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Bob & Margot's travels Thailand, Vietnam & Cambodia

ASIA - Cambodia, Sept 2013

CAMBODIA | Monday, 16 September 2013 | Views [420]


Phnom Penh - 8-12 Sept

Four nights in this lovely city, thoughtfully planned and set on the river. Wide streets with buildings set back, even wider boulevards and manicured gardens. There seems to be more money here.  There is a greater proportion of cars to scooters on the roads; many Toyota's including Lexus, BMW's, Range Rovers & Mercedes. Having said that, we also note greater poverty; children & disabled people begging, more potholed roads than we saw in Vietnam.  At the Kep resort, south coast, I spoke with a Filipino woman who works with children & families in the slums of Phnom Penh. Difficult work made more complex by central government corruption and of course the inability for people experiencing extreme poverty to see beyond where to find the next meal.

Arriving in Cambodia via the broad and massive Mekong we see immediately that the land appears less crowded. Vietnam's river banks were planted in every accessible place. Shacks perched precariously all along the way.

Cambodia has large uncultivated areas, stretches of green pasture and roaming white Brahman cattle. We saw occasional clusters of people and our first views of Phnom Penh gave the impression of growth. Cranes hover over huge building sites like some kind of exotic beast.  There are many more temples here. Cambodian people are more devout Buddhists and reportedly something like 85-90% are Buddhist. As a race they are darker skinned, taller and heavier in stature.

We enjoyed meeting up with Naomi, a friend from Tauranga. She is making a great life here, working for "SOS International" as the Nurse Manager, guiding a team of mainly Cambodian nurses. The hours are long for 5.5 to 6 days a week. We met with some of her expat friends, enjoyed a evening river cruise, a couple of lovely meals out and of course the opportunity to catch up on the past few years. It is wonderful to have a local to guide us, although 4 days is insufficient to follow all the possibilities.

There is considerable aid money and multiples of NGOs here in Cambodia, which is not the case in Thailand and more specifically Vietnam. For political reasons since 1979, western countries were reluctant to offer aid to Vietnam who also had a mistrust of outside interference. To a lesser degree this continues to be true. More recently, in the last 10 years or so, Vietnam has actively sought assistance but has been less successful than Cambodia due to international caution or guilt. Also aid to Vietnam, previously received from Russia & China had dried up. As a result the presence of expats and NGO's is more evident her in Phnom Penh

“Toul Sleng Genicide Museum” & “Choeung Ek Memorial” - the killing fields - obligatory unpleasant viewing.

What a mad man Pol Pot was. More than 20,000 people went through this headquarters of his DK (Democratic Kampuchea) regimen, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge. On 7 January 1979 when S21 was stormed by Vietnamese troupes, only 7 survivors were found chained to the wire wove bed frames. S21 (Security office 21) or Tuol Sleng, is the building of the High School which Pol Pot took over 17 April 1975 for his gruesome detention, interrogation and torture activities.

Choeung Ek Memorial - the killing fields was once a peaceful Chinese burial ground & orchard beside a lake. Reportedly it was chosen for its quiet location 15kms from Phnom Penh. It is once again a peaceful place of remembrance & contemplation. Free head sets are available in a range of languages. The gruesome history is beautifully captured and told by one of the seven survivors.

The National Museum - What beautiful traditional Khmer architecture.

An internal landscaped and planted courtyard offers a peaceful sanctuary. Unfortunately we came too late in the afternoon to really soak up this ambiance. The building, designed by an eminent French historian, George Groslier, was constructed in 1917 on the grounds of the original School of Cambodian Arts and was controlled by the French until 1966.

It offered interesting displays of sandstone, bronze, ceramic and wood artefacts. Khmer stone sculptures found in cave temples in the Mekong Delta area of Angkor Borei. (c 1st - 6th century), bronze from around 1,500BC.

Ceramic - some of which probably dates back to the pre-historic period and much of the pottery to the pre-Angkorian period (1100 - 1175).  We are yet to visit the famous Angkor Wat near Siem Reap.  It is difficult to conceptualise a society with such history.  NZ is so young.

The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda- On our 2nd day in Phnom Penh, we walked for 30 minutes or so to the Palace only to find it is closed from 11 til 2pm. It was only 11.30am, hot & humid and as there were many tuk tuk / rickshaw touts offering rides out to Choeung Memorial - the killing fields, we decided somewhat reluctantly to do it. The roads, although wide, deteriorated to dusty potholed expanses of vehicles weaving their way in all directions. Sometimes 4-5 abreast; bicycles, scooters and trucks compete for space. Our drivers' motorbike was very tired and we lurch from one pothole to the next, black smoke belching, we wonder if the return journey will happen.  So back to the Palace, we never did get to venture inside. Apparently modelled on Bangkok's Grand Palace, it is impressive taking pride of place near the river. We read, earlier on our travels, a book "Pol Pot, Brother number One" as a child it is suggested that he spent considerable time in the company of the Royal family as his sister was connected by marriage.

Next trip south to Kep.

Kep - Sept 12-15
Vanna Hilltop Resort, SE tip of Cambodia 
Idyllic spot
Quiet retreat, clear, clean air. Mountainous jungle, backdrop of mature tree. Glistening brilliant green colours punctuated by flashes of red, gold, pink and orange flowers in the tropical rain. The morning mist clears over the rich blue water of the swimming pool to reveal the ocean below. Islands silhouette the skyline. Directly south are the islands of Vietnam & those to the SW Cambodia. 
Kep and the surrounding area are reportedly the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Maybe this is the bay where our own Kiwi Rob Hamil was captured off his yacht to suffer at the hands of Pol Pot?
A sleepy village now, notable for its crab markets, fishing and tourism. Yesterday on our 4 hour guided National Park walk we enjoyed learning a little of the local fauna, ( although all we saw/ heard were butterflies & birds as tigers, bears, monkeys, lemurs etc are sadly extinct) & flora, so like NZ bush we could imagine we'd been transported home. Plus we heard a little of the history. There is likely no-one in this country not directly influenced by the Pol Pot regime. Our guide told us he has no memory of his father who died when he was one. Many walled gardens are now overgrown, some have the greying skeleton of a once grand hotel for this was another area developed in the 50's by the colonizing French to escape the sticky heat of Phnom Penh for R & R. Destroyed by Lon Nol, Pol Pots predecessor. 
We took a local bus to travel the 200 odd kms from Phnom Penh. We were collected early from our hotel and anticipated a 7.20am departure for a slow 3-4 hour journey. True to the Asian way, where life seems to be viewed for today, our bus apparently was very short on maintenance. It spluttered & groaned as anxious men scurried around in an attempt to repair. Our fear was compounded by Bob's mechanical knowledge as he diagnosed a multitude  of possible problems.  So when we eventually boarded about 9.00am and limped and lurched along we were unsure if we'd make it beyond the city limits. 
We eventually arrived in Kep around 1.30  -2pm. It had rained very heavily on the journey, washing out rural villages on unpaved roads. Trucks stuck fast in a sea of red - brown mud. From the cool dryness of our bus we saw many women mid shin deep in the rice paddies, bent double planting rice. 
Then suddenly our view was of paved footpaths and sealed roads. Statues, pagodas & temples decorating the landscape. A wide tiled promenade along the sea shore and substantial buildings gave the impression of wealth.  
We had an interesting tuk tuk ride to Vanna Hilltop Resort, our hotel, which is up a narrow rutted dirt track. We roared and bounced our way, the driver stopped to coax a tethered cow out of the way and we climbed out to push the tuk tuk. What a contrast to arrive at Vanna, a different world. A beautiful serene treat nestled into the lush hillside.
Last night we wandered down to the shore, about 500m, to try the famous crab. The restaurant was rustic, perched right on the waters edge. The sea breeze welcome and cooling and the crab fresh, covered in tasty, spicy sauce of chilli, local Kampot pepper & lemongrass and large enough to feed us well.

Tomorrow we continue our journey, stopping overnight in Phnom Penh where we may see Naomi before heading west to Battambang.  
16th Sept
Our overnight stay in Phnom Penh was unadventurous in spite of the political unrest brewing over the past few days in Phnom Penh. Corrupt government in power these past 28years, dodgy election processes back in July and people standing up to say they want democracy.

As Naomi said, it is probably fortuitous that we are leaving the city.The 61/2 hour bus journey was quite pleasant as we traveled through beautiful landscape with enough  interesting activities to observe.

Arrived in Battambang around 5pm. Our humble, budget hotel.... the Royal Hotel... was once grand I believe. Now rather tired and quirky, it  has high ceilings, large rooms and a huge central stairwell opening up to a rooftop cafe, where I currently sit enjoying my morning coffee. From here I can easily observe the unsafe H&S practices I am making a point of recording hundreds of examples in the interests of my work with work place safety. A bunch of guys are constructing a hotel across the way. They perch, unsupported on the edge, 5 floors up. Yikes.
Battambang. 16 - 18 Sept
We stayed only 1 day - 2 nights in Battambang. On initial impressions it seemed a pleasant little place, maybe call it traveler fatigue, but as we walked about it felt more sad & dreary. Groups of boys sitting around the riverside sniffing on bags of presumably glue. A well dressed man greeted us enthusiastically in English, wanting us to support his school. Funds to assist orphans & homeless people. It appeared legitimate, but why are there not funds from one of the many NGOs?

All reports from locals, expats, newspapers, etc indicate the rampant levels of corruption.   Money is siphoned off. Not least by the government itself!  Public schools & hospitals all cost the consumer, as staff are not paid a living wage, therefore bribe for all services. 
A little further along we came across the local museum exhibiting many sandstone statutes, deities, lintels & steles from the 9 -11th century. Many from the Angkorian area & era. What was more disturbing was the irregular and sometimes large pools of dark red coloration on the tiled floor which turned out to be blood from the Pol Pot era 1975-79. Obviously people were gunned down were they stood.

The one day we had was full. We employed a tuk tuk driver who seemed quite knowledgeable with good English and a careful driver to boot.

We headed out into the country passing silk farms and floating villages we had already experienced at previous locations and arrived at the " bamboo railway". What a fun experience. A set of railway tracks in a straight line, but buckled & bent. A set of wheels placed on the track, then a flat bamboo platform to seat up to maybe 6-7 people including the driver. The 6.5 hp stationery engine strapped on the back. The two of us plus our driver in place and we were off.

We roared along at a great speed which was actually probably less than 50kph, until we reached the end of the line into the arms of locals, so to speak, who worked hard on us for 20 minutes or so, to attempt to sell scarves, refreshments etc. Amazingly in this small village many of the children had an excellent command of English mainly from contact with tourists. We did have fun chatting with the kids who were between 11 and 13years, listening to the great things they aspired to.

Back in the tuk tuk to Phnom something (I can't remember the name of the sacred hill) to climb a limestone mountain in the middle of miles and miles of dead flat fields as far as the eye could see. We climbed straight up eroding concrete stairs, past monks,  a small village, monkeys of all sizes and a Monastery/ temple to the top and down again in about 45 minutes to one hour. We met a monk with one leg at the top of the mountain. He was keen to compare prostheses which was interesting as we were unable to speak to understand each other.

At the bottom again our driver greeted us, indicating we wait awhile for the next adventure. Over a very welcome cold beer we discovered a bunch of 20 something guys had taken bike rides up & down. Shame on them. No wonder all the locals thought it was too far & too steep for us!

All of a sudden about 4.30pm, / 4.45pm we were urged to leap into the tuk tuk to race 100m along the road to witness an amazing sight of thousands of bats flying out of a cave, which appeared as a slit high on the rock wall above. They formed a steady continuous stream for about 40 minutes. Our driver was knowledge and enthusiastic in telling us all about it. A little further down the road and he stopped to show us the swirling patterns as they fanned out to start their night feeding in the crops.
Early the next morning, 18 Sept, we were on the boat headed for Siem Reap.

Siem Reap 18 - 27 Sept 9nights / 8days

We arrived mid afternoon in a monsoon downpour. An interesting all day boat trip starting from our Battambang hotel at 6.30am, through the wetlands between Battambang and Siem Reap. The last 25 kms, by tuk tuk. This is a surprise as we expected to be met and transported, the last 8kms only, overland courtesy of our hotel the "Okay1Villas". It was however an interesting completion to a full day of travel.

Our boat transported about 16 - 18 tourists, 8-10 locals and produce to the floating villages, until we came to rest at a larger land based village. Along the way we discovered there were 3 other kiwis including a guy in our age bracket from Russell! Small world. The river trip was amazing. We started out on a modest river traveling NW. As we progressed it began to rain quite heavily adding to the ambiance, passing fishermen pulling in nets from their small sampans. As we progressed the river broadened. It was almost impossible to know where the river ended and the land began. Being the wet / monsoon season huge areas are flooded. Trees grow out of what looks like the middle of the river, houses in varying stages of disrepair border the path we take. How it is that our captain navigates our path only he knows. On a couple of occasions, although the water seems to go forever in every direction we took a narrow path, pushing our way through a channel barely the width of the boat, branches of trees flicking along the sides of the boat, requiring passengers to duck out of the way.  Slowing at each bend incase another craft may be coming the other way. We passed through a number of floating villages where we stopped to drop people off and deliver groceries & other goods reminding us of the original Bay of Islands cream cruise. Siem Reap, we discovered, is not so big. At least the area attractive to tourists. We bumped into our fellow kiwis on several occasions. The highlights, and there were many included; the old market and surrounding area of restaurants, ( yet another gustatory delight), visiting a local "Rehab / prosthetic / orthotic centre", taking a personal lesson in Cambodian / Khmer cooking, attending a one man cello concert at the largest children's hospital, dining at a beautiful training restaurant teaching homeless & orphaned young people hospitality & business skills, attending an evening circus show and of course viewing many of the temples including "Angkor Wat".
More detail to come. 


The highlights of Siem Reap, Cambodia;

  • The 'Old Market’ and surrounding area of bars and restaurants.

Hours of fun just roaming and sometimes buying. It is unbelievable the huge supply of absolutely everything, always concentrated in specified areas. eg Stores & stores with scarves, bed covers & table cloths. This makes for good bargaining capacity as you can check out prices which are usually triple to quadruple on the first inquiry. Then you can know what price range to settle for? How they turn over the stock is a mystery? I have to remember that this kind of negotiating is not practiced in NZ when I go home.

  • Visiting a local "Rehab / prosthetic / orthotic centre",

This was run by an NGO until Jan 2013. There was not a lot of action on the 2 days we visited due to the extreme funding cuts.  They can now only offer services to a fraction of the people, not only amputees, but also kids with club feet, cerebral palsy and other conditions / disabilities.

It was Interesting to see the rehab area an outdoor obstacle course of steps, rocks and swing bridges.  The prosthetic s & equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, walking and standing frames reminded me of NZ before I became an OT. They do such great work and show wonderful enthusiasm. We talked to a new AKA (Above Knee Amputee), an attractive 20yr old girl who came off second best to a scooter.  I hope I gave her a little hope and inspiration.

  • 'Beatocello concert' - 'Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital'

One evening we attended a one man cello concert at the largest children's hospital. The focus of the concert every Saturday night is to raise the profile of 'Kantha Bopha' and to raise desperately needed funds to continue to save children. We were so inspired we dug into our wallets to make a donation & I bought one of his books.

Beat Richner, is a Swiss Paediatrician, who worked in Phnom Penh as a young Paediatrician until the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He returned to Zurich where he ran a private practice and lived a comfortable lifestyle. His decision to return to Cambodia and set up a hospital was to be a short term project. Twenty 20 years on he continues to work day and night to keep all 5 "Kantha Bopha" children's hospital running efficiently without any reliance on the government.  He is a truly amazing man. He is openly critical of the government corruption, the non-existent public health system & of the WHO & International aid organisation; policies and misappropriation of funds. Annually these hospitals save the lives of 90,000 children.

  • Khmer (Cambodian) cooking

All the way along our journey I promised myself this opportunity and finally we had enough days with space. Many courses are on offer throughout Asia, but as a result of asking a woman in a busy authentic restaurant, I was given the opportunity for a 1:1 session the following day. It only cost the menu value of the meals I prepared. It was quite an amazing experience. We started with a brief tour of the market. That, together with in depth discussions about accessing and growing specific ingredients like the tamarind root used in 'Pad Thai' also for a Cambodian dish to make 'Spicy Amok Curry Paste' and mango salad dressings. The challenge will be to find these in NZ. I'm hoping that the ever expanding Asian markets in Auckland will offer the ingredients needed.

  • "Haven" a training/teaching restaurant

We enjoyed an outstanding meal with outstanding service which was only a little more expensive than many other restaurants. Given we were generally both eating for about US$5 a meal.  A Swiss couple set this business up about 2 years ago with the expectation of empowering these young people (homeless or orphans) to enable them to go out & start their own businesses.

  • Phare Cambodian Circus

This is yet another organisation set up to address the needs of orphans & homeless kids. Based in Battambang, the school offers a basic education focusing on the arts; painting, music, gymnastics and acrobatics. Such talent!!  It is worth a look online, http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org.

We loved attending the evening circus show. The energy and enthusiasm palpable, especially from our prime seats in the front row which was virtually on the stage.

  • Angkor temples - 3 full days over 4

We hired a lovely tuk tuk driver, Poly.  I happened to stop in the entrance to his shop, one of many "Rehab stores" selling handicrafts made by people with disabilities.

He was a great driver who also transported us to a couple of events. He provided us with a whole chilly bin / cooler full of very welcome water for the temple tours and for the last day picked us up at 5am so that we could see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

 The proliferation of temples built over a huge geographical area between the 9th through the 12th century is absolutely awesome and has to be seen, hiked around and clambered up and over to be believed. We walked for miles and miles. Starting out at 8am and home at 5 - 6pm. That is except on our last day for which we reserved the prize viewing of Anchor Wat at sunrise. Photos do no justice.

And lastly.... I hope the dental work I had done will continue to be a bonus. It was very professional and exceedingly cheap. Bob is now wishing that he'd taken the plunge. I had a crown made as well as x-rays and a clean all for a fraction of the cost of work here.

Thailand -  27- 30 Sept

'Ayutthaya'   First capital of Siam (Thailand)

Our trip to Ayutthaya was long but reasonably smooth. Another early start with pick up from our hotel the "Shadow of Angkor" at 5.30am.

The road to the Thai border, a raised causeway above rice farms, is rutted and in places completely collapsed. Many of the houses along the way were surrounded by flood water, tracks between homes and the road under water. For miles and miles it seemed that the rural people were attempting to cope with the flooding and a number were out in the paddy fields up their necks in water, pulling in fishing nets.

After 4 hours of bumping and bouncing along, racing past people walking their cattle, bicycles, scooters, some with trailers ( a large pig standing fills up the whole trailer, unaware of his fate), rickshaws, scooters, farm machinery, cars and trucks. (the motorised vehicles playing a dangerous dance coming from both directions in the middle section of the road. W we arrived at the very grubby looking border town of Piopet. Street markets are humming. Pigs arriving at market early are displayed on tables already butchered, their heads at one side.

We were unceremoniously disembarked and sent on our way toward the border, About a 8-900m walk through muddy streets. The path improved as we approached the Thai border, out of the mud  and into a tile floored building.  Immediately everything looks more affluent. The mud & waterlogged fields either side of the highway gives way to dry fields and businesses. The wide 2 lane highway is well maintained, has clear white & yellow lines,  Large signs, traffic lights and traffic (ie motorised vehicles only) behaving as one would expect in the Western world. In other words lanes are obeyed and indicators predict movement from one lane to another.

Once in Bangkok we made our way to the Hua Lamphong railway station in time to purchase a 3rd class ticket (15Baht each or about us$0.50!) get some lunch ($5 for both) then took the 11/2hour train trip to Ayutthaya.

Between 1350 & 1767. 33 Kings ruled over this once dazzling & dynamic Asian city

Ayutthaya is an interesting and very historic city. Build on an island, on the Chao Phraya river, which flows south through Bangkok to the ocean. I'm guessing additional water ways were constructed to create this moat effect. For over 400 years it was the thriving capital of Siam (Thailand) and a pivotal international port and trading centre which opened relations with many Asian, middle Eastern, then European countries And as Ayutthaya demonstrated tolerance to other cultures and religions people from many places settled here.

On day one we visited the floating market which is a very much sanitised tourist hangout built on wooden board walks over the river edge. A complete contrast to all markets previously visited. Food safety certificates prominently displayed which is also the case in the night market.

Later we set off on our walking familiarisation. First we came across the Thai Boat Museum down an alley of large gated homes. An elderly woman came out to invite us in. Fascinating!  A huge collection of wooden boats from small models to full sized junks in the tree shaded garden. Such a lovely couple, in their 80s - 90s.  He continues to design and built miniatures and is proud to show us his national awards for teaching boat building and his connection with the King who has a keen interest in building and sailing.

and took in Wat Mahathat. One of the most visited/ photographed. It appears to have been a very significant Wat/ temple or palace in its day. We hired a headset which gave interesting information.

Ayutthaya was built in the 13th century & this Wat in 1374 after the fall of the Khmer civilisation and Angkor Wat. Many of the temples and  Palaces were modelled on the Angkorian era and some of the building materials were salvaged from Angkor,  Cambodia.

Ayutthaya was invaded by the Burmese in 1767. Apparently due to a previous invasion and threat of attack the Royal family were frightened and hid, closing off the community & effectively creating societal decline making them increasingly more vulnerable to an aggressor. As anticipated the Burmese raped and plundered, rounded up royalty together with professionals and trades people resulting in the demise of the society.

Sometime later the capital was re-established in Bangkok. The existing luxuriant Royal Palace in Bangkok used many of the bricks from Ayutthayas Temples and palaces and their once protective walls, in its foundation, leaving behind crumbling shells here in Ayutthaya.

 We paid to visit Wat Mahathat, but many of the dozens of Wats we have seen within the "island city" (which is completely surrounded by the river), appear to be only crumbling foundations, open to the current city of Ayutthaya.

Day two we set out late morning on a scooter hired from our hotel. We headed off the island. Although Ayutthaya is not a big city the maps we had were pretty inadequate.

We headed east of the inner city, out over one of the few bridges to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. A more intact structure on immaculate grounds.

We turned to the south to visit the "foreign quarter." Up to 40 ethnic groups settled here. First the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch, British and Japanese. The Japanese village / museum was interesting & very informative about the inclusion and influence of a range of groups on Thai culture.

The Dutch Village was difficult to locate as it is only one modern visitors centre. They displayed extensive information about Holland and made a great cup of coffee. Upstairs there was a display relating to the Dutch settlement in Thailand (Siam) but being the cheapskates we are we didn't pay to see it. And the Portuguese Village proved too hard to find.

We then returned to the inner city, once we found the bridge and enjoyed a Circuit along the river back to our hotel.

Both nights we went to the Night market. All completely set up & disassembly daily. And of course I had to follow Bob who is driven by his nose for food. Excellent food! Tonight we had a hot pot sitting together with a young Seattle couple who teaching for 2 years in China.

A small ceramic pot atop a self-standing brazier of burning coals was placed on the table with its plastic tablecloth, in front of us. A plate of meats marinating in sauce and another plate of veggies were spooned into the boiling water & the lid placed on top. Left to boil for 5 minutes or so before serving together with chilli sauce on the side. Further temptations - huge seafood omelettes cooked on a huge hot plate, sushi and many sweet treats including fresh sliced fruits, mangos and sticky rice. Yum.

Bangkok   30 Sept - 2 October

We met Ali and Eugene for my last few days in Asia before they headed to India for their big trip.

It was great to see them and to explore a little. Another visit to China town then relaxing boat rides up and down the river which is a great way to escape the heat. The day ended with a pleasant dinner and cocktails at a riverside restaurant to celebrate my 60th birthday. YES! 60! Shock horror, how did I get to be so old! 

We had a leisurely morning in the quaint dining room of the Hotel Atlanta before heading for the airport.


HOME – Bob Phuket 3 more weeks

It was good to get home. I had a busy time in Auckland researching and buying a new computer, sorting a potential new socket at the limb centre, catching up with friends and getting over jet lag.

It was a wonderful surprise to have Anneke meet me at the airport. She looks fabulous and is doing well coming through from her injuries. We continued to celebrate my birthday with champagne sitting in the sun looking out at the beautiful west coast ocean at Piha.

I have now been home in Russell for a month and it feels somehow like I never left. Surprisingly the work is flowing in thick and fast and I have hardly had time to draw breath.

Bob has been home 2 weeks and we are getting back into our day to day life here in the Bay of Islands.

So farewell blog…. No more time to write. One day I hope to turn this into an album of sorts to remember our adventures.



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