Sihanoukville Police Checkpoints!

“The police are everywhere!” I overheard someone exclaim the other day, as if his life depended on avoiding the Sihanoukville police traffic checkpoints. My friend and I just shook our heads. We’ve been here about the same length of time and have both heard the same stories about the Sihanoukville police checkpoints over and over again. I’d like to share my most recent “run in” with the Sihanoukville traffic police with you. Be warned, though; if you thrive on juicy gossip about corrupt Sihanoukville police taking bribes, you’re in for some disappointment.

I had to drop Sophie off at CT Clinic for a minor medical manner. Rather than sit around with Kelly waiting, I took him up the road to where I knew some road construction equipment was sitting idle. I thought he would enjoy seeing it close up and even climbing up on a “big big” tractor. As fate would have it, the traffic police were waiting for “victims” just past the place where we stopped.

Naturally they assumed I was stopping short of the checkpoint in order to avoid paying a fine (I wasn’t wearing a helmet – it had been misplaced). One policeman waved at me and called me over. I held up my hand and called back, “Jam teek” (just a minute, sort of). After playing with Kelly on the tractor for a little while, we walked over to the police and paid a dollar fine before continuing back to the clinic.

The helmet still was nowhere to be found that evening, but I had to go out, so I took a chance and didn’t take the back streets into town. Sure enough, the police had moved to the other side of town. I was pulled over, but when the same officer from the morning recognised me, he told the others to let me go without a fine. The only word I fully understood was “Hai” (already), but that was enough for me to understand he was telling them I’d already paid a fine that day.

I do know some Sihanoukville police. A couple of them are family friends and come over for dinner now and then. I didn’t know these police, though, so was given no special privileges. I think the reason they were so easy on me was because I didn’t run from them the first time or complain about the fine. In fact, I’m almost sure that’s the reason.

The reason why I’m so sure is because of an earlier incident when I and another foreigner were pulled over for not wearing helmets. This man and his wife or girlfriend became immediately indignant and tried to get me on their side when they angrily said, “They only pull over foreigners!” Annoyed, I replied, “Look around you. We’re the only two barang here!” The other 3 motorbikes waiting to pay their fines had Khmer riders and a car carrying a Cambodian family was pulled over a couple of minutes later.

They went on to start talking rapidly and belligerently to the police officer, who probably only understood a few words they were saying. When the police blocked them in their attempt to ride off, they got off the motorbike and the man said, “Okay! I’ll put on the fucking helmet.” He then started to open the seat, but since the police hadn’t understood what he’d said and were alarmed by his aggressive tone, they stopped him, fearing that perhaps he had a gun. Even then they didn’t react as I’m sure an American traffic cop would. They just took the key, made the man and woman stand back a little and opened the seat.

Having a helmet but not wearing one was no excuse for not paying the fine (remember, it’s all of $1), but the man and woman continued to resist. Finally, the policeman told me to just go on my way. He had enough to deal with. I got away without a fine. I have no idea what happened to the couple.

Next time you hear a story about the Sihanoukville traffic police, consider its source. Also think about how the police in your country would respond to your anger and contempt.

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About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.

21 Responses to Sihanoukville Police Checkpoints!

  1. I’m an occasional guest of your website, with this exceptional post I will make sure to visit your website more often.

  2. Chrissss says:

    Classic ethnocentrism that you are seeing.
    Rob, this journal of yours is really good.

    kudos to you, my friend.

  3. disco says:

    Australia = stopped by the police –
    – 20 min lost time
    – $100 min
    -Pay the fine at police staion 1hr lost time
    -Potential court date if disagreemant
    -1 policemans wages, 1 solicter, 1 judge,and whoever else involved
    – one days wages lost
    – no corruption on the street
    – yes corruption in a top dog office enviroment
    -out of sight out of mind

    South East asia = stopped by the police
    – 5 min lost time
    – $ 1
    – wage supplement in the pocket
    – no solicter, no judge , no who ever else
    – corruption on the street
    – corruption in the office or station

    I know what system I prefer.

    • Rob says:

      Great comment! Perfect analogy. In Bali, I got pulled over for having my front wheel over the line at a stop light. The police officer took everything I had in my breast pocket. Fortunately, I didn’t have all that much. I simply don’t know why some people pick on the Cambodian police so much.

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  5. Mickey Bliss says:

    What the hell ? People to stupid to wear helmets complaining about Police fining them for breaking the law. My partner and I both live in Sihanoukville and have never had any issue. I wear a helmet the odd time I ride a scooter, when stopped, I show them my Khmer license and I am waved on my way. Its not hard and when you think about it , the fine is simply a tax on stupid people.

    Sure it’s odd they concentrate on license, no helmet and light on through the day but some of that is because they don’t have sophisticated equipment like speed cameras and breathalysers. In Australia, the Police concentrate on speed and DUI not on the myriad of other offences that people commit every second of the day ie they enforce the law that’s easiest to enforce and ignore the rest unless it’s slapped in their face.

    I am thinking of the response in most Western countries if you said to a Cop to wait while you finished doing what you were doing. Arrest probably ?

    I prefer the Cambodian system, were the fine is paid directly to the officer (and his superiors take a cut), rather then to some faceless bureaucrat who takes an indirect cut for their wages and then pays the Cops. Both systems have their problems, I just prefer it over here.

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  7. charles says:

    I read the post and replies several times to get my head round the points raised. I have been a regular visitor to the site and on my last visit to Cambodia,spent four days in Sihanoukville to see the area on the basis of the positive vibes on the blog.I wrote to you on one occasion to clarify an issue of a purported violent crime against a tourist which later proved to be erroneous and exaggerated
    So I assume the intent of the recent post was to clarify the misconception that only foreigners are singled out by Sihanoukville police to be fined for traffic violations but erring Khmers also attract the attention of the police and if you do get stopped just smile,talk nicely and don’t make any sudden movements as you hand over a greenback
    Do the police also demand $1 from Khmers as “payment’ for their violation or is there a separate “tarrif” for locals?
    What is the official fine for not wearing a helmet? Where does the violator pay this fine and is an official receipt normally issued? Is the $20 unofficial fine in PP for using lights during the day the same in Sihanoukville? Is the fine the same for not using lights at night or indeed is this even illegal?
    The post poses more questions than answers. To read this on what is essentially a travel blog does not inspire me
    with any confidence that the Sihanoukville police have the best interests of tourists at heart.
    Please don’t get me wrong. I am not sitting on my high horse spouting out “holier than thou’ opinions
    I live in The Philippines and have had to deal with corruption at every level. I wont play these silly games with public officials who are paid(however poorly) to do a job,especially with traffic police and enforcers who demand their beer money to overlook an alleged infringement.
    Even if I was prepared to “dance” with these guys I would not consider it appropriate to highlight it on a travel forum
    By all means disagree with me but I hope you can respect my point

    • Rob says:

      Hi Charles,

      I don’t blame you for being confused. I am confused, too. I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can:

      1) I believe the official fine is 3000 riel (about 75c). I usually give them a dollar because it’s easier. If people would look a little more closely, there is usually a policeman in the background who writes down each payment. From what I understand, the police have a quota system similar to the system in Australia to ensure they do their job. Last Christmas, I was pulled over and asked for beer money with a smile. I gave the guy $3 and said “Merry Christmas!” On another occasion, I didn’t have any money on me to pay a fine. I was on my way to the bank. I told the police I’d pay on my way home and did. It’s all quite a bit looser here than in the West, but I like it that way. I feel like I’m dealing with real people and not just “uniforms.”

      2) I can’t comment knowledgeably about PP police. Here in Sihanoukville, I’ve paid $1 for having my lights on, but have been let go with just a warning an equal number of times. When I had a car, I was pulled over and told to give a policeman $100. Fortunately, I had the family with me and Papa talked him out of it. My license was expired.

      3) Yes, my suggestion is that you treat the police with respect if you want to get respect in return. It works for me.

      This isn’t just a travel blog – it’s a blog about Sihanoukville as seen through my eyes. This post in particular was written in reaction to a small but very vocal number of people who post unsubstantiated “information” about Sihanoukville on travel forums. They make sweeping statements like, “all Sihanoukville police are corrupt,” “all Cambodian police are into drug trafficking” and “the SV police only pick on tourists.” I was hoping that by relating my personal experiences and observations with the police here, some people would see that these blanket statements are incorrect. It boggles my mind that someone would say, “They only stop barang!” when the evidence this isn’t true is staring them in the face. That’s just one story. I have at least a dozen others I could share.

      What I’m confused about is why my experiences with the police (both traffic and otherwise) have been largely satisfactory while others have had nothing but trouble or indifference. It may be partly because I’ve lived here so long and they recognise me, but that can only be part of the story.

      Because I don’t know who the forum posters are who have had bad experiences with the police and other authorities, I can only surmise that they approximate or match the stereotype of the kinds of tourists and expats the police would rather not have in town. We still get a lot of tourists who come here for sex and drugs. We have our fair share of expats who are here because they can’t return to their home countries because they are wanted for crimes. We get backpackers who rent barely muffled dirt bikes and drive through town at 80kph. I believe the police have shut down the dirt bike rentals or singled out those tourists, because there are far fewer of those now.

      Sihanoukville, like the rest of Cambodia, is still being developed and defined. There were no traffic lights just a few years ago and very few police. They added something like 250 police to the rosters in about 2009. These police didn’t come out of some sort of police training academy. They get their training on the job. As I mentioned, a couple of them are family friends. They’re just normal Khmer men. They certainly aren’t evil, corrupt, bribe taking maniacs. In my opinion, they show considerable restraint when dealing with some of the bizarre Western tourists and expats around here.

      Personally, I have a MUCH bigger problem with some expats and backpackers than I have with my neighbours or Cambodian authorities. I’ve had my life threatened on 2 occasions – once after politely asking a guy to move his motorbike, which was blocking the entrance to a parking area at an internet cafe. I wrote about some of the completely bizarre stories I was told by “insiders” when I was a newcomer here in my blog, Truth versus Rumour in Sihanoukville.

      Just yesterday morning, a neighbour called the police on a new tenant in their apartment block. He had locked the door of his apartment and was beating the crap out of his wife. A policeman came, took him in and released him with a warning. It would be a tough call to make. Lock him up and his wife and baby would be without an income. Note how the landlord called the police: many barang would say local landlords wouldn’t report something like that for fear of losing rent money. No doubt, they will now say he was let off because he paid a bribe.

      I’m very happy to see a lot more couples, both young and middle-aged, and middle class families coming to Sihanoukville. I’m also glad to see legitimate barang businesses coming to town. I’ve asked a couple of them about their experiences with the police and they don’t have a problem. When I asked about bribes, one got angry and said, “I give them a case of beer at Christmas. That’s a gift, not a bribe.”

  8. Steve says:


    I am sorry if my ‘attitude’ comes across as being ‘contempt for Cambodians’ ….. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cambodians are among the warmest, kindest most generous people ANYWHERE on this earth. If I gave that impression, then it was not my intention.

    My intention was to highlight the SYSTEM that they have to live under!

    I also never mentioned any police prevalence for ‘stopping foreigners’ over locals. That would clearly be stupid on their part. I have also been stopped of course. I remember the police officer asking for my Cambodian driving licence, then being frankly amazed that I HAD ONE. Therefore, he then asked for my registration details…. and I had them also… He then proceeded to go over my moto with a fine tooth comb in the hope of finding ‘something’ wrong….. (little hope there as it was a brand-new one)… He reluctantly let me go on…

    I also vividly remember the time of being stopped in Phnom Penh for riding with my headlights on during the day. O.K.A.Y, it was a fair cop…. I produced my licence as requested and they held onto it…. I asked what the fine was? $1? $2? “NO NO…. MORE” was the reply…. In the end, I had to pay $20 for riding with my lights on! (They were holding onto my licence and it was the quickest and easiest way of resolving the situation) Did THAT fine money go into the pot I wonder? Again, there are both good apples and bad ones…. My point is that you and I can do everything we can to try and attract tourism in ever growing numbers….. but a little more help from the government would not go amiss.

    And yes, I applaud the Cambodian government for outlawing guns…. The problem is……(again going back to the police), that I’m sure if I were stopped and found to have a gun in my glovebox, a swift $100 note would sort it and I would be on my way!

    Until the police start to police the country ‘without fear or favor’, we will have problems.

    • Rob says:

      Okay, let’s call a truce. Since it’s my blog, I’ll try and slip in the last word – the Sihanoukville police usually just tell me to turn off my lights and let me go without a fine. Your driver’s license/registration story reminds me of the time a local official came to check my passport and visa and remarked that I was one of the few barang whose visa was up to date.

      • Rob says:

        Check out this video of the Anaheim, California police in action against peaceful protesters.

        Is Anaheim Under Martial Law?

        When the license plates for motorbike law was introduced (or originally enforced – I’m not sure which) here, a huge number of locals staged a protest against the high fines that were being imposed. The police were there and did an admirable job of peacefully keeping the protesters from blocking traffic. They didn’t feel obliged to wear intimidating riot gear, either. The protesters got their way, too. While they did have to get license plates, they didn’t have to pay fines.

  9. Rob says:

    I often get that “rose coloured glasses” versus “calling a spade a spade” sort of comment. This post as well as similar earlier ones were written in hopes some foreigners would look at Cambodia through a clearer lense (or a full deck of cards, if you like – one that includes hearts, clubs and diamonds as well as spades) rather than blindly criticise everything about the country.

    1) My post was about my personal experiences with the Sihanoukville traffic police. You raised another subject and did not substantiate it with facts.
    2) I used the example of the foreigners who said, “They only pull over foreigners!” when in fact we were in the minority in order to illustrate how barang here are so prejudiced and/or frightened, they don’t even see the truth when it’s staring them in the face. That’s just one example out of many.
    3) Why not give the Cambodian government credit for outlawing guns? It went a long way towards restoring peace and order in the country. The police here sometimes set up roadblocks and check for guns. I know of 2 occasions when they did it on the first couple of days of holidays, when gangs were likely to come into town. Do you want to do a search for violent crimes in the UK, Europe or America? You’ll find plenty, I’m sure.
    4) Your contempt for Cambodians is obvious from your tone.

    So, go on calling a spade a spade and feeling superior. I’ll go on calling a heart a heart and relating the positive side of Sihanoukville as I see and experience it.

    Please remember; whether you’re here for a week or a decade, you’re still a guest in this country. The British Empire is dead – drop the colonialist attitude and you might like the country even more than you claim to.

    Thanks, CA, for raising the points about corruption in the “perfect” west. Much of that corruption is so ingrained and integrated into the system, people do not even see it for what it is. I always appreciate your comments, coming as they do from a Khmer. Your perspective is greatly appreciated.

  10. Steve says:

    My comment ‘Pay peanuts and you get monkeys’ is an English expression meaning if you pay low wages, you can only expect to choose from the bottom of the barrel (employee-wise). and you to not attract a higher-motivated and professional staff. Nothing more than that.

    I am still in Cambodia because I LIKE IT. That does not mean to say though that you have to see EVERYTHING through rose-colored spectacles and that everything is just tickety-boo here? I call a spade a spade and if it’s good, I’ll say so, likewise if something stinks, again I’ll say so. It always amuses me when ever a foreigner has his say on any subject, the inevitable “then why are you still here” is trotted out. 😉

    As a foreigner who lives here and pays taxes here (though into who’s pockets I’m not quite sure), I have a right to my opinion like anyone else.

    And you say ” Cambodia is probably the only country that lets you and people like enjoy almost a free-tax living conditions and cheap, cheap maids (should I add drug, prostitution, and eating meals for free with the local and sleeping with his/her daugther for free there, too?).” Now…. that IS offensive!

    Tax free????? I get one bloody gold-braided ‘official’ after another coming each month for their ‘bribes’. Its ridiculous. I would not mind if these ‘contributions’ actually went into the pot for the good and improvement of all. But it’s galling to know that the vast majority goes into the pockets of these ‘officials’. The rest of your comment about eating/sleeping with Khmers was frankly offensive also. My wife is also English, and our staff are paid well-above the going rate….. (with health benefits).

    Oh yes, in my part of the ‘perfect world’ (THE UK), there MAY be millions squandered and kept by the rich…. But let me tell you one thing, at least if you are ill, and call for an ambulance, they come out within minutes and collect you (FOR FREE). They then take you to a state of the art hospital where incredible professional and highly trained doctors do EVERYTHING they can for you (FOR FREE) They try to ask you your name and what happened….. Not whether or not you have a CREDIT CARD!.

    You will then be admitted, cared for and even fed…. (FOR FREE) until you are well enough to be discharged. I do not mind my taxes going on things like that, but maybe that’s just me?

    By the way, I’, from the UK, not the US… Comparisons about ‘shootings’ are not really relevant are they? Shootings in the UK remain very low…. Far lower than nutcases here who seem to set about each other with machetes?

    The prevalence of guns seems to be far greater here than in the UK, (where it is seen as a very serious offence) Possession of an illegal firearm in the UK is likely to ADD ten years to your prison sentence!

    I repeat that I LIVE here, I love it here (on the whole). I intend to stay here and continue to run my business and provide jobs for local people. However, where I come from, we have a FREE PRESS and can say what we like. Owners of free radio stations do not get arrested and locked-up for offending the government….. and the government do not seek measures to ‘control’ what is said about them on the internet…. (The spreading of miss-information thing)….. Best of luck with that!

    So, I will continue to call a spade a spade.

    • CA says:


      As a Canadian, I understand very well your reference to the phrase, “Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.” However, a monkey has had a different meaning to different people and their culture and I appreciate your endeavor to clarify it to me. Just like my first time immigrating to Canada, thing like this happened because I was new to a country and culture. So, it must be our lack of cultural sensitivity that it came across to us the way they were.

      Issues a side, I can see that we both like to defend our perspective country’s culture, language, and those other values that we inherit from. It is all about our innate ability, more often than not, that dictates how we communicate that across to one another. Quite frankly, that is fine with me because the sociology of life cannot be perfectly uniformed for all races. Likewise and with due respect to the Western Democratic values, I prefer that we, Khmers, obtain their own version so that it suits the origin of our race.

      As I have mentioned before, Cambodia is a unique country politically, socially, and historically for my generation. Our lose of generation’s past has given us a great burden and hindered our ability greatly with our endeavor to restructuring our society and for the most part to re-educate our most important group, the educated class, that we lose.

      As a child, I was brought up during the 1970s’s French colonial time in Cambodia. I have no love for or fear of any opinion that has a colonialist’s flavor. I see respect for other culture is a correct path to human race, not a lot of negative things that are said about mine and not yours.

      I trust that you and your wife are good people in what you do for Cambodia. I do not have an intention in discriminating anyone who treats Khmers with fairness. At the end of the day, if life does not benefit us we would be doing it regardless, what we try to do.
      I hope these two links will serve us well with references to the issue of corruption in Cambodia. It is a start.

      Thank you so much, Rob, for your indebt and sincerity in recognizing Khmers’ pain and suffering. Your patience is much admired.

  11. Steve says:

    Well, we could both swap stories all day long… The fact remains that if you only pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

    Ask the poor farmers and victims of land grabs if they receive justice from the police. Ask those poor workers attempting to strike for better wages/conditions if they get justice from the police. …and as for bringing up an ‘unrelated’ argument, I wasn’t aware that Cambodia had it’s own dedicated ‘Traffic Police’ They go wherever they are called, and do whatever they have to do…. (although I bet they LOVE traffic duty when they get to stop mobile ATM’s)

    • CA says:

      Hey Steve,

      It is nice to see your side of argument. Although I think Rob’s is probably more sensible and with more deeper thought about our real causes in the social developement of Cambodia, which brings back my curiosity about you and your life in Cambodia. Why are you still there? What kind of ‘business’ that you do there and does it benefit you?

      I feel offended, as Khmer, to hear that you think that one of our current cultural values has the taste of a, “…pay nuts, you get monkeys.” As strange as it might be such as our policing system to you kind of culture, it costs a lot less for you and makes sense for us because it would otherwise bakcurp our nation if we were to use your perfect world’s system.

      Remember, Cambodia is probably the only country that lets you and people like enjoy almost a free-tax living conditions and cheap, cheap maids (should I add drug, prostitution, and eating meals for free with the local and sleeping with his/her daugther for free there, too?). Obviously, we are the only country that offers our ‘HOMELESS’ with ‘FREE’ land and housing, says that to your countries of your pefect world. I am aware of your catchy phrases like ‘land crabbing,’ but you have missed the issue of ‘illegal land steeling and illegal immigrants.’

      And, I can tell you that living in your part of a ‘perfect world,’ your taxes system and those hundred of million of dollars in currupted money exchanges hands daily among politicians with no one goes to jail because your upper classes have it all under control. How does that tell you? How about your perfect law that incarcerates millions minorities and not the majority who rules? Does Cambodia have as many ‘shooting’ by gangsters on a daily bases like in your part of perfect world?

      I just want to add that our values may not be as uniformity as you would like but it provides more benefit to our people. I am sure most of our, you so called ‘poor’ has more land and home than any other poor elsewhere around the world. Our value of lack of control by the ‘agent of the state’ contains friendlier environment that suits us, than you. Khmers people are more happy is because thier culture is more humane. However, it is in danger of being dictated by the globalized world that I soon see it disappears.

      Oh well, we can go all day exchanging it. Enjoy your stay in Cambodia while it lasts for you.

  12. Steve says:

    Are you seriously trying to suggest the the vast majority of Cambodian ‘Police’ are not inept at best, and at their worse, downright BENT? Oh we know why that is of course, they are so poorly paid. They use the system to boost their incomes.

    Whatever the reasons though, they are STILL BENT.

    Another great ruse to stop you during the day is to ride your moto with it’s lights on. Oh yeah, wow, what a truly hazardous thing for you to do. Whereas its perfectly okay to drive a moto/car at NIGHT with NO lights at all…. Oh yeah, no problems there!

    About your own particular run-in the the police. Why was the crash helmet law introduced? Was it to cut down / mitigate the number of serious injuries on Cambodia’s roads? Of course it was. So why oh why is it ‘okay’ to just simply let you ride on after paying a ‘fine’? Are you suddenly immune from serious head injury because you’ve paid a fine?

    In the UK, if you were stopped by the police for riding a moto without a helmet, you would be given a ticket (to pay a fine at the police station….Police there cannot take cash from the public!) THEN, you would not be allowed to go on with your journey UNTIL you had a crash helmet! Simple. If what you were doing prior to being stopped is unsafe, then why let you go on doing it?

    Then of course you fail to mention CRIME. Oh the police are very good at setting up road blocks and fine gathering…. that’s the easy bit, but investigate crime? Forget it!

    Heard the latest police crime-reduction measures in Siem Reap? REFUSE to issue a crime report insisting that the victim is LYING! Yeah, like she WANTS to spend hours and hours in a grotty Cambodian police station on a bogus claim!

    No, by all means ‘big-up’ certain things about Cambodia. It’s great, generous, wonderful people, but PLEASE, don’t defend the indefensible!

    • Rob says:

      I believe my post was about the Sihanoukville traffic police, not “the vast majority of Cambodian ‘police'” and yes, I am defending them because they are defensible. Every time I attempt to defend them, someone pulls a story out of their hat that is totally unrelated or distantly related to what I’m writing or talking about, as you have done.

      If you like living in a country that monitors your every move, please go back to the UK and get a ticket for every minor infraction you make. If you like the heavy-handed approach, go to the US and yell at a police officer who pulls you over. Better yet, make a sudden move for the glove box and see what happens.

      The lights on law is a strange one, but it’s a law and applies to everyone. My son likes to fiddle with the switches on our motorbike when it’s parked and I’ve been caught on that one a few times. So what? How can it possibly be reason for such outrage and contempt?

      As for investigating, I was once asked if I could identify a dead body. I couldn’t, but we helped the police find out where the guy had been the night before and about what time he was murdered. They ended up catching the murderers, a group of itinerant workers.

      Then there was the time an off duty policeman helped us with a backpack my wife’s father found in some bushes when he was taking a leak. He was afraid to touch it for fear of being arrested, so the policeman went with us. We found the owner, returned the backpack and she didn’t even thank us.

      On another occasion, my wife found a barang driver’s license in some bushes and took it to the police. The owner had reported a theft to the police. They figured out from the location of the license where the likely thieves lived, retrieved her stuff and threw them in gaol. They asked the woman if she wanted to thank my wife, but she said no and suggested my wife was one of the thieves.

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