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U.S. State Department Travel Info-Laos

June 18, 2010 | | Comments 0

I have spent a lot of time in Laos. The people are fantastic. Warm and friendly. I have never felt threatened or had any major problems with police or officials. There are restricted areas in the country, but the average tourist will not come in contact with these areas unless you seek them out.

Learn some of their culture and be respectful. It will add to your experience and theirs.

Have fun, but do not be reckless. You do not want to be hospitalized there (see Hongsa Elephant Festival).

If you have a question, leave a comment. I will give you an answer from my experience and viewpoint.

Visit Laos, have fun, and enjoy a great adventure.

June 18, 2010

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) is a poor, developing country ruled by an authoritarian, Communist, one-party government.  Political power is centralized in the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.  Services and facilities for tourists are adequate in the capital, Vientiane, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang but are extremely limited in other parts of the country.  Read the Department of State’s Background Notes on Laos for additional information.SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM (STEP) / EMBASSY LOCATION: If you are going to live in or visit Laos, please take the time to tell our Embassy in Vientiane about your trip.  If you check in, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements.  It will also help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency.  Here’s the link to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

Local embassy information is available below and at the Department of State’s list of embassies and consulates.

The U.S. Embassy is located on Rue Bartholonie (near Tat Dam), in Vientiane; from the U.S., mail may be addressed to U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Unit 8165, Box V, APO AP 96546; Telephone (856-21) 267-000, recorded emergency information for American citizens (856-21) 267-111; duty officer emergency cellular telephone (856-20) 5550-2016; Embassy-wide fax number (856-21) 267-190.  You may also email the Embassy’s Consular Section.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS: You must have both a passport and visa to enter Laos; your passport must also have at least six months validity remaining.  You can get a visa on arrival in Laos if you are traveling for tourism, have two passport-size photographs and pay $35 at the following ports of entry:  Wattay Airport, Vientiane; Pakse, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang Airports; Friendship Bridge, Vientiane and Savannakhet; Nam Heuang Friendship Bridge, Sayabouly Province; and border crossings at Boten-Mohan, Dansavan-Lao Bao, Houaysay-Chiang Khong, Thakhek-Nakhon Phanom, Nong Haet-Nam Kan, Nam Phao-Kao Cheo, Veun Kham-Dong Calor and Vangtao-Chong Mek.  You can also get a visa on arrival at the Tha Naleng train station in Vientiane, which connects to the train station in Nongkhai, Thailand.  If you obtain a visa from a Lao embassy or consulate prior to your travel to Laos, you may also enter at the following international entry points:  Napao-Chalo, Taichang-Sophoun, Pakxan-Bungkan, and Xiengkok.  You will generally be allowed to stay in Laos for 30 days after you arrive.  If you were born in Laos, you may be admitted for 60 days or longer.  You can extend your 30-day tourist visa up to an additional 60 days for a fee of $2 per day through the Department of Immigration in Vientiane.  If you overstay your visa in Laos, you risk arrest and will be fined $10 for each day of overstay as you leave.  The Lao government requires payment of visa fees and fines in U.S. dollars.  Thai baht and Lao kip may sometimes be accepted for the fees but at unfavorable exchange rates.

If you wish to obtain a visa in advance, please contact a Lao embassy or consulate.  In the United States, you can get visa and other information about Lao entry requirements from the Embassy of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 2222 S St. NW, Washington DC 20008, tel: 202-332-6416, fax: 202-332-4923.  If you enter Laos with a visitor visa issued at a Lao embassy abroad, you will be allowed to stay in Laos for 60 days.

Business visas can only be arranged in advance; a company or individual “sponsor” must contact the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Vientiane and request a visa for you and offer a “guarantee.”  Once the Lao MFA approves the request, the approval will be sent to the Lao Embassy in Washington, DC, and business travelers may then apply for the business visa.  This process usually takes one to three months.  After you arrive, business visas can generally be extended for one month.

Do not attempt to enter Laos without valid travel documents or outside of official ports of entry.  You should not cross the border between Laos and Thailand along the Mekong River except at official immigration check crossings.  If you attempt to enter Laos outside of official ports of entry, you may be arrested, detained, fined, and deported.

Immigration offices at some of the less-used land border crossing points are not well marked.  Make sure you complete all immigration and customs requirements when you enter or depart Laos.  If you enter Laos without completing these formalities, you may be subject to fines, detention, imprisonment, and/or deportation.

In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated additional procedures at entry/exit points.  These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship, such as the child’s birth certificate, and permission for the child’s travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian not present.  Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure.

At Wattay Airport (Vientiane), Pakse Airport, Savannakhet Airport, and the Luang Prabang Airport, there is an international airport departure tax of US$10.  This tax may be included in the price of the airline ticket, depending on the carrier.  There is also a 5,000 kip (equivalent to approximately U.S. 60 cents).  departure tax for domestic flights, which may be included in the price of the airline ticket, depending on the carrier.  At the Friendship Bridge (Vientiane, Laos – Nong Khai, Thailand border crossing) there is an overtime fee after 4:00 pm weekdays and during weekends.  Visit the Embassy of Laos web site for the most current information.

The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Laos.

Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site.  For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information page.

THREATS TO SAFETY AND SECURITY: There have been reports in the past of violent incidents carried out by anti-government forces, including reports in 2007 of isolated clashes between Lao Government forces and unidentified opponents in the area of Vang Vieng in northern Vientiane Province and in Bokeo Province.  The Department of State recommends that if you travel to or reside in Laos, exercise caution and be alert to your surroundings at all times.

The Lao Government security forces often stop and check all transport on main roads, particularly at night.  You must comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks.  Especially if you are considering travel outside urban centers, please contact relevant Lao government offices, such as Lao Immigration Police Headquarters in Vientiane, the Lao Tourist Police, local police and customs offices, or the U.S. Embassy for the most current security information.  To avoid trouble with the authorities, if you are traveling outside of normal tourist areas or contemplating any unusual activity (including, but not limited to, engaging in business, extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind), be sure to seek advance permission from the Village Chief, District Head, Provincial Governor, or National Tourism Authority, as appropriate.

The large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Indochina War causes more than 300 casualties per year.  UXO contaminates some parts of Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane Provinces.
In addition, numerous mine fields are left over from the war along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane).  Never pick up unknown metal objects and avoid traveling off well-used roads, tracks and paths.

You should also exercise caution in remote areas along the Lao border with Burma.  Bandits, drug traffickers and other people pursuing illegal activities operate in these border areas, as do armed insurgent groups opposed to the government of Burma.

From 2004 to 2006, seven Lao-American and Hmong-American citizens were murdered in northern and northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos.  During the same period, a number of non-Americans with ties to Laos were also murdered in this region of Thailand.  In most of these cases, no arrests have been made.  If you travel to these areas, particularly if you are Lao- or Hmong-American, you should exercise caution and remain vigilant with regard to your personal security.  If plan to travel to border areas, check with the Thai Police and the U.S. Consulate General in Chiang Mai, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, or the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane before you go.

Stay up to date by bookmarking our Bureau of Consular Affairs website, which contains the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution.

You can also obtain up-to-date safety and security information by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free within the U.S. and Canada, or by calling a regular toll line, 1-202-501-4444, from other countries. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

There is nobody better at protecting you than yourself.  Take some time before you travel to improve your personal security—things are not the same everywhere as they are in the United States.  Here are some useful tips for traveling safely abroad.

CRIME: Laos generally has a low rate of violent crime, but you should remain aware of your surroundings and exercise appropriate security precautions.  The number of thefts and assaults in Laos has increased, and some have turned violent.  Sexual assaults also occur in Laos.  You should exercise caution, particularly after dark, at roadside restaurants, bars and stalls.  Foreigners are often victims of purse snatchings while eating or while riding bicycles or motorcycles.  Please be careful when carrying these items on your person.

Residential burglary is commonplace.  Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited.  Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or policemen lacking transportation or authorization to investigate crimes that occur at night.  If you move to Laos, please contact the U.S. Embassy Vientiane for security advice.

If you travel to Vang Vieng, be aware that some tourists have been robbed and sexually assaulted in that area.  Many restaurants in the Vang Vieng area offer menu items, particularly “pizzas,” “shakes,” or “teas,” that may contain unknown substances or opiates.  These products are often advertised as “happy” or “special” items.  These unknown substances or opiates can be dangerous, causing serious illness or even death.  Travelers in Vang Vieng have been fined and detained for purchasing, possessing, or using illegal substances.  In recent years, foreigners, including U.S. citizens, have died in Laos after using illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines, opium, or heroin.  The potency of some of these drugs can be several times that of similar substances found in the United States.

Please exercise caution on overnight bus trips, particularly on buses travelling to/from Vietnam.  The Embassy has received reports of scams and thefts of personal belongings.

Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available.  Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, but you may be breaking local law too.

VICTIMS OF CRIME: If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime abroad, you should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate (see the Department of State’s list of embassies and consulates).  If your passport is stolen we can help you replace it.  For violent crimes such as assault and rape, we can, for example, help you find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and help you get money from them if you need it.

The local equivalent to the “911” emergency lines in Laos are 190 for fire, 191 for traffic police, and 195 for ambulance.  The Tourist Police can be reached in Vientiane at 021-251-128.

Please see our information on victims of crime, including possible victim-compensation programs in the United States.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While you are traveling in another country, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen.  Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own.  While you are overseas, U.S. laws don’t apply.  If you do something illegal in your host country, your U.S. passport won’t help.  It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.  If you violate Lao laws, even unknowingly, you may be fined, expelled, detained, or imprisoned.

Criminal justice procedures, such as police interrogations, court hearings, requesting bail, or sentencing, are not clearly defined or regulated.  In some places, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you.  Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Laos are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.  Driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail.  There are also some things that might be legal in Laos and other countries you visit but still illegal in the United States.  For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods or engage in child pornography.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES:

  • Travel of Foreigners within Laos: The Lao tourist police have informed foreign tourists that a licensed Lao tour guide must accompany any group of more than five foreign tourists; however, this regulation does not appear to be strictly enforced.  The authorities may restrict travel in rural areas outside of popular tourist destinations.  Restricted areas may not be marked or even widely known by local citizens.  If you travel without a reputable tour guide who is aware of local conditions, please talk to local authorities before entering remote areas away from obvious tourist destinations.  Lao citizens who wish to have a foreign citizen — including a family member — stay in their home must obtain prior approval from the village chief.  You may be held responsible if the Lao host has not secured prior permission for your visit.  U.S. citizens are strongly advised to ensure that such permission has been granted before accepting offers to stay in Lao homes.
  • Surveillance: Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance.  Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched.  Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with the local authorities.  Please review the section below on Photography and Other Restrictions.
  • Relationship with Lao Citizens: Lao law prohibits sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law.  Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks being interrogated, detained, arrested, or fined.  Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5,000 on foreigners who enter into unapproved sexual relationships.  The Lao party to the relationship may be jailed without trial.  Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.If you plan to marry a Lao national, you are required by Lao law to obtain prior permission from the Lao Government.  The formal application process can take as long as a year.  You can obtain information about these requirements from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane.  The Lao Government will not issue a marriage certificate unless the correct procedures are followed.  Any attempt to circumvent Lao regulations may result in arrest, imprisonment, a fine of $500 to $5,000 and deportation.  If you cohabit with or enter into a close relationship with a Lao national, you may be accused by Lao authorities of entering into an illegal marriage and be subject to these same penalties.  If you wish to become engaged to a Lao national, you must also obtain prior permission from the chief of the village where the Lao national resides.  Failure to obtain prior permission can result in a fine of $500 to $5,000.  Lao police may impose a large fine on a foreign citizen a few days after he or she holds an engagement ceremony with a Lao citizen based on the suspicion that the couple subsequently had sexual relations out of wedlock.
  • Marriage : A Lao Prime Ministerial decree requires that marriages of Lao citizens performed abroad be registered with Lao embassies in order to be legal in Laos.  If you marry a Lao citizen in the United States, when you visit or return to Laos, you may be subject to penalties under the Lao law governing sexual relationships (above) if your marriage has not been registered beforehand with a Lao embassy.
  • Religious Workers: Religious proselytizing or distributing religious material is strictly prohibited.  If you are caught distributing religious material, you may be arrested or deported.  The Government of Laos restricts the importation of religious texts and artifacts.  While Lao law allows freedom of religion, the Government registers and controls all associations, including religious groups.  Meetings, even in private homes, must be registered and those held outside of established locations may be broken up and the participants arrested.
  • Mode of Transportation:  When you travel in Laos, please consider carefully and evaluate the relative risks of the three modes of transport (see sections on Aviation Safety Oversight, Traffic Safety, and River Travel) below.
  • River Travel: River travel is common in Laos, but safety conditions do not conform to U.S. standards.  In particular, travel by speedboat (the local term is “fast boat”) is dangerous and should be avoided, particularly during the dry season, which generally runs from December through April.  Avoid travel on or across the Mekong River along the Thai border at night.  Lao militia forces have shot at boats on the Mekong after dark.
  • Photographyand Other Restrictions : If you photograph anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest — including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings or government vehicles — you may be detained or arrested, and local authorities may confiscate your camera.  Be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating military base areas.  Lao military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who have unknowingly passed by unmarked military facilities.  Because of the prohibition on religious proselytizing, you should avoid taking photographs or videotaping non-Buddhist religious services.  If attending public services or religious gatherings, ask permission from the local police and civil authorities to photograph or videotape.  Please see the section above on Religious Workers.  Local police may suspect persons using any kind of sophisticated still or video camera equipment of being professional photographers or possibly photojournalists, which may lead to questioning, detention, arrest, or deportation.
  • Financial Transactions: Network-connected ATMs are available in Vientiane, including those operated by the Australia and New Zealand Bank – Vientiane (ANZV) and the Foreign Commercial Bank of Laos, also known as the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur de Laos (BCEL).  BCEL also has network-connected ATMs in Vang Vieng, and most provincial capitals, or “Muang.”  These machines are generally limited to withdrawals of the equivalent of about 100 U.S. dollars in Lao kip only.  Credit cards are accepted at major hotels and tourist-oriented businesses.  Credit card cash advances and/or Western Union money transfers are available at banks in most provincial capitals and other tourist centers.  While the government requires that prices be quoted in Lao kip, prices are often given in U.S. dollars or Thai baht, especially in tourist areas or at markets.  The Lao Government requires payment in U.S. dollars for some taxes and fees, including visa fees and the airport departure tax.
  • Customs/Currency Regulations: Lao customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Laos of items such as firearms, religious materials, antiquities, foreign currency, cameras and other items.  Please contact the Embassy of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in Washington for specific information regarding customs requirements.  Please also see section on “Religious Workers” above.  Prohibitions exist against importing or exporting more than $2,500 (U.S. dollar equivalent) of currency without authorization.  Contact the Lao Embassy or Lao customs authorities for more details.


MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION:
Medical facilities and services in Laos are limited and do not meet Western standards.  In Vientiane, U.S. citizens may wish to contact the Primary Care Center, also known as the Centre medical de L’Ambassade de France (CMAF), which is supported by the French Embassy.  The CMAF is located on Khou Vieng Road across the street from the Green Park Hotel, Tel. +856-21-214-150, or +856-20-5558-4617, or email.  U.S. citizens in Laos often seek medical care in Thailand.  The Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane, Laos, to Nong Khai, Thailand, is open daily 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.  Officials generally will allow travelers to cross after hours in cases of medical emergency.  AEK International Hospital (tel:  66-42-342-555) and North Eastern Wattana General Hospital, both in Udorn, Thailand (tel:  66-1-833-4262), have English-speaking staff accustomed to dealing with foreign patients.  Nong Khai Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai, Thailand (tel: 66-1-833-4262), can handle most simple medical procedures.  Ambulances for both AEK International Hospital and Nong Khai Wattana Hospital have permission to cross the Friendship Bridge to collect patients from Vientiane.  In Vientiane, the Setthatirat Hospital ambulance (tel:  021-413-720) can take patients to Thailand.  The Department of State assumes no responsibility for the professional ability or reputation of these hospitals.

Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are a problem throughout Southeast Asia.  Please be aware of this problem and purchase pharmaceuticals only through the most reputable pharmacies and with a physician’s prescription.

Avian Influenza and H1N1 Influenza: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Lao authorities have confirmed the presence in Laos of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, commonly known as “bird flu.”  In 2007, two Lao nationals died after contracting the H5N1 virus.  If you travelers to Laos or other countries affected by the virus, you should avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets and any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals.  In addition, the CDC and WHO recommend eating only fully cooked poultry and eggs.  In June 2009, the Lao government confirmed the first case of 2009-H1N1 Influenza A.  The Lao government’s influenza hotline may be reached by calling 166 from anywhere in Laos.  This hotline may be used to report suspected cases of influenza in animals or humans, or to obtain information on areas in Laos where influenza may have been recently detected.  Operators speak Lao and English.  For the most current information and links on avian influenza in Laos, see the State Department’s Pandemic Influenza Fact Sheet.  For information about 2009-H1N1 Influenza, including steps you can take to stay healthy, can be found at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) web site, the U.S. Government pandemic influenza website, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website.

Good Information on vaccinations and other health precautions can be found via the CDC website.  For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization (WHO) website.  The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.

MEDICAL INSURANCE: You can’t assume your insurance will go with you when you travel.  It’s very important to find out BEFORE you leave.  You need to ask your insurance company two questions:
–Does my policy apply when I’m out of the U.S.?
–Will it cover emergencies like a trip to a foreign hospital or an evacuation?
In many places, doctors and hospitals still expect payment in cash at the time of service.  Your regular U.S. health insurance may not cover doctors’ and hospital visits in other countries.  If your policy doesn’t go with you when you travel, it’s a very good idea to take out another one for your trip.  For more information, please see our medical insurance overseas page.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in a foreign country, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Laos is provided for general reference only and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

The number of road accidents and fatalities in Laos has risen sharply in the last decade as the number of motor vehicles has increased.  U.S. citizens involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Laos before paying compensation for property damage or injuries, regardless of who was at fault.  A driver involved in a traffic accident should remain at the scene and attempt to contact the police or wait for them to arrive to prepare an accident report.  If renting a car or motorcycle, contact the rental company and its insurance agent.  If there is major damage, injury or death, contact the Consular Section or the Duty Officer at the U.S. Embassy.  When renting a car, motorcycle, or bicycle, do not give your original U.S. passport to the owner of the vehicle as surety against loss, theft, or damage to the vehicle.

Traffic in Laos is chaotic and road conditions are very rough.  Few roads have lane markings.  Where lane markings, road signs, and stoplights do exist, they are widely ignored.  Many drivers are unlicensed, inexperienced, and uninsured.  Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs is not uncommon, and penalties for such offenses may not be enforced.  Theoretically, traffic moves on the right, but vehicles use all parts of the road.  Motorcyclists pay little or no heed to cars.  Motorcycles carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the drivers’ ability to react to traffic.  The evening hours are particularly dangerous.  Road construction sites are poorly marked, appear with no advance warning, and can be difficult to see at night.  Roads are poorly lit, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlit roads.

Exercise caution when traveling the roads of Laos and be sure to check with local authorities, transport companies, other travelers, and/or the Embassy regarding any recent road developments prior to travel.  Road obstacles, such as changes in surface conditions due to the weather, occur frequently.

Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset.  Automobile taxis or cars for hire are available at the airport, the Friendship Bridge, most major hotels, and near the Morning Market in Vientiane.  The most common form of public transport is a three-wheeled, open-sided taxi called “tuk-tuks.”  Tuk-tuks and taxis are frequently in poor repair, and drivers generally speak little or no English.  Inter-city transport is provided by buses, vans, pickups, and trucks, any of which may also be in poor repair.

Emergency services in Laos are either unreliable or non-existent.  Lao road traffic regulations require any driver coming upon a road accident to assist in transporting injured persons to a hospital.

Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Laos, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the Lao Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Laos’s air carrier operations.  Further information may be found on the FAA safety assessment page.

CHILDREN’S ISSUES: Please see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction.

* * *

This replaces the Country Specific Information for Laos dated April 21, 2010, to update sections on Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)/Embassy Location, Threat to Safety and Security, Crime, Victims of Crime, Criminal Penalties, Medical Facilities and Health Information, and Medical Insurance.

Filed Under: General InfoLaos

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