10-day trip: PP-Kompong Cham-Kratie-Stung Treng-Rattanakiri-Mondulkiri (small roads)

Discussion in 'Cambodia Road Trip Reports' started by LexusSchmexus, Dec 12, 2012.

  1. LexusSchmexus

    LexusSchmexus New Member

    Just got back from a 10-day trip so thought I should give a good update for those interested.
    In a nutshell: I went from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham, then on to Kratie, then on to Stung Treng. From there I drove to Rattanakiri, and finally down to Mondulkiri before returning to PP. I pretty much exclusively took small dirt roads, only taking the highway between Kratie and Stung Treng (as no other option is possible) and as I was pressed for time, took the highway all the way back from Mondulkiri. A bit under 2000 km. Bear in mind I almost wrote a novel and it reads more like a ride-report than a simple road-conditions report.
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    First leg: Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham
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    I left quite late, which was stupid but I really wanted to get my chili hotdogs from Lone Star before leaving as I knew I probably wouldn't be eating much western food for the next two weeks. Took the ferry near Naga and went up along the southern shores of the river towards Kompong Cham. The going was ok, road starts off alright, then turns to loose gravel (shitty), and eventually gets somewhat better.

    Progress was slow due to my incessant stopping (I tend to do that on the first day out of any trip). Towards that first eastward bend, the “road” basically turns into a single track, sometimes right along the river and sometimes passing through people's homes. [​IMG]

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    South of those two islands westward of Koh Pen, the road turned absolutely shitty. You can see a spot where I tried to pass but had to turn back. Daylight was quickly going (around 5-5h30) and a road with a few puddles quickly turned into a mudslide. A lady walking alongside her bike on it had told me not to go on and that I couldn't go to Kompong Cham. I figured whatever, I'll try. Forget it, alone with darkness setting in it would be impossible. So I looked at my map, turned back and took another road. However, villagers told me that this road (which looked decent) eventually turned to crap also, and said I should take the ferry across to the Northern side. Ferry at this time (6-7pm) would be 10$. I reluctantly bit the bullet and took their advice. Once across it took maybe 10-15min to KC. During the dry season it should definitely be doable, and a very nice way of getting to KC. I might actually try it in a few weeks.
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    Second leg: Riding around Kompong Cham
    [See track above]
    Relaxed around KC. Town has changed somewhat. Hadn't been there in around 2.5-3 years. More foreign restaurants than before, when I only recall one or two places being open. Was glad to see a small French joint which a few years back had taken 45 mins to make me a tuna sandwich had closed down. A friend of mine was in Chamkar Leu (in northern KC) so I decided to go there. Visited the place, rode around trying to enter a rubber factory but the guy wouldn't let me in. Then I took the road eastwards towards the riverside. Contrary to what GoogleMaps says, it's actually quite nice. After turning right and heading down towards KC however, it quickly becomes a red-dirt nightmare. Wasn't bad, it's just that by this time it was dark and since dust and headlights don't mix well, visibility was reduced significantly (as even in the evening it was somewhat busy, so dirt everywhere). They are obviously getting ready to pave that segment so should be nice in a bit. After a while the road becomes paved, albeit in a patched/roller-coaster way. Still, lot's of hairpin turns, great river views and lot's of villages along the way. I pretty much gunned it down but during the daytime it would be a very nice drive.

    Third leg: Kompong Cham to Kratie
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    This way probably one of my favourite rides of the trip. The “riverside” road entrance is actually way off in GoogleMaps. I assumed it would be the road where the lighthouse is, but I kept going as GM indicated otherwise. This is where GM said the “road” started:
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    I kept going a bit but obviously, this was no road. After maybe 200m villagers told me in no way did this road go on to Kratie, I had to take the riverside. Ok, so I went back and took to right road. It starts off great, then for maybe 3-5k turns into a muddy mess. Nothing crazy deep but the puddles were wide and long so getting briefly stuck in a possibility. But mostly, if you gunned it down the road standing, you'd just further wreck what little road they have left so I zig-zagged between the puddles following the scooter tracks. This stretch is actually easier on a small bike as some places go on tracks ride by a fence and with wide handlebars and a high seat, it's quite difficult to pass. After a few km, seeing as I had made so little progress I asked locals if the road ever got better, as otherwise I would turn back and take the highway (**** this, I told myself). To my relief, they said it got better in one km, near the pagoda. And sure enough, after turning into a small track it eventually dried up near the pagoda and farther down opened up into a gorgeous hard-packed red-dirt road. This bit of driving was absolutely great. Beautiful views and lot's of small villages (Cham and Khmer), so plenty of opportunities to stop, rest or chitchat. The road also allows for fast driving if you want. Around that big bend, it goes from a hardpacked dirt to hardpacked mud and some gravel, so lot's of big tracks left over from the rainy season. Fast driving is still possible but gets shitty at times. Just south of that first big island (if heading east), the road becomes paved. What a relief and driving onwards still offers nice views and very fast driving. All in all this was a very nice stretch.
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    Fourth leg: Kratie
    I only spent one day in Kratie. Went to Kampi. Decent paved road, similar to the one along the river north of KC in the views/number of houses along the way but also suffers from the “rollercoaster” syndrome (like Highway#2 south of PP). I had actually never been to Kratie and it's a very nice town. Seeing the dolphins was exactly as I suspected. I imagined one of two things, with no room for alternatives:
    1) Dolphins would be jumping out of the water Seaworld-style, swimming in front of my boat in packs as we raced down the river
    2) One would barely see any dolphins. They would be 2km away and you'd see specs of grey emerging from the water.
    Well, it obviously ended up being close to #2, with some dolphins emerging now and then. Was it worth 9$? Probably not, but I guess it's one of those “things to see” in Cambodia. Another check in the box I suppose. It was still nice, getting to relax on a boat all alone and see a few dolphins (though the sun was ****ing hot).

    Fifth leg: Kratie to Stung Treng
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    I originally wanted to go along the riverside but all my maps indicated this was not possible. So I reluctantly took the highway, but was also somewhat glad as I wanted to rush there because a friend's family lived nearby and I could sleep over there. The road is alright, though completely blown up in spots. They're going to patch those places up I guess. Some workers were on the road. More importantly, this is the most boring stretch of road I've EVER driven on in Cambodia (possible anywhere). No villages, no scenery, just boring old highway (and not a nice one at that). I figured there would be lot's of buses/trucks as it connects to Laos, but... nothing. I was alone most of the way which is nice but when a highway is this boring it becomes lame. All I heard was the “BAAAAAAAAAAR” of my bike and this is one spot where I wished I had a 600cc+. At least I made good time (2 hrs).

    Sixth leg: Around Stung Treng
    Not much in ST and it seems like the local Guesthouse owners have a racket setup where 6$ seems standard, though I finally found a nice place for 5$ (Cambod would be proud). It also always baffles me how I can get a nice massage in PP for 8000-10 000 riels, but 5$ is almost standard in the provincial capitals... I then went on to my friend's family's house, on Koh Preah. It's basically along the riverside road heading west, then south. Came across a new bridge being built by the Chinese (and Viets apparently). Looks like a 4-lane one too.
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    Road gets really sandy there but then opens into a beautiful red-road (finished this year if I recall). Great views, you cross about 15+ wooden bridges and though the road is somewhat narrow, there are no chickens or children running across. I was doing 75+ in many stretches. Loads of fun to drive down. Plenty of traction for a dirt road and nice views.
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    Took the ferry across (5000riels) then followed the road on Koh Preah, which was just finished this year as well. Pebble road but the island is VERY nice. Dolphins can also be seen around there. Spent two days there at their home and took some well-deserved rest. Very nice place to explore if you have the time to leave early on morning and leave later on in the day.
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    Island road:
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    Next day I went along the river but eastward expecting to see rapids (though anything called a rapid of waterfall usually disappoints in Cambodia). Well, there's absolutely nothing worth seeing there. So after arriving I just dunked my shirt in water again and went back to ST.

    Seventh leg: Stung Treng to Banlung
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    Like all the roads I took, I had traced this out before leaving PP. I figured I would go to Siem Pang, then on to Vonsai, then on to Banlung. GoogleMaps, as well as all my paper maps indicated a nice road there. So off I went towards Siem Pang, but took a small detour which was lot's of fun (turned left at a place which said “Mekong Bird Resort”. Great village trail that probably goes all the way to the tip, facing Stung Treng :
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    Once at the crossroads I figured I should go see the Laos border for shits and giggles. Walked into Laos, met a French guy doing a world tour. He was heading for SHNV and then PP. Had done France-Johannesburg along the Eastern coast then back up (both east and west Africa). Onward to Turkey/Middle-East upwards to Russia, then back down to Mongolia, China, Laos and heading into Cambodia before storing the bike and taking a short trip back to France (had been on the road for 16 months). Cool guy to chat with, he was actually sponsored by Yamaha France (bike, riding gear etc). Hopefully I'll meet him again when he comes back to PP. Here's his website where he outlines the paperwork needed for crossing boders:
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    From there I went back to the fork in the road and headed for Siem Pang. This stretch of gravel road is pretty bad. A few stretches are ok for a dirtbike but it's deceptive as soon enough you'll hit HUGE dips in the road so progress is fairly uncomfortable.
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    Once at SP I asked about the upcoming road condition. They said groups of dirtbikers came by regularly (20+) and that the road was bad right now (hopefully I'm not giving away a trade secret). Doable but not really a road. Well let me tell you, they were right! It's not a road at all but rather a dirtbike trail. Not really possible for a barang scooter-rider though I did see two-three small bikes doing the trip carrying goods! Leaving so late and going alone was a BIG mistake which is hindsight was downright stupid. There are only two villages along the way, who can can get by in khmer but mostly speak Lao. It's actually a lot of fun though. Often it's a sandy mess (15-20cm+) for hundreds of meters, but sometimes it turns into hardpacked red dirt where you can accelerate, though it's usually quickly followed by more sand.
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    You cross around 10 creeks or so, the first one (from Siem Pang) still being quite deep when I went and leaving me wondering how the small scooters fared here. The others were fine, though sometimes the other side has such deep mudtracks you had to drive down the riverbed looking for another way up. As with all such tracks, following the path of least resistance (ie: the tracks left by small motos) offers the best ride, though revving through the puddles was great. The water level was perfect. Sometimes you go through bamboo forests, sometimes across rice paddies (with tons of crosstracks so knowing which way to go can be somewhat hard). If you have a bad sense of orientation or no nav skills forget it. Knowing it was so bad I would have left MUCH earlier. I started it at 2pm and the guys told me it would take 4hrs to do the 60km or so. They were spot on, took me just under 4 hrs (with lots of stopping). If you're an experienced dirtbiker with friends an protective gear you could cut that time down but being alone with no protection (I know, I know), I didn’t want to test my luck. Didn't get a ton of pics as after a while I knew time was of the essence and even with my huge headlights, didn't want to still be driving in the dark. Turns out I only drove 10m on the crappy trail in the dark before it became a decent dirt road again. What a relief! Went on to Banlung on a nice hilly road (though in the dark so couldn’t appreciate it much).
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    At one point you need to take another ferry:
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    So to anyone reading this: DON'T ATTEMPT ALONE. And START EARLY. I dropped the bike twice (though driving at less than 5km/h) but had I injured myself or had bike probs it would truly have been a shitty situation (I had a hammock in my gear though, lol). Not much civilization along the way, though there are two army outposts, two villages and some (illegal) loggers. But basically the only thing driving there are those mini-tractors (which make huge ruts) but they can't do the whole journey as at time it gets too small for them. BUT, if you like dirtbiking this is the place for you. This route is most likely impossible during the rainy season (I want to say impossible, and locals said impossible but I know somewhere someone could probably do it with inflatable rafts or something). When I got to my Banlung guesthouse I popped open my PREMIUM whiskey as reward which I had bought from supercheap before my trip. Well-deserved.
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    Eight leg: Around Banlung
    I met a guy who said he could guide me through the “Death Highway”, said it was really sandy, would take 3 hours between Lumphat and Khaoh Neak. So if we were to do it, would need to leave Banlung at 5am, arrive at Lumphat 6am, eat breakfast then leave. 60$. So though I had originally planned on going to Mondulkiri but now figured I shouldn't because:
    1) I wouldn't have time to see both Rat and Mondul.
    2) I was sick of driving on shitty roads.
    I had never been in eastern Cambodia so figured I should maximize my time in Rat and go to Mondulkiri independently later on when I had more time, maybe around Christmas. So I drove around Banlung for a few days. Visited Yeak Laom lake near town. Very nice. Walked around it, which was refreshing, then setup my hammock and drank some beers and dove/cannonballed/swam at one of the quiet peers with some Cambodians. The next day I went to enquire about visiting Virachey National Park. Well their fees are reasonable (13$/day for guide+ small fee for food, hammocks etc). Buuuuut, 60$ for the boat, LOL. Only three guides. A two-day trek is like 125$ so I decided **** it. A few of the tour companies offer nice treks too. Next time I'd like to do one of those trekking tours. My dream would be to take a Cambodian girl (if I can ever find a girlfriend, lol) and take her there to make her a bit hardy. Going with a female tourist would probably be cool.

    So instead I drove up north to Ta Veang. It's a nice dirt-road drive, filled with some rather steep hills and tight corners (with random 4X4s driving like maniacs around them, driver beware). Some big ruts do to rain obviously, loose at times. Once there there's really nothing to do. Played two games of pool with some locals, ate, napped then went back to see the Chaa Ong waterfalls, which were actually quite spectacular by Cambodian standards (or any standards for that matter). You can shower under it which is nice after driving a lot. Oh, and I also helped out two Indians who had run out of gas.

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    It's also worth noting that the roads to ALL waterfalls are pretty crappy, which is somewhat surprising. But it also allows for relatively few tourists (most are in the process of being upgraded). That night in an Indian restaurant I met a guy who said he had just done the Death Highway two days ago with a Frenchman on the back of his moto. He said it was quite easy. Alone he could do the bad stretch in 1.5 hours. He also said it wasn't too sandy now (my main concern, as driving through sand isn't fun unless you're gunning it on sand dunes in Morocco or something). He said he charged 60$ to go all the way to Sen Monorom or 40$ to get to Khaoh Neak. His comments stuck in my mind and I took his number for later reference. The next day, I packed the bike and went to see the gem mining places near Bokheo east of Banlung. This is a VERY nice mountainous drive on a freshly paved road, no patches, smooth surface the whole way and none of that “grainy” pavement but a nice smooth grippy surface which tired just grip on. I suggest going to Vietnam along this route. Khmerized would love this on his bike. Nice views too.

    Heading back to town, went to see Ka Tieng waterfall, which was also quite nice. The way I had planed it I had two choices: head over to Kratie that afternoon, then onwards to PP, or call that guy up and go to Mondulkiri. Well I figured “I'm here, I'm queer (uhhh, what?), better do it now while I can and it's still around” so around 11:30 or so while at the waterfall I rang him up and asked if he would mind doing it with me that afternoon (stupid again, but spontaneous). He said sure. Locals at the waterfall told me it was easy to find your way now and I didn't need a guide, but after my experience on the Siem Pang-Vonsai stretch, I figured I'd rather pay for someone to accompany me in case I had mechanical trouble or an injury. So we agreed to meet in Lumphat, I went down from that waterfall (south of Banlung) to the main highway (VERY VERY NICE DRIVE, albeit unfortunately short).
    That road is obviously going to get paved very soon, and the obvious next step is the Death Highway itself (given that the road from Khaoh Neak to Sen Monorom was also apparently nice now). I adjusted my rattling chain over there and then met up with him and ate at his house (or father's house, young guy with a wife and 2-month old son). Quite pleasant.
    Road to Lumphat being prepped for pavement:
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    Ninth leg: Banlung to Sen Monorom
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    I stocked up on water as he bought a spare innertube and brought his tire repair kit along (my demand). Took the ferry (10 000r, a bit of a ripoff but oh well). Well you wouldn't have guessed it but across the river, waiting for the ferry were two SUVs (NGOs) who has just done the trip from Mondulkiri, so I knew it couldn't be that bad. And sure enough, it really isn't bad at all. Progress was quite fast (WAAAY faster than the Siem Pang-Vonsai stretch, though I was with someone so obviously my confidence level was higher). This guy was a real pro, it was obvious he knew the road well, also took the spots with less sand, high ground etc. I just followed his tracks. In true khmer-style he had no helmet or cap and was in flipflops and was faster than me (waited now and then for me to catch up, haha). But my honest thoughts were “What “Death Highway?”. Some loose sand/dirt but the sand's grain was either much bigger than the sand on the SP-VS stretch, or very-very fine (moondust type) both of which in my mind offer more traction than “middle-grain sand” if I can call it that, lol. Despite my overly confident attitude I actually fell more often there than on the SP-VS route (only hurting myself a bit once). I guess I was driving too fast for my own ability at times. Either way it was much easier, but overall way less fun than the SP-VS drive. You mostly drive on open terrain (I assumed I would be under a canopy of jungle trees). I think it would be a fun ride on the back of a moto, similar to the Siem Riep-Preah Vihear treck a few years back. Nonetheless, still took us a while to get to Khaoh Neak. First two thirds were done very quickly, but the last bit was slowler (despite being a bit easier imo, maybe I was just tired). Took around 3 hours to get to town (around 17h00). Still fun, but this year they upgraded the road so apparently it's much easier than 5 years ago or so. Rainy season would be really hard too.
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    Once in Khaoh Neak we decided to push on to Sen Monorom (another 95km or so). He was originally supposed to just take me to Khaoh Neak and head back, but a friend of his in Sen Monorom knew a Swiss couple who wanted to do the trip on the back of motos, so he headed onwards to Sen Monorom with me. Despite what everyone had told me in Balung, this stretch is absolute crap. Or maybe it felt like crap because it was nighttime (and my main headlight was out, luckily I have massive LEDs) and was tired from driving all day. I had to follow him closely because if I was too far, the dust would be high and visibility crap. I ha to be close enough so the dust didn't have time to rise too much but obviously we'd both be covered in dust by day's end. We tried driving alongside each other but it didn't allow enough freedom of movement to evade the ruts/potholes and I always had a tendency to go faster than him so since I was the one with safety glasses and scarf, I followed. But honestly, this road is crap. FULL of potholes and those perpendicular “speedbump” type ruts which are annoying even on a dirtbike. The last few km seem to take forever because it's all hills. Finally we made it to town around 8h00 or so. Took a long shower, finished my whiskey and headed to the only bar in town to meet a few of the local expats. Seem like a nice bunch.

    BTW, where does Icebear work in Banlung? There's only one expat bar/restaurant in town so I'm assuming he's there.

    Tenth leg: Sen Monorom to Phnom Penh
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    Left at 8am and boy oh boy, this is a nice road. Brand spanking new, twists and turns in the montains, nice views and best of all I was all alone (maybe because it was a Monday?). The pavement is gorgeous and this is a must for people like Khmerized with bikes made for nice pavement. I recommend doing it in the morning, nice a cool, beautiful views and a slight mist in the distance. Great way to cap my trip. I generally don't like driving on highways in Cambodia but this stretch is great.
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    Took me a bit under 6 hrs of actual driving to Phnom Penh (but 8 hrs in all with stops). Only gets bumpy in a few stretches but gets better again quickly. I though I should go to Kompong Cham but it's faster to avoid it altogether and go down south. Stopped by a 70-year old rubber plantation/factory with original buildings which was quite interesting. They let me snap as many videos and pics as I wanted of the rubber-making process. Was pretty cool.
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    Once I crossed the bride north of PP, the road became total shit. Huge traffic as well. I really needed to escape PP and now it was back to reality and the frustrations of traffic and SUVs I guess.

    Oh, and here's a pic of my homemade glasses (lost the frame so had to use a bit of barang resourcefulness). Did it with 3 different coloured lenses (though I never wore the dark tinted ones) and worked beautifully:
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  3. Changnoi1

    Changnoi1 Ol'Timer

    Nice photos .... looks like I recognise some of the trip we just made (Thailand/Laos/Cambodia/Thailand) but with a big Versys so we had not much time to enjoy the view along the Mekong between Kratie and Kampong Cham. And indeed going south to PP was an good idea as we took the other road and that was one big construction & traffic mess.

    Chang Noi
     
  4. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Stupendous trip report. Many thanks for the contribution.
     
  5. Renzobkk

    Renzobkk Ol'Timer

    No words....outstanding.
    We plan a cambodia trip but definitely something less hard. If you dont mind i will contact you in private when times come.
    Bravo!!
     
  6. MartinJR

    MartinJR Member

    Nice write up mate! I did the Rattanakiri-Mondulkiri road in 2009 on a Honda Dream with the Mrs on the back and you're right - it's a lot better than many guidebooks and write-ups would suggest. I want to build the Siem Pang ride into my next trip, it looks great.
     
  7. Element_6

    Element_6 Member

    I am planning a similar trip for when my uncle comes to visit - do you have a more detailed route such as the GPS track or google maps trail that you could share?
     
  8. LexusSchmexus

    LexusSchmexus New Member

    Sorry element. I don't really have GPS tracks for this one. I do for some rides but generally just keep them for general distance references as I just use my phone as a GPS tracker.
     
  9. Element_6

    Element_6 Member

    HI Lexus

    No problem, thought it was worth a try

    For what it is worth I laid some trails using the Garmin Map from Aruna technology ($75) and basecamp. I pretty much followed the route that you took and ended up on some very small roads but eventually made it to a small wooden bridge to take me across the last tributory to the main river prior to getting to the main crossing to Kampong Chan. I was a little doubtful at first as I couldnt see the bridge on google maps or google earth, but sure enough it was there.

    I have used the same map in the Cardamoms and it was pretty accurate (although the logging trail had changed part way through). As a resource for people riding in Cambodia I think it is really good.

    You cant load the map in to your pc but if you connect your GPS (I have a montanna) to your PC and run base camp you can use the aruna map to lay trails or even give a route. The only issue I had was that it put so many points on the route that it didnt load the complete route in to the GPS. Luckily i had also saved it as a track so I switched to that and it worked great.
     
  10. FrankT

    FrankT Ol'Timer

    Just read the excellent above report from LS but since it is from 2012 I was wondering whether anybody knows what the condition of the road is now i.e. 3 years later?

    Pleased to hear.

    Thanks
     

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