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Laos: Vientiane

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Our onward journey to the capital of Laos Vientiane started off somewhat higgledy piggledy. We dutifully arose at 5am to be ready for our 6am pick up to Luang Prabang bus station. On arrival we learned that the VIP bus we'd paid for and booked onto through our hostel that departed at 7am didn't actually exist. There was a 7am bus but it was the 'public' one; i.e. more of a people-carrier containing 20 locals and their animals - not what we'd paid for. After some wrangling with the ticket office we managed to secure a place on the actual VIP bus which was leaving at 8am; so we had to wait around for 90 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad had we have not run out of kip. We tried another 2 cash machines but they still weren't coughing up so we bought some Oreos and a baguette with some American dollars we had and got ourselves comfy on the outdoor benches of the bus station. As we waited, we saw what we think was either a shooting star or some sort of comet/meteor. Unfortunately, neither of us had the speed or energy to photograph it but it certainly wasn't something either of us had ever seen before. We've since tried in vain to find something on Google to back up our sighting.

Anyway, after cooing at some babies and consuming far too many biscuits far too early in the morning we embarked the VIP monster of a double decker coach. The side of the coach was emblazoned with the words "King of Buses" and was brightly decorated with illustrations of crowns and the like. Without too much inspection you could find clever engineering hacks on and around the coach; the front bumper had been taped back on and the wheel rims were attached with cable-ties. In addition, the driver (who looked about 17) had to kick the door a number of times for it to close properly. We found our seats on the top deck and quickly discovered that mine was broken; in a permanent recline position. We had plenty of time so I went to tell one of the bus station workers. The gentleman's response to my predicament was to say yes, turn his head, then walk away from me, trying his best to ignore me completely. I tried again but evidently he'd gone deaf and blind. I then tried the driver and another guy who was putting everyone's baggage in the hold. I got the same reaction. You're not really supposed to show strong emotion in Laos, especially not anger, but I refused to be ignored and so raised my volume slightly, harnessing my German genealogy and said "I paid for VIP and my seat is broken!". Finally, the man from the ticket booth said he would come onto the bus before it left and try to sort something out for me. As the bus filled up another kerfuffle manifested; a number of passengers had been given a seat number that didn't exist (the seats ended at 48 but people had tickets up to 52). By this point I was just happy to be in a seat, permanent recline or not, so I decided not to speak up again and hoped the guy checking wouldn't mention my query - which he didn't.

The 10 hour bus ride was, as expected, rather bumpy. We were only travelling 210 miles in total; achievable in probably 4 hours on a clear-ish, straight-ish road, but this was not that. The condition of the bus coupled with the appalling state of the roads meant every lump vibrated through our bodies. This meant that any attempted snooze was brief and somewhat dangerous. It didn't matter too much though as we were travelling in the day. The bus snaked wildly around and through the Laos mountain range, steadily climbing in altitude making our ears pop. Looking out of the window was jaw-dropping; the views of the awe-inspiring Laotian landscape were truly indescribable, but they were also terrifying as we were often clutching to the edge of a sheer drop. The highway connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is the biggest and most important in Laos. It has no road markings and no lights (hence our daytime journey) and is very narrow. It's quite aptly called Route 13 and it connects all the way through to Cambodia. Lauren described the journey as a white knuckle ride.

During the ride we befriended a young Lao girl (approx. 4 years old) who was sat behind us. She incessantly popped her head through the gap between our seats (mine on recline and Lauren's upright) in an effort to interact with us. As much as it was mildly annoying we had little else to entertain us and so we were quite happy to act as clowns for a while. She was a great mimic; copying everything we said and did. We taught her 1-5 in English and a few funny gurns (I'm sure her parents will thank us for that on the next school photo). She was a real darling and I hope she was old enough to remember the two weird white girls on the bus. Here she is;

We had one stop for lunch at an entirely Lao truck-stop. Even though we didn't have a food-voucher Lauren managed to swindle herself a bowl of unknown soup (we think it was meat-free). I was still feeling under the weather so I stuck to a yoghurt pot. The co-driver who I'd previously moaned to about my broken seat was now kitted out with a bullet-proof vest and a large, semi-automatic gun. We had read something in one of the travel guides that there was a very small risk of American war legacy guerillas who have, a handful of times over the last decade, come out of the mountains and held up tourist-heavy coaches. Bearing this in mind we were fairly comfortable with our weapon-brandishing ally.

Bums numb and eyes heavy, we arrived at the bus station at around 7pm. After putting a taxi driver on the phone to our home-stay host to give directions, we eventually arrived (1 hour later) at Jungle House. We rolled up to our home for the next 4 days and did our best to take in the amazing palatial bamboo building set amongst a jungle garden. We entered into the massive open plan reception / dining room with mezzanine second floor and were very warmly welcomed by Mike Boddington (great-grandson of THE Mr. Henry Boddington who started the infamous Mancunian beer and brewery) and his Lao wife Xoukiet, their Chinese intern Angela along with the other guests; a French and American couple. Everyone was sat round the dining table and had just finished eating and we were immediately seated and fed with home-cooked Lao delights (with plenty of veggie options for Loz).

At first we were a little overwhelmed; tired, scruffy, dirty and ill-equipped to engage in deep and meaningfuls with the older, well-cultured dinner guests and hosts. We did however take the opportunity to lubricate ourselves with the wine on the table - which helped a little. After a few hours of first impressions we were happy to be escorted to our room; which was across from the main house, past the swimming pool, through a wooded garden and in a cottage. The cottage had bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms on each side and a large communal kitchen / dining room in the middle. The French couple Nicole and Alain were in the twin room and we were in the double (take THAT heteros). Soon enough the resident geckos appeared to introduce themselves but quickly disappeared again when they realised we hadn't brought a load of insects with us.

Our first morning in Vientiane was a sobering one. After a great sleep and a picturesque breakfast sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, Mike gave us a guided tour of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The centre was actually set up by Mike in 1997 and does amazing work for disabled people in Lao. The visitor centre brilliantly outlines the 9 year 'Secret War' that the US waged on Laos. I can't begin to express the inhumanity of America's actions - we were truly shocked and appalled when we understood the gravity of it all. But let's not dwell on the negative, here's a 15 minute video that goes some way to illustrating the good work COPE does;

Sufficiently crushed, we then went for an independent stroll around Vientiane town. After a couple of hours we were hot, bothered and lost, so we called Mike on the mobile phone he'd given us and got collected. As Mike had just picked up a new couple (Australian) from the airport, we had to climb into the back of the pick up for an open-top ride back to Jungle House. The wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders, we got plenty of looks from fellow road-users; presumably less shocked by the riding arrangement than our nationality.

For the rest of the day we flopped about the house and grounds; taking a dip in the pool, reading our books and generally enjoying a chill out. This time we felt more prepared for our dinnertime socialising - again making the most of the complementary wine... We had some great conversations; learning about each other and Laos and we really started to feel like one of the family.

On our second day we did nothing but lay around like lazy bums, and we fucking loved it. I tell a lie, we spent a few hours sorting our onward plans

The third day we went to visit one of Mike's friends; Mac and his wife La. Mac and La head up an NGO organisation called Soap4Life which teaches poor Lao women how to make soap (sustainably) to sell. La gave us a live demonstration and it's amazing how easy the process is. We have since learned that Soap4Life has won a contract with Crowne Plaza hotels in Laos for 50,000 pieces of soap which is a great start to the project.
At the house we also met Mac and La's menagerie of pets; 2 squirrels, a bamboo rat, 4 budgies, 2 pugs, 1 shitzu and one other dog. The bamboo rat was particularly cute (and pregnant).

That evening was our final communal dinner and we made the most of it; staying up until midnight waxing lyrical about all the forbidden subjects: politics, culture and religion.
We really didn't want to leave Jungle House; the stars aligned and gave us an amazingly relaxing yet stimulating stay. We both feel incredibly inspired to firstly, read more about modern history (specifically the atrocities of war), secondly, encourage others to do the same and thirdly, commit to some sort of genuinely helpful volunteering.
Ask me again in 6 months to see whether we've followed this through!


Posted by advensha 03:08 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane swimming travelling backpackers dinner_party uxo disability jungle_house cope_centre mike_boddington soap4life secret_war cluster_bombs Comments (1)

Laos: Luang Prabang

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Eventually we arrived at Sa Sa Lao; a hostel-style accommodation set right on the Nam Khan riverside and overflowing with luscious tropical foliage and vegetables. We had our very own hut (we're getting pretty accustomed to bamboo boxes by now) complete with a netted double bed, en suite bathroom, fan and plenty of geckos, ants and mozzies.

The cloudy and comparatively chilly weather we'd been introduced to on the Mekong was hanging around and so we were still wrapped up in long pants and hoodies. Still feeling like shit I was in no state to eat dinner so Lauren ate something at the hostel's little bar/cafe and not long after we went to bed.

One of the interesting things about staying in a hut is the orchestra of multifarious noises you're serenaded with of an evening. Geckos are common culprits; making sounds ranging from squeaks right up to loud high-pitched meows. Here at Sa Sa Lao, the familiar geckos were joined by the resident dogs (who were actually very cute and friendly), the occasional cat, a smattering of birds and the eternally open karaoke bar opposite. So each night at around 7pm, all of the dogs within a 10 mile radius would start shouting at each other and a Lao gentleman with a hugely inflated sense of talent would start screaming into a microphone. This was our lullaby. Although mildly annoyed by our aural experience, it didn't for the most part affect our sleep; either our tolerance is increasing or we're going deaf.

I wasn't feeling much brighter the following morning but I could still muster up the energy to do some exploring of our new destination. With the help of the French hotel manager and a badly photocopied map, we found our way to Luang Prabang centre. Getting to the centre meant crossing the bamboo bridge which, shockingly, is a walking bridge that crosses over the Nam Khan river made entirely of bamboo. This bridge is built, maintained and dismantled by a local family every year who charge 5000 kip (approx. 45p) per person for a return journey across it. It only exists in the dry season and in the wet season, it is either removed in advance or washed away. The bridge is rudimentary to say the least, but it functions perfectly well and makes the journey to town much quicker for those on the 'wrong' side of the river. Here's some moving pictures of our first bamboo bridge expedition. If you listen carefully you'll hear Lauren berating me for taking 'deep steps'...

After a crap, overpriced breakfast, we stomped about the town a bit, taking in the colonial buildings, the tourist-centric souvenir and craft shops and enjoying the mild temperature and chilled-out atmosphere. The town actually felt a little Wild Wild West in terms of its layout and aesthetic. There is a thriving tourist industry in Luang Prabang and this is very apparent. The majority of the people we walked past weren't Lao, and the streets were overrun with travel agencies, European cafés and shops. We didn't mind this too much as the demographic seemed to be older than your average backpacker (25+) and a little more middle class. Not completely our crowd but the placidity was both enjoyable and infectious.
On our way back to the hotel we stumbled past a well-reviewed little pizza restaurant owned by a Lao-American couple (called Pizza Phan Lung). It was literally in their back garden with a handful of tables around a proper outdoor stone pizza-oven. A small amount of shame washed over us for buying Italian food on our first proper day in Laos but we quickly forgave ourselves as by this point I just really couldn't stomach Asian food.

The next day, a Sunday, we had another disappointing and expensive breakfast in town, redeemed by a great visit to the Laos Ethnology Centre. We also hopped on a mini bus to KouangXi waterfall 30km away. The waterfalls were incredibly beautiful; bright turquoise water surrounded by the green of huge trees and plants, decorated with hundreds of colourful butterflies. Unfortunately we hadn't packed our swimming costumes so we couldn't jump in but we did a little bit of paddling and that was enough for us. The water was too bloody cold anyway. There were lots of tourists of all ages splashing around in the water, mostly taking selfies, and a few were back-flipping off high rocks into the pools.

At the bottom of the falls is a bear sanctuary that rescues Asian black bears and sun bears from poachers (their gall bladders are used in Chinese medicine) and animal shows. The bears were gorgeous and seemed to have been provided a brilliant habitat. We were a little irked by the fact the WIRE fence protecting us from these bears (or vice versa) was only about 5 foot high. We didn't hang around too long.

On the drive back I started to feel really dodgy again so when we got back to town Lauren had a quick (and crap) plate of fried rice in the first restaurant we found, followed by a street crepe and we hurried back so I could climb into bed. That evening I felt really ill. I couldn't regulate my temperature and I had a horrible throbbing nausea and banging head ache. Although nothing was coming out of me I had all the symptoms of a stomach bug or food poisoning. As I'd gradually gotten worse over the last week we decided it would be best if I spent a day in bed, starving and feeling incredibly sorry for myself. So nothing to report on this day except Lauren having to go out on her own for lunch only to find the bamboo bridge closed off because of fast running water - ha. Luckily there were a handful of cafés on our side of the river she could make-do with.

The day of abstinence really did help and the next morning I felt super-perky (and hungry) so we headed to town but this time had to take the long-route across the motorbike bridge as the bamboo bridge was still closed. This motorbike bridge is as described but has a narrow pedestrian walkway tacked on the side of it with only crude wooden floorboards separating walkers from the river 300 feet below. We finally had a decent (but still pricey) breakfast at Novelty Café and then burnt it off by walking the 300 steps up Phousi mountain to see all of the Buddha images, temples and, most notably, the Buddha's footprint. It turns out Buddha was an actual giant as his footprint was 7 foot long... An interesting part of being up there was that we got talking to a very charismatic 19 year old monk who was soon to be leaving the monkhood after 8 years. He was very excited at the prospect of drinking and being with women and was asking us falangs (foreigners) all about our life experiences. We didn't tell him we were a couple as we thought his head might explode. This was the first time we'd had a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk and it was great. Turns out (as we suspected) they're pretty normal guys. And, contrary to what I though, they're not all vegetarians. They eat whatever they're given (with most of the time is meat).

Back down at ground level we made our way to Big Brother Mouse; a charity centre where Lao children can go (for free) to learn English from both educated Laotians and foreign volunteers. Unfortunately we arrived at the wrong time and so couldn't get involved in the storytelling session we'd hoped to. Instead we bought some books that were written by students and published at the centre and I also poked my head into a Lao sign language class and showed the deaf students some BSL signs. This amazing spontaneous interaction really made my day and also brought a little tear to my eye (I'm a wet fish I know).

Clearly a little concerned that we weren't being selfish enough we then went for a hand and foot massage at a nearby centre which apparently gives 20% of its profits to local villages. During the massage (which was very good), one of the ladies asked Lauren "do you have a baby?" and pointed to her stomach. Upon hearing that Lauren was carrying a food baby and not a human baby the girl was very apologetic but luckily neither of us are easily offended. If anything it gave me a good laugh for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, in an effort to diminish said faux-foetus, Lauren demolished a burger and french fries at a local trendy joint called Utopia. We're kings of weight loss.

High on MSG and feeling brave we walked the 30 minutes back to our hostel in the dark (but we had a torch) and tried not to get mowed down/eaten by dogs/kidnapped by guerillas. You'll be glad to hear dear reader that we made it back without even a mosquito bite and were greeted by our favourite little puppy too. The rest of the night was spent packing up our things and preparing for our early morning bus to Vientiane.

Posted by advensha 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged monk laos luang_prabang travellers bears backpackers mekong_river utopia big_brother_mouse stomach_bug kuang_si_waterfall Comments (1)

Journey to Laos: Chiang Rai, Pak Beng & the Mekong river

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We departed Chiang Mai in style. We lugged our ever-increasing baggage down 3 flights of stairs and were greeted by a smartly dressed young man called Mr. Singh and his vehicle; a large, new Toyota with tinted windows, and 7 cream leather seats. And it was just us; our own private chauffeur for the day with segregated passenger controlled air conditioning.
After only 5 weeks of 'roughing it' (hardly) we were already practically dribbling for some flashy comforts.

It had all worked out very well considering my condition. All day I felt feverish; too hot and too cold, shaky, weak, nauseas and a constant head ache. Had we been thrown into a jam-packed mini-bus with 8 other backpackers, no air conditioning and a driver with a need for speed navigating the mountains of Northern Thailand I probably wouldn't have made it. I would have vomited and shat on something or someone.

Luckily for everyone, we were wrapped up in our own business-class style fortress where we could spread out, curl up (a bit) and get a bit of rest and enjoy the view. Mr. Singh had a penchant for Western chart music so we also got to listen to some familiar tunes à la Ellie Goulding, Adele and Demi Lovato - a fact Lauren enjoyed more than she'd like to admit.

After a couple of hours we stopped at what looked like a service station. I was glad for a toilet break but it turned out to be much more than that. In the middle of this retail-laden car park were some smalls pools of water; some with fountains in the centre. These pools were actually natural hot springs; and it wasn't fart I could smell, it was the sulphur. They are called Wiang Pa Pao springs and they were rather underwhelming. We were most impressed by the enterprising elderly Thai lady boiling baskets of eggs in the springs to sell on.

A few more hours on the road passed and our next stop was Wat Rong Khun; aka the White Temple. Our initial reaction to the sight of the temple was probably the most visceral one we've had thus far. The crisp, unblemished white of the structure shone so brightly in the midday sun it was almost blinding. It appeared almost as though it was floating as its painterly curves suggested clouds. We also so hints of the Disney Castle in there; and there certainly weren't shortages of pop-culture references as we ventured further. Encircling the contemporary temple/art installation were figures such as Hellraiser, Predator, Maleficent, Freddy Kruger, Terminator and weirdly enough; Harry Potter. In addition to these Western symbols of evil-doing (and Harry Potter), as you walk up the bridge to the temple you pass two pools of outstretched forearms grabbing upwards from whatever lies beneath. All quite hellish really; at least in a familiar Abrahamic sort of way.

We had a brief wander around the grounds of the temple and enjoyed experiencing something more contemporary after 5 weeks of all things ancient. The one thing we didn't enjoy was the onslaught of photo-obsessed Chinese tourists who repeatedly blocked our path and poked our eyes out with their flagrant flailing of selfie-sticks.

Back in our safe little Japanese carriage we sped on through the ever-mountainous province of Chiang Rai with ears popping aplenty and saw a sign for a restaurant called Cabbage and Condom. Unfortunately we didn't stop there but we did stop for lunch in a little village café where the only vegetarian dish was stir fried veggies. Lauren was happy with that, especially considering we've struggled to get in our five-a-day, but then they arrived with big juicy prawns mixed in. Ever the trooper (and not one to ever miss a meal either), Lauren commendably picked the prawns out and ate the rest of the dish. I on the other hand had zero appetite and had started to feel a little fragile and feverish, but I forced some stir fried chicken and cashew nuts knowing I wouldn't be eating again for a while, and just hoped I could keep it down.
Outside of the café was a beautiful caged mynah bird who was very good at saying 'hello' in Thai (sawadee ka), see Lauren attempting to colonise the poor thing in this video;

The next stop was Baan Si Dum; or The Black House. Again this was an art installation preoccupied with the abject and grotesque. A huge teak building painted black, as soon as you walk through you're confronted with hundreds of dead animals; their skins, their bones, their pelts - pretty much everything except their organs (although they could have been there somewhere and maybe we just didn't notice). On one very long, grand table was a complete alligator skin, topped -as you'd expect - with a much smaller wild cat skin. Then, outside of the house itself is a fairly palatial grounds with some LIVE exotic animals in very small dark cages. We saw a HUGE snake (the biggest we'd ever seen) coiled up on the floor with people gathered around trying to I suppose make eye-contact with the poor thing, and lots of unusual birds including owls. Dead animals is one thing but seeing the poor live animals on 'display' in what is only essentially a contemporary art gallery was saddening.

We quickly tired of animal carcasses and so got back in transit for our final leg of the journey to the border town of Chiang Khong. We arrived early evening at the Teak Garden hotel. This was not the hotel we'd selected (we'd picked the cheapest one on offer with the Mekong tour) but, luckily for us, we'd been bumped up as our selection was full! The Teak Garden was by far the poshest hotel either of us had stayed in (needless to say we felt a little out of place). It ha an infinity swimming pool over the Mekong, a private balcony with river-view, a mini-bar, TV, rain shower, and SPRUNG MATTRESS BEDS! Annoyingly, we were only there for one night and because I was feeling so bloody rotten all I did was sleep. Lauren found a nearby Thai-Mexican fusion restaurant (weird) and had a lonesome dinner while I decorated our fancy new bathroom.

Our included breakfast the next morning was as you'd expect extensive. So much so I cursed us for not packing Tupperware with us to rob snacks for the rest of the day. Some of the other guests at breakfast seemed a little confused by our presence with our scruffy appearance, long armpit hair and massive scraggy backpacks. In situations such as this I always make a point to talk and chew good and loud while scratching my fallulah.

We were taken to the border where we spent a good hour freezing our nips off while waiting for a bus to take us over the Friendship Bridge to Laos. Once in Laos (Huay Xai) we did a bit more waiting around for our visas to be processed and then met our tour guide for the next two days; Ka. Ka is Laotian and originally from the Hmong tribe who live in the highest villages in the mountains of Laos.

We eventually boarded our slow-boat; number 333, which had a lovely varnished walnut interior with comfy chairs, two clean toilets and endless complementary tea and coffee. We were joined by 5 other couples; two sets of Canadians, one Dutch-Lebanese, one Swedish and one Italian. And away we went along the mighty Mekong. Thankfully, the boat was very steady and didn't add to my belly bubbles.

Laos had decided to cloud over upon our entry into the country and this lack of sun coupled with being out on the open water meant for a pretty chilly ride. By the second day all of us had raided our bags for extra layers and socks. Nonetheless, the views along the Mekong were spectacular. The 8 hours of sailing flew by as simply looking out onto the hillsides, flora and fauna was mesmerising. In fact it was only after the first day on the boat that I realised we'd spent a whole day, technology-free (I'm counting my Kindle as a book - sue me), confined to one small-ish space, and we'd been perfectly content. Not a massive feat but for someone with an over-active, easily-bored brain I was fairly impressed with myself. Maybe I'm finally doing some of that 'winding down' I'd hoped for...

One our first day of sailing we stopped at a Khmu village just off from a very remote area of riverside. The Khmu people are only just getting access to electricity and a means of transport and the advent of tourism (and tours like ours) help not only financially but in bringing education and healthcare. Khmu people have their own native language that is very different to Lao and they are primarily an agricultural society. They do not practice Buddhism but instead a form of animism. It felt a little odd 'trespassing' on their land but they seemed fine and sometimes indifferent by our presence, getting on with their day to day jobs. The children were naturally a little more curious and did follow us around a bit.

By 5pm we arrived at Pak Beng; the small town were everyone (public and posh tours alike) stops for one night on their way to Luang Prabang. Our hotel was quite basic but nice and had used old US bombs as columns holding up it's balconies.

My stomach (and bottom) were gradually becoming more disobedient so after a quick nosey in the local market (where we saw live frogs, squashed chickens, eels and live tree-rats for sale to eat) and then sitting down for an Indian meal (I didn't eat), we retired to bed quite early.

Lauren took full advantage of Laos's French history and bought a selection of pastries for breakfast while I tried to understand my complete loss of appetite (a very new concept for me). Our second day of sailing was broken up with two stops; one at another village - this time the high-dwelling Hmong tribe and also the Pak Ou caves. At the Hmong village the people were much more eager to interact with us (and sell us their handicrafts). We bought some handmade bracelets from a young girl (the mother's use the cutest kids to do the selling) and I gave one of my existing bracelets back to her. She looked completely baffled when I tied it on her wrist but hopefully she'll at least be able to sell it on to someone else.

The Pak Ou caves house many hundreds of old and new Buddhist artefacts. There's very little history on the caves but they are thought to have been used by people for worship and shelter for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
Amazingly, we both survived the long and steep journey to the upper cave (Me without shitting myself and Lauren without having a heart attack) and got to marvel at the limestone formation and the proliferation of Buddhas big and small.

We arrived at Luang Prabang at around 4pm and after a bit of scrambling by our driver to find our hidden-away hotel, we made it to the little hut we were to call home for the next 5 days.

Posted by advensha 22:12 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand laos pak_beng smile_mekong_cruise chang_khong melong_river Comments (1)

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