for yourself.
Do you remember what I wrote way back on that first day in Bangkok? When I wrote of an uncomfortable and unsettled feeling that I just couldn’t put my finger on? Well it was at this moment, stood atop the Lebua Tower looking out over Bangkok when I realised exactly why I’d been feeling that way.
All of my previous trips had been arranged either on the back of some kind of major life event, or milestone, or at a time when I was feeling without direction and in need of a path to follow. I’d disappeared away to places in an attempt to find the person who had somehow become lost. Travelling had been an escape, and although I’d had countless experiences in which I was able to reflect, to learn, and to grow; in many ways I’d been running. I realised that the reason why I’d let eight years pass since my last solo adventure was because I’d somehow come to understand that I didn’t need to run anymore. What I’d really needed to do was to face everything that had ever held me back and to smash through every brick wall that had ever stood in my way. I’d needed to face everything head on; to fight, to battle, and to find my direction and sense of purpose.
As time passes we take steps forward which can be so slight that it’s so easy to not notice how far we’ve come. The reverse can also be true. But here, right now, I finally realised just how far I’d come and that I was no longer the same person who had been here those previous times when I was in my twenties. Those trips, to use a real cliché, were very much journeys of self-discovery. The years that had passed since those days have been full of different kinds of adventures, challenges, and other pursuits in life.
What I now realised was that, quite simply, I am myself. I know who I am, I know what I want; and more importantly, I know what I don’t want. It’s taken some doing, but I’ve finally found my path in life, my journey, and I’m moving steadily towards something. I’m on the road to somewhere.
I may not be the finished article, and I know that I still have a lot to learn; in all honesty I don’t ever want to stop learning. The people who think they know it all only end up hurting themselves, because when you think you know it all, your mind closes and you stop learning altogether.
Travelling was no longer fuelled by a personal battle; instead it was now fuelled by pure desire to see the world, to learn from it, and to enjoy life. The feeling that I’d had on that first day in Bangkok was borne from the simple fact that I’d arrived in the country as a man who felt happy with his place in life and who was at ease. I wasn’t able to say the same thing eight years ago.
Smiling, I raised my glass and held it up towards the Bangkok skyline to make a toast.
“Cheers Thailand. You’ve been amazing. Thank you for everything.”
As I took a sip of whisky I heard a lady next to me talking to a girl who I assumed was her daughter. I could only see them from the corner of my eye, and as their conversation went quiet for a moment, I spoke.
“That’s quite a view isn’t it?”
I turned to face the lady who was now looking at me. She smiled.
“Yes, it really is. It’s beautiful.”
She was Victoria; originally from England and now living in Sydney, Australia. Victoria was on holiday in Thailand for two weeks and was away with her two daughters and a group of friends. The younger daughter was eight years old, really sweet, full of energy, and was soon making up names for both Victoria and I. The older daughter was eighteen, really charming, and turned out to be quite a talented singer. A little while later the two of them left the Sky Bar to head back to their hotel with friends and then Victoria and I were left alone.
We’d hit it off straight away and spoke passionately about work. Victoria worked as a counsellor and had just achieved a Master’s degree. In fact her work had been given such recognition that she would soon be heading over to San Francisco to present her work to a large audience. I spoke about my own work and about the website and what had motivated me to create it.
The conversation flowed as we both stood in the spotlights that shone brightly upwards from the floor beneath our feet. I really hadn’t expected this on my final night; meeting such an interesting lady who I’d enjoy speaking to as much as this. And I told her so.
After we finished our drinks Victoria suggested getting another. We conceded that the Sky Bar was perhaps a little over-priced, and since the company was more important than the surroundings, we decided to find another place to drink. We walked across the roof and took in the views for one final time, and then we walked back to the elevator and hit the button for the ground floor.
We exited the hotel and out onto the street. The traffic was as chaotic as ever but Victoria and I made a break for it and ran into the road, dodging taxis and weaving in and out of the tuk-tuk’s. We laughed and breathed a sigh of relief once we reached the other side, and then we wandered down a side street and found a little eatery which we took a seat outside of. We had a bottle of Chang each and then laughed.
“This is crazy isn’t it? It’s one extreme to the other!”
A matter of minutes ago we were in the grand and expensive surroundings of the Lebua Sky Bar, and we were now sat on plastic chairs at a side street eatery drinking Chang straight from the bottle. The conversation continued until I could no longer put off the inevitable. It was getting late and I had to be up at 4.00am to head to the airport.
We finished our beers and then wandered slowly through the side streets, past the food stalls, and I insisted on walking Victoria back to her hotel. We were soon there and were having to say goodbye, but we thanked each other for a wonderful evening and agreed to stay in touch. And then we had a hug which lasted much longer than you’d normally expect from two people that had only known each other for two hours.
“Goodnight Elliot. Have a safe flight home.”
We let each other go, looked at each other one last time and smiled, and then I climbed into a tuk-tuk and set off back towards my hotel.
What a way to end the trip. Another chance meeting that was brought about just from saying something; from saying anything.
Bangkok is an exhilarating place and one of the best ways to see it is by tuk-tuk at night. As the driver and I hit one particular stretch of road we were suddenly removed from the darkness of the night and were bathed in a bright and magical glow from thousands upon thousands of fairy lights. We came to a standstill in traffic and I looked around at the lights which were hung all around us, around trees, through the branches, along barriers, fences, and even covering an entire temple. It was breathtaking. I looked around with my mouth wide open and the driver looked around too; both of us mesmerised by the spectacular sight that surrounded us. I looked back at him and he smiled. He looked like a proud man as he spoke.
“Bangkok, beautiful. Thailand, beautiful.”
I smiled in return, and then I turned back around and looked out into the night; into the light.
“Yes, it is. It really is.”
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