KL-Houay Xai-Vientiane-Ko Samui-KL

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by locoduc, Nov 26, 2012.

  1. locoduc

    locoduc Member

    It's been 3 years since I promised myself that I'd make the trek into Laos and the Plain of Jars and I've finally done it now! But if not for the week's harrowing stay in a Bangkok hospital in January this year, I may have continued to procrastinate and dream. I guess when you're given a second chance (or third and fourth) at life, your priorities change and mine's back on course - and on the road.

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    The long trek up the Kra and towards Laos started on October 22nd and ended on November 15th. After many kms and much needed rest, I finally get to write this trip report and hope that it may be of help to those wishing to cross over into Laos across the Mekong by ferry for the last time (before the Friendship Bridge is up next year at Chiang Khong).

    DAY 1 - KL to Hat Yai:
    My beloved Zumo 550 had given up the ghost after 5 years of excellent service and I got this new Zumo 350 for the trip. Verdict? Wait for the 2nd generation - a non-biker designed the software alright .....

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    Hat Yai remains a favourite stop of Malaysian and Singaporean bikers riding further north as its about 500 kms from the Malaysian capital, a long and somewhat monotonous ride along the North-South highway. My favourite hotel, as it is with most other Malaysian bikers, is the Grand Plaza. It used to be the case that if you turned up at reception with your helmet on that you'd get a special discounted rate of Baht 690 but no more. The rate's gone up and helmet or otherwise, you get the same stuffy room at less value now!

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    I like Hat Yai - it's laid-back, cheap-ish and there's plenty of good food:

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    DAY 2 - Hat Yai to Chumphon
    There's no escaping the monsoon at this time of the year along the Kra. And there is no worse feeling than that creeping coldness making its way into your pants and boots. You can of course stop by at any one of the numerous stalls or restaurants along the way and err .... have an Ice-Tea or Char Nom Yen(?):

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    For Malaysian bikers, the price of fuel in Thailand is almost twice that in Malaysia. And it's Gasohol 95. But I were to discover later that Shell now has full RON95, labelled as V-Power!!

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    Chumphon is not one of my favourite towns along the Kra but its a convenient half-way point before you reach Bangkok. There is a night market but other than that its pretty quiet. But this time around I did some homework and found this really nice hotel to stay at for a change - Hotel Nanaburi. Good reviews on the Web.

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    DAY 3: Chumphon to Hua Hin:
    The rain is persistent and unrelenting and the decision is made to stop at Hua Hin for the night. Maybe the beach will bring out the sun and a chance to dry out. I'm getting a bit tired of peering out of my helmet through the spray and muck thrown up by the increasing number of lorries heading for Bangkok. The condition of the road is also deteriorating and there are lot more potholes to be avoided making it really tiring and hazardous. I don't remember the road being in this bad a condition but I'm guessing that the rains are to blame for this.

    Aree's House was the chosen abode for the night and it turned out to be an excellent choice.

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    After a long day's ride, it's nice to leave the bike and walk around a bit. This hotel is very near the seafood restaurants along the pier, night markets and action but yet a street away from the noise. And unlike most cheap hotels in Thailand, there's breakfast!

    DAY 4 - Hua Hin to Nakhon Sawan
    The rain is threatening to come down again but I'm told that magically, it will stop once north of Bangkok. Well it'd better as my boots are beginning to stink and the plastic rain-gear is suffocating. There is always this perennial question with rain-gear: to leave on or not to leave on? Maybe tis better to suffer the sweat and stink of impermeability than to shiver and shrivel in the dampness of a vented vest .....

    The journey north is carefully planned to skirt around Bangkok but all the same traffic starts to build as I ride along the outskirts of the capital. As prophesied, the sun appears and does so with a vengeance. How I now wish for the soothing rain! Can't win can you.

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    Eventually, the GPS takes me towards Nakhon Sawan and to the curiously named Bonito Chinos Hotel. Another great find and one of the best dining experiences (rooftop restaurant, no less) I've had in Thailand.

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    DAY 5 - Nakhon Sawan to Chiang Mai
    Just two stops away from the border now and spirits are lifting. It's been a hard and sometime dull ride to date and the persistent rain has not helped. But it's Chiang Mai today and a planned 2-day stop before tackling Laos should do wonders.

    On the way out of Nakhon Sawan, I discover Shell and V-Power - hooray!!! The recommended fuel rating for the Ducati Multistrada is RON97, so this was a fantastic discovery, albeit at RON95. Better than nothing.

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    This kitty was in the shop at the petrol station - not for sale, though.

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    The road to Chiang Mai is a bit patchy in places but if you keep to the bike lane you may get some consistent smooth pavement. That is if the lorries are not there first!

    I stayed at this hotel (Nice Mum Lodge) in Chiang Mai, found by chance as I was trying to navigate with the "intelligent' Zumo. Plenty of parking space and clean simple rooms for decent money (and apparently quite popular with bikers):

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    And this time, it's off to the Rider's Corner for a copy of the GT Rider Laos map (which turned out to be an outdated edition; bought a current one in Vientiane):

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    It was like the Gods were looking down from above:

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    DAY 7 - Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
    I decided to head for Chiang Khong for a night's stay and to reccy the place a bit before tackling the crossing the following day. The GPS set a route I hadn't been on before but it was well worth it (road #116). Brilliant windy roads and by chance, I came across this beautiful restaurant for brunch:

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    Can't recall the name of the place but its worth looking for it. And after a pleasant ride, it's Chiang Khong and just beyond, the country I had ridden so far to see:

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    DAY 8 - Chiang Khong to Luang Namtha
    Stayed at the Green Inn - cheap, clean and convenient and along the main strip. Can't miss it, its next to the 7-11, the only one in town.

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    The relevant points of interest are all nearby. I had posted the GPS numbers elsewhere on this site earlier.

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    The ferry ticket office is on the right hand side of the ferry crossing:

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    The local chicks loved the Duc:

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    Getting on the ferry was ... tricky. I had to have 4 guys push the Duc through the mud and from tipping over!

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    Row, row, row your boat:

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    And on the other side:

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    The Duc has landed. And then the administrative stuff begins. Must have taken at least 2 hours to sort out all the paperwork - mainly due to the wait for the insurance person from AGL to turn up - who never did:

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    Gave up waiting after an hour by the pier and headed into town, chanting in my head, "right, right, right" - that I had to be on the right side of the road in Laos. After inquiring at several shops, finally found one that would issue insurance for the bike - Laos-Thai Insurance - I think.

    As I was taking a breather, a grizzly chap stops and commends the bike and says that he had not seen nor expected to see a Ducati here. Turns out that Neil and his partner Clarissa have been biking in South East Asia having flown their bikes from Down Under. Here's their blog: http://whatwouldulike2do.blogspot.com/

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    It's always nice to meet other travellers on the road, especially if they're bikers. Always a story or another to tell. After about an hour's worth of chat and ice-tea, I decided that I'd better move on or risk being on the road at night in unfamiliar territory. But I needn't have worried, the road was in fine condition - the only road in Laos in that state - and the ride into Luang Namtha was easy.

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    Had a quick stop along the way but was not too sure about what was on the barby though:

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    After a wonderful ride through the mountains and some fine weather, Luang Namtha appeared just before sunset. As recommended, this was the hotel for the night:

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    One thing I did find a bit strange was coming down to the lobby at about 11pm only to find it pitch black. And the main doors appeared locked. I guess there is a curfew in certain towns in Laos ....

    DAY 9 - Luang Namtha to Nong Kiau
    I wake up to a cold morning. There's mist and it must be about 25c or less:

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    The hotel does not do breakfast but the restaurant next door does. It's called the Forest Retreat's Bamboo Lounge and they do seriously big hearty breakfasts:

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    It's run by a young couple from New Zealand, Karen and Andre, and they apparently do wood-fired pizzas too. Whilst there I got chatting to a couple and turns out that they are parents of Karen. The father happens to be one of the biggest collector of antique motorcycles in New Zealand and knew Burt Munro of the World's Fastest Indian fame:

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    I also got chatting to one of the hotel's staff. Interesting chap and speaks English quite fluently. Especially when it comes to politics and the state of world affairs! He aspires to be a politician or government official. And he insisted on not smiling for the photo ... more officious I guess ...

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    DAY 10 - Luang Namtha to Nong Kiau
    The original destination of the day was Oudomxay. I had planned for no more than 150km or so a day to enable a slower and more enjoyable ride. As it turned out, the ride HAD to be slow on account of lorries bearing down on or coming towards you. They're mainly lorries from China and there are quite a few:

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    It was often the case that I'd be lulled by the scenery and waving kids that I'd fail to spot or hear the on-coming traffic. The traffic on these roads is sporadic. So you'll have the road to yourself for 20 minutes or so without anything else and then suddenly, an express coach has rounded the corner and headed straight towards you! The bus driver is probably as shocked to find you on the road as you are! So honk, and keep on ... bugling?

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    I bump into one of the lorry drivers at a restaurant and though we may have cursed at each other on the road earlier, all was cordial and peaceful now:

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    Eventually, after quite a pleasant but dull ride, I get to Oudomxay. And then decide to move on:

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    Oudomxay is yet another single-strip Lao town and as it was only mid-day, I decided to head off for the very promising Nong Kiau instead. Not more than 10 minutes out of town and I come to a fork in the road and a sign that points to Luang Prabhang and this:

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    and then more of the same:

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    for the remaining 110km of sheer pain and hell!! (IMHO much worse than Poipet to Siem Reap pre-paved road). It took another 5 hours or so to get to Nong Kiau and it was sunset by the time I got in. Wasn't sure about the bike but I sure felt broken that day!

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    DAY 11 - Nong Kiau to Luang Prabhang
    Woke up the next day to this magnificent view:

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    And this, taken from the balcony of the hotel room:

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    Breakfast at the hotel (Nong Kiau Riverside) is nothing short of spectacular (the view, not the eggs):

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    After such a hard ride the day before I contemplated staying on for another night to rest and explore the area a bit. Unfortunately, this very popular hotel was booked up and the Duc had to be moved on again. Parking and entry to the hotel is not fantastic and hopefully they would have paved it up by now. Or sometime. The pic is not great but you get the idea ...

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    No matter what photo I look at to post, none do justice to the sheer splendour of the place. Here's my best selection:

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    Definitely in my books as the most picturesque and stunning place in Laos.

    After the trial of the previous day, I was quite worried about the day's ride. The Duc had seemingly passed the "enduro" test but I wasn't sure I did. It's so stressful and exhausting to have to focus so intensely for hours on end and perhaps I should have built more rest days into the ride. But time is always a premium and when you're this far down the road (excuse the pun), you've just got to push on. After all, to stop now would mean cutting another day out somewhere else and what a waste that would be.

    As it turned out, nothing matched the sheer challenge of the previous day's ride to Nong Kiau. It was back to "civilisation" with kids, pigs and wild express buses on the road again - normality if you like.

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    It wasn't always perfect though and you have to be prepared that the next corner will throw up more "potholes":

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    But as you near Luang Prabhang, the road and scenery gets better and better:

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    I reach the outskirts of LP in the late afternoon and I must confess to being slightly underwhelmed at this point. UNESCO World Heritage site? Looked to me like any other Laos town. But never judge a book by its cover and neither a town at first glance. As the GPS took me nearer toward the river, the charm and unique feel of LP began to show itself. I'll just let the photos do the talking:

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    I stayed at this nice colonial styled house in LP - Viengsavanh Hotel. For the price of USD30 a night, you get a bit of luxury.

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    As luck would have it and because of the booked-out hotel in Nong Kiau, I got into LP at just the right time. It was Lai Heur Fai Nam/Loy Krathong and LP was in full swing for it! There was a real sense of merriment and fun in the air - brilliant timing and bonus:

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    As the sun sets, the krathongs are paraded down the main street to be judged:

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    Even the Wat (Wat That Luang) is lit up:

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    There's a really nice laid-back feel to LP. Nothing's ever rushed, no one harried.
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    Oh and try the baguette and bakeries:

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    The Duc however, did not survive Luang Namtha to Nong Kiau after all. The forks and oil coolant hose were leaking and a quick check on this forum led me to this man - "Lea", to have the Duc seen to:

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    This is his mom. She was on a visit from the United States having moved over almost 25 years ago. She had quite a distinct American twang!
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    The garage used to be on ground level but has since been converted by Lea's daughter into a nice restaurant. The garage is now by the side and under the restaurant:

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    DAY 13 - Luang Prabhang to Phonsavan
    I was quite reluctant to leave LP. It was so nice just to chill out by the river and doing, well, nothing, really. The idea of getting on the bike brought memories of That Day and what of poor Duc? Will it spring a leak again? Or worse, break something? But life never stands till now does it and a journey is not one if you don't continue. With a heavy heart, I left LP in the early morning, creeping out through its sleepy streets and out toward the mountains again. Today, it shall be Phonsavan, the Plain of Jars and what I had waited to see for so long. I hoped that it would not disappoint.

    The mist and cold of morning wakes me up and as the Duc climbs the mountains, the road opens out to more beautiful and spectacular scenery. The pictures again don't do it justice:

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    Occasionally, you'll see cyclists, climbing up these mountains - give mine an engine any day, thank you:

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    and there is a lot of mountain to climb:

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    and lorries to fight:

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    But the road to Phonsavan is paved and in wonderful condition. All my fears evaporate and I relax into the ride. There was even time to hand out sweets to the children. But if you do choose to stop by a school to do so, expect the WHOLE school to come rushing down the hill for the sweets. Pictures of mobbing not available for obvious reasons:

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    Ok, the road to Phonsavan was not entirely paved:

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    Oh yes, fuel in Laos - its RON91. Live with it. And bring along some fuel additives. Don't know if it worked but the Duc felt fine, if a little hot.

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    How do you know if you are near the Plains? This gives you a clue:

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    It was an easy ride into Phonsavan and I arrived at about 3pm. Since there was enough daylight I made my way to Site 1, which is about 10km or less from town. Was I impressed? Was it worth all the planning? Let me say that you need to allow it to sink in. So sit around for a bit and let your imagination run wild a bit.

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    DAY 14 - Phonsavan to Vang Vieng
    I guess having seen the jars at Site 1, you've seen them all and a visit to the remaining main sites of 2 and 3 seemed unnecessary. So in the wee hours of the morning, I decided to not so silently ride the Duc out of town. But perhaps and in hindsight, I should have waited. At 6am, the thermometer showed 14C - that's right, standing still. What would it be on the move and wind-chill and all that on the road? Well I had prepared myself and brought along the inner lining to my jacket.

    What greeted me on the road was blinding mist and freezing rain. And on-coming traffic:

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    Tip: wait for the sun to rise. There's no point in freezing your gonads off.

    And when the sun shines, there are some great views of the karst mountains at this look-out point:

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    And you may also bump into people who go overland around the world in modified trucks at such places. This is the guy from Team Orix from Switzerland, who speaks no English but through a smattering of pidgin Spanish, German, Italian, we manage to understand each other. And recognise in the other, the spirit of adventure that we share:

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    But sadly, the road to Vang Vieng is not as glorious as the views:

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    Eventually you will arrive at Vang Vieng and be prepared for this:

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    But if you go further into town and along the river you will find more appealing and soothing views. And if you're lucky, a hotel that looks onto it:

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    The local kids know how to cool off and have fun around here. Let's do some spear-fishing!

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    And if you fancy, you could go up on a balloon for a view:
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    And if you're into tubing, binge-drinking and drugs then Vang Vieng is the place for you. I liked the place, it was beautiful and if I was 20 years younger, I may have appreciated it twice as much. But sadly and in all honesty, if I were to dive into the river, I'm more likely to be mistaken for one of those tubes and be set on my way down river ...

    DAY 16 - Vang Vieng to Vientiane
    The sojourn into Laos is almost over and today the capital city is to be the last destination in this beautiful country. The road to Vientiane is as reported pretty rough and heavy going:

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    The heavy-machinery was out to fix it and maybe by the time of this post, it'd be somewhat better:

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    The road improves considerably as you near Vientiane and you can get up to fairly reasonable speeds. Especially if you tail a run-away lorry with-a-mission:

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    It was less of arriving in Vientiane as much as being sucked into its chaos - jarring to the senses if you've just spent the last week in the serene mountains and countryside of the North:
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    Vientiane was all prim and proper for the ASEM meeting and security was tight:
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    But by the river and promenade, it was all nice and quiet other than the occasional blaring siren of some foreign VIP cavalcade:
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    Vientiane has been called the most relaxed capital in the world and I can now understand why:

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    There's even a restaurant named to that effect:

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    DAY 17 - Until the next time
    Today, I head for the Friendship Bridge and back into Thailand before heading south towards KL again. This will take another week and hopefully the rains would have stopped (it didn't) by now. But no trip to Vientiane is complete without going around the Patuxai, the Arc de Triomphe of the East before heading south. I shall miss this beautiful country and people.

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    The Friendship Bridge:

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  3. TonyBKK

    TonyBKK Ol'Timer

    Good stuff! Keep it coming! :happy1:
     

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