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Khmer New Year in Cambodia

Updated on May 9, 2017

Bon Chaul Chhnam Thmei in Cambodia

Have you ever celebrated new year in April? Cambodia's Khmer celebrate New Year not on January 1 as in the western world or on assorted dates in February as do the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Bananas, the 2017 Khmer New Year Angel's Favourite
Bananas, the 2017 Khmer New Year Angel's Favourite | Source

Khmer New Year 2017

With their families, the Khmer gather together at their altar to welcome the Khmer New Year Angel. This year, 2017, the New year Angel will come on Wednesday, 14 April at 3:50 a.m. (Cambodia time). Days before, everyone is outfitted, the house is buffed at every corner and food is prepared most especially the favourite of the year's new year angel. The 2017 Angel is Kemerea Tevi, the sixth daughter of Kabil Moha Prum. With a sword in her right hand and a zither on her left, she rides her favourite water buffalo and Khmer families welcome her with her favourite food, bananas.

The New Year Angel is received with their favourite food and drink as specified in the Buddhist published instructions for the year's celebration. Then, the families go to the Wat or Temple and there, celebrate together with the community in dances, games and songs.

For visitors, this is a great chance to come to Cambodia and catch local folks in the act of being themselves!

Baysei in Wat Lanka

Baysei in Wat Lanka
Baysei in Wat Lanka | Source

Preparing for Khmer New Year

I was really lucky to have been in Cambodia for Khmer New Year. Weeks before the celebration, I can't help but feel the excitement in the air. The Khmer get busy cleaning the house and preparing the offering to the New Year Angel. Those who are in Phnom Penh plan their trips home to be with the family.

Buddhist Khmer families prepare a table where they put candles, incense, bottles of perfume, pop rice, a pair of 5 Baysei prumbountnak (a ceremonial ornament made from banana trunk with 9 layers), a pair of Baysei prumpitnak (7 layers) and prumtnak (five layers), cigarettes, flowers and fruits to offer to the New Year Angel who will be visiting. Nowadays, these Baysei are already manufactured.

Then, when the time designated for the arrival of the New Year Angel comes, the family gathers around these offerings to pray for happiness, health and prosperity for the new year.

Cambodians Get Busy to Satisfy the Khmer New Year Angel

Preparing for Khmer New Year
Preparing for Khmer New Year | Source

Khmer celebrate with their families in their home province

Everyone is excited as the women get the decorations and the food mandated in the Moha Songkran, the Buddhist guide book for Khmer New Year. The Khmer New Year Angel must have the things she likes.

Days before the celebration, the Khmer exodus starts.This exodus from Phnom Penh continues until the day before the new year celebration. They all go bringing gifts to their home province to celebrate the new year with their families.

Some people from Phnom Penh close their shops early or leave work early to go to the provinces. Sometimes, they close down for a week. The Phnom Penh police are getting ready for this exodus as they will have to help ease traffic jams and stop burglaries as Phnom Penh families leave their homes empty.

Khmer Temple
Khmer Temple | Source

Let's hear from those who have been to Khmer New Year

Were you in Cambodia for Khmer New Year?

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Khmer New Year: A Three Day Celebration

This New Year celebration is for 3 days, three considered by the Khmer to be an auspicious number. For this year, 2016, the celebration start from 13 April - 15 April.

Each day has a distinct name to express the ritual being followed: the first day being Maha Songkran, the second day, Virak Wanabat and the third, Thngay Leang Saka. Each one takes energy and family team activity, like ramping up to Christmas.

Days before the Chaul Chnam Thmey, Cambodian Khmer get busy. They clean the house, every corner of it. The angel may check! They prepare special food and buy new clothes. Even the husband gets a polishing and grandma a decent dusting at least. Everything has to be spic and span for the visit of the New Year Angel and with the kids, you've got it, she knows who has been naughty or nice.

Khmer New Year Blessing

Monks Blessing
Monks Blessing | Source

Moha Songkran: First Day of Khmer New Year

Moha Songkran, the first day of the Khmer New Year celebration, marks the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. People wake up early, primp up in their new finery, light candles and burn incense sticks in the house shrines to the family spirits. The special table is ready to welcome the new angel with fresh fruits, flowers and all the other things required. Members of each family do the needful and offer thanks to Buddha. As the small prayer houses are often by the front steps of the houses or the entrance to the small businesses, you can see whole families bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before Buddha's image.

Then, they go to the temple to get the monks blessings for the new year. The temples organize games and songs and dances which all pass on the Khmer New Year tradition to the succeeding generation. On the temple grounds, Khmer also build sand hills with five religious flags, one on top and the others around it. These 5 flags represent the five disciples of Buddha. Recent years brought with it practices like putting powder and splashing water which have now been incorporated in the Khmer New Year celebration.

For good luck, the Khmer also wash their face with holy water in the morning, their bodies at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed. The rituals are observed by most Cambodians, not just the village folk and missing the moment is like stepping on superman's cape. The angel is secretly watching!

Angels Exchange Ceremony

New Year Angels Exchange Ceremony - Pithy Pter Domnaegn

This video shows the exchange ceremony between the new angel and the old one. The new angel brings back the head of the king-god from the sky where it stays the whole year. She presents this head to the old angel. The old angel then asks the new angel how the journey was and proceeds to tell her all the problems she has to take care of. Then, the old angel brings back to the sky the head of the king-god leaving the new angel to spread blessings to the Khmer families who welcome her to their homes.

Go to the Temple for Khmer New Year

The first Khmer New Year of our stay in Cambodia, we took advantage of the holiday and flew to Myanmar. Little did we know how meaningful this celebration was. Luckily, when we got back, our driver insisted we see a bit of this celebration so he drove us straight to Wat Phnom, one of the oldest wats (temples) in Phnom Penh.

Going to the temple is the most satisfying way to enjoy Khmer New Year. We enjoyed with the Khmer their traditional games, dances and all kinds of plays. Of course, we got some of the powder but because we're older, the young kids asked first before putting some on our face. Be prepared as well for some watersplashed or poured over you. This is more a Thai practice, though. It was quite an experience to be part of the Khmer New Year fun.

If you are not in Cambodia, Khmer communities in other parts of the world celebrate new year there. Go and greet them.

The Khmer New Display in Phnom Penh

Khmer New Year 2016 Display
Khmer New Year 2016 Display | Source

The Arrival of the Khmer New Year Angel

The 2017 Khmer New Year Angel, Kemerea Tevi, the 6th daughter of Kabil Moha Prum. She comes riding the buffalo arriving at 3:50 a.m. and her favourite food is banana. Rise early to welcome her.

The 2016 Khmer New Year was the fourth daughter of Kabil Moha Prum, Mondeay Tevi. She is riding the donkey and will be arriving at 8 p.m. at night. Her favourite food is fresh milk so add this to your offering of food, fruits and flowers.

This 2015, the Khmer New Year Angel is the third daughter of Kabil Moha Prum, Reakyasa Tevi, the Tuesday Angel. She will arrive at 2:20 p.m. on the 14th of April so get yourself ready.

In 2014, the Khmer New Year Angel was the second daughter of Kabil Moha Prum, Koreki Tevy. Arrived at around 8:07 a.m.on a tiger, this 2014 Angel had a sword in her right hand and a cane on the left. Her favorite food is cooking oil.

The 2013 year's angel was Tungsa Tevi, the eldest daughter of Kabil Moha Prum and the Sunday angel. The book, Moha Songkran stated the offerings and the time when the angel arrived on April 14. Adorned with a ruby necklace and a pomegranate flower pinned on her hair, she came led by the snake, 2013 being the year of the snake. Fig fruit happened to be her favourite so every family had this on their altar.

This coming of the angel is usually announced by drums and gongs in the temples. At home, the Khmer watch the television to wait for the signal that the angel has come. It's the same guys that do the Santa radar watch. At the airing of the signal, the family gathers around the table prepared specially for this occasion and pray to the angel to give them the blessing.

The Royal Palace Display Khmer New Year 201t6

Royal Palace Ready for Khmer New Year 2016
Royal Palace Ready for Khmer New Year 2016 | Source

The Offering to the New Year Angel

The Khmer believe that the families that prepare well to welcome the New Year Angel, will get what they pray for. In fact, astrologers are employed to determine what the angels love. Moha Songkran guide book outlines what the new year angel wants and this is published weeks before the start of the Khmer New Year so people can prepare well.

For 2015, The New Year Angel's favourites include Watermelon, Ripe Mango, Orange, Grape, Longan, Burmese Grape, Dragon Fruit, Sapodilla and the usual staples of Banana and Coconut. Don't forget flowers, incense and candles.

In 2014, the Angel's favourite was cooking oil. In 2013, the New Year Angel offering includes 5 incense sticks and 5 candles, a pair of decorated banana tree, 3 kinds of fruits, each type prepared on two trays, jasmine flower garlands placed on each offering and the 2013 angel's favourite, the fig fruit.

Get ready now to let the Khmer New Year Angel find you worthy.

The 7 Khmer New Year Angels

There are seven Khmer new year angels, each one representing the day of the week:

  1. First Angel: Tungsa Tevi. The Sunday Angel who comes riding a bird of fire, the Phoenix.
  2. Second Angel: Korike Tevi. The Monday Angel who comes riding a Tiger.
  3. Third Angel: Reakyasa Tevi. The Tuesday Angel who comes riding an Atsara.
  4. Fourth Angel: Mondea Tevi. The Wednesday Angel who comes riding a donkey.
  5. Fifth Angel: Kariney Tevi. The Thursday Angel who comes riding and elephant. This is the 2011 angel as the first day of Khmer New Year this year is Thursday.
  6. Sixth Angel: Kemerea Tevi. The Friday Angel who comes riding a buffalo.
  7. Seventh Angel: Mohouterea Tevi. The Saturday Angel who comes riding a peacock.

Khmer traditional songs explain the history and meaning of the Khmer New Year Celebration

Khmer celebrate the first day of Khmer New Year by going to the temple grounds and singing their traditional songs. These songs explain the meaning of Khmer New Year and its history, passing on the tradition to everyone participating.

These videos show Khmer singing these traditional songs and remembering once again why they celebrate Khmer New Year.

Khmer New Year Day 2: Wanabot

Day 2 of Cambodian Khmer New Year is meant for sharing and giving of alms. Khmer families reach out to the less fortunate, help the poor, give to house-hold helpers, homeless people, and low-income families and prostrate foreigners (okokok...just kidding to see if you're paying attention!)

In some families, they also offer gifts to other members and relatives. Given that almost all of them living and working in the city go home to their home village, they do bring all kinds of gifts for their relatives there.

They again go to the Wats (Pagodas) to attend dedication ceremonies for their ancestors and show both respect and veneration and make sure the Angel sees them. More games and dancing.

Wat Lanka Ready for 2016 Khmer New Year

Wat Lanka Decorated for Khmer New Year
Wat Lanka Decorated for Khmer New Year | Source

Temple Activities for Khmer New Year

New Year is a time to party in almost every culture, out with the old and in with the new! Well, for the Khmer, the fun is there. But so too are "the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods." Be in Cambodia in April for an experience you will never forget! It is a great memory of what all families used to be. When you come, go to the wats or pagodas as the action for Khmer New Year takes place there. Some wats organize activities for people to join in and feel the community spirit at the same time pass on their long held traditions.

One tradition adhered to for New Year is for the Khmer to go to the local or family Wat and on the grounds, mound up a big pointed stupa of sand. This represents the sakyamuni satya, the stupa at Tavatimsa, where Buddha's hair are known to be buried. This big stupa is surrounded by four smaller ones representing the stupas of Buddha's favourite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa.

The whole village can get involved in this and it is a real team builder in a culture where folks really do depend on their neighbors when times get tough. Some temples are really good at organizing activities during the Khmer New Year to make people gather in the pagoda and create a community spirit among them. It seems that for the younger Khmer this is a good place to meet future partners.

New Year is a time to party in almost every culture, out with the old and in with the new! Well, for the Khmer, the fun is there. But so too are "the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods." Be in Cambodia in April for an experience you will never forget! It is a great memory of what all families used to be. When you come, go to the wats or pagodas as the action for Khmer New Year takes place there. Some wats organize activities for people to join in and feel the community spirit at the same time pass on their long held traditions.

Khmer New Year Traditional Dance - Robam Trop

Khmer gather at the temple and there they dance their traditional dance. Everyone participates in the dance ad have fun.

Third Day of the Khmer New Year - Tngay Leang Saka

Cleaning of the Stupa
Cleaning of the Stupa

Khmer New Year Day 3: Leung Sakk

The ceremony for the third day is called Pithi Srang Preah, the honouring and special cleansing of the Buddha statues. This is the Khmer appreciation for water as the symbol of life, needed by all living things and not always a sure thing. In small towns, the fire engines come out and give some of the stupas a real hose down with the occasional random blast at the teenagers. We witnessed this one year when we went to the province of Kratie. This picture shows the fire department of Kratie washing one of the oldest temples in Cambodia.

This bathing of the Buddha, the monks and their elders (Pithi Srang Preah) with perfumed water is the Khmer ritual of honoring these people. In most families, the Khmer wash their elders feet as they ask for pardon for all their shortcomings in the past year. Such action, the Khmer believe will bring them longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By doing this, the Khmer want to acknowledge that their grandparents and parents are the fountain of best wishes and good advice and also that life is a continuity with generation following generation in a great endless loop.

Traditional Khmer Food for New Year

Source

Khmer New Year Traditional Food

Many people in Phnom Penh go to their home province so you see taxis and buses full to the hilt as people try to be with their families. Days before the Khmer New Year, many also go and clean up the family stupa or burial places of their ancestors. The first week of April seems to be busy for this activity.

Those who are from Phnom Penh go to the oldest temple, Wat Phnom and around there, you will see them pouring powder on anyone as part of the revelry. Water is also splashed about mostly in the streets so be prepared to get wet as the younger folks have some fun. But do get out on the streets. It is a blast.

The Khmer also prepare special New Year dishes. Try their cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked. Or try the kalan made from sticky rice, beans and coconut milk cooked inside a bamboo cone.

Source

Kalan: Rice Cooked Inside Bamboo

Try this out. It's made of sticky rice with beans cooked in the bamboo tube. It is very delicious.

Khmer New Year Traditional Games

Traditional Khmer New Year Game
Traditional Khmer New Year Game | Source

Some of the Traditional Khmer New Year Games

Khmer New Year celebration is not complete without these traditional games. Khmer go to the temple and right in the grounds of the temple, they play these traditional games, dance traditional dances and sing traditional songs. Here are some of the games the Khmer traditionally play:

Chol Chhoung

A game played especially on the first evening of the Khmer New Year. Two groups of 10 or 20 stand in rows opposite each other. One group throws the "chhoung" to the other group. When it is caught, it will be immediately thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the "chhoung," the whole group must dance to get the "chhoung" back while the other group sings. A few beers and it becomes a bit spirited.

Chab Kon Kleng

This game imitates a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the eve of the first day of New Year. Participants appoint a person with a strong build to play the hen leading many chicks. Another person is picked to be the crow. While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen. If the hen turns chicken, the black bird gets to crow...hahahaha (sorry). The traditional dancing that goes with this game as well as the antics of the players are so fascinating to those who have not seen this before especially when they play this in their traditional costumes in front of the temple.

Bos Angkunh

Angkunh is an inedible fruit seed which looks like the knee bone. Each of the two groups playing this game has its master angkuhn on the ground in front of them. With their own angkunh, each group tries to hit the master angkunh of the other group. Whichever group wins, it gets the chance to knock the knee of the losers with the angkunh. I've never seen this one but it sounds like a good aim is needed or it won't be just the knee that gets thumped.

Tres

This is played by throwing and catching a ball with one hand while trying to catch an increasing number of sticks with the other hand. Use chopsticks or pens. I tried it. What a mess. But people had so much fun watching.

Leak Kanseng

A game played by a group of children sitting in circle. Someone holding a "kanseng" (Cambodian towel) twisted into a round shape walks around the circle while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the "kanseng" behind one of the children. If that chosen child realizes what is happening, he or she must pick up the "kanseng" and beat the person sitting next to him or her (with the cloth).

Bay Khon

Ten holes are dug in the shape of an oval into a board in the ground. The game is played with 42 small beads, stones or fruit seeds. At the start, five beads are put into each of the two holes located at the tip of the board. Four beads are placed in each of the remaining eight holes. The first player takes all the beads from any hole and drops them one by one in the other holes. He or she must repeat this process until they have dropped the last bead into a hole lying beside an empty one. Then they must take all the beads in the hole that follows the empty one. At this point, the second player begins to play. The game ends when all the holes are empty. The player with the greatest number of beads wins the game. It is so complicated and pointless it could become an Olympic sport!

Klah Klok

This is a gambling game with a mat and dice. The players put money on the object on the mat. Then, the dice is rolled. If you put money on the object that faces up on the dice, you double your money. If there are two of yours you triple, and so on until the Mississippi Queen sinks.

Blessing for Khmer New Year - Monks are invited to homes and offices to pray for blessing

You can see the monks praying for Khmer New Year blessing. This is very important for the Khmer during the first day of the Khmer lunar year.

Join the Khmer New Year Celebration

The new year celebration engages every Khmer in Cambodia. Preparations are discussed in the family. Everyone is expected to be home to welcome the new year angel and go with the family to the temple. Home for many Khmer in Cambodia is in the villages so Phnom Penh is empty during the celebration. It is dead quiet. However, the roads that lead to the provinces are often jampacked and road accidents are at its highest during this time.

The holiday lasts for, at least, a week so don't plan any business here the month of the celebration. Some businessmen or consultants could be here for a month sometimes and not accomplish anything. But for tourists, this is an experience to treasure.

Source

Khmer New Year Celebration in Other Countries

Even if they are far from home, Khmer still celebrate their traditional new year festival. As in Cambodia, they troop to the temple.




History of the Khmer New Year

The Legend of Dhomabal Khumar

You will have noticed in the picture of the New Year Angel that she comes carrying a jeung bian (golden tray) with the king of the gods' head. The story goes that once there was a very smart boy called Dhomabal Khumar, born to a very wealthy family. Dhomabal was exceptional in that he spoke four languages including the language of the birds and read at 7 years of age the ancient texts and canonical scriptures that monks study.

He was clever but he was more than that. He was very kind so the village people loved him. Because he loves to speak to the birds, his father built him a beautiful temple close to the river where the birds lived. There Dhomabal would speak to the birds. But then, the king of the gods, KabilMohaProm, became jealous of Dhomabal and issued a challenge. He told Dhomabal that if he could not answer the questions he posed to him, he would cut his head off. But, if he could answer it, KabilMohaProm will cut off his own head. The questions:Where do you find happiness in the morning? in the Noontime? And, in the evening?

As Dhomabal did not know the answer, he run away to the forest. Fearing for his life, he slumped into a tree where two eagles were perched in a conversation. Dhomabal heard them talking about the question on happiness to which they gave the answer. So Dhomabal learned the answers: in the morning, you find happiness in your face; midday, you find it in your body, and at night, your feet. Dhomabal went to the king of the gods and gave him the answer. Because it was correct, the king of the gods had his own head cut off.

The King of the gods then told his eldest daughter to put his head in a jeung pian and carrying this golden tray circle around the Sumeru mountain for 60 minutes and then bring his head to the Khimalay temple in heaven. His head cannot be thrown to the ground as this will cause fire, to the the sky as this will cause drought or to the ocean as this will dry up so the seven daughters have to take turns carrying the head. From then on, as the king of the gods cannot anymore bless his people at the start of the new year, he would send his seven daughters as his angels to bless the Khmer people. So, for the Khmer, to get the blessing for the new year, they follow the ritual of washing their face in the morning, their body in midday and their feet in the evening and they wait for the angel to come and bless them.

National Geographic Traveler: Cambodia
National Geographic Traveler: Cambodia

Before your trip to Cambodia, identify and choose the things you want to do and the places to visit. Better still, time your trip to celebrate Khmer New Year. It will be an experience you will appreciate.

Here's a guide that will give you the best recommendations for your trip.

 

Have you been to Cambodia?

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Immerse yourself in Cambodian history before you go

It is amazing how the Khmer in spite of their gripping experience during the Pol Pot regime are still able to celebrate and adhere to their traditional rituals. To have a good understanding of the Cambodian experience during this time, read and understand it from this Cambodian's story as she and her family as well as other people in Phnom Penh were marched out of the city by the Khmer Rouge to be re-educated in the countryside.

What do you think of Khmer New Year? - Maybe a Khmer New Year Greeting for the Cambodians

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    • aesta1 profile image
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      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      You must be busy preparing for Chinese New Year now. Eat sweet cookies for me. Happy Chinese New Year.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      khmer new year is a little different from chinese, we play fire crackers and fireworks, eat sweet cookies and gamble a lot, really a lot

    • tazzytamar profile image

      Anna 3 years ago from chichester

      Wow i would so love to visit Cambodia after reading all this fascinating information! There are some amazing traditions in this rich culture and I adore the idea of cooking in banana leaves, it's such a clever idea!

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

      June Parker 3 years ago from New York

      Hi Mary - Sorry it has been so long since my last visit. I must say that I am never disappointed when I do visit. I am always intrigued with the fabulous journalism and I feel as though I am allowed to travel along with you and experience your experiences when I do visit one of your lenses. Fabulous as always and am pinning to my "Wanderlust Dreams" board.

      BTW please know that I would never send any of those "weird" Twitter emails to you. I just got a couple of new ones, blocked, deleted, etc. Now at least we are aware enough to know how to do this.

      Always your friend across the universe.....

    • Craftymarie profile image

      Marie 3 years ago

      The Khmer New Year looks so very beautiful.

    • profile image

      Bartukas 4 years ago

      Great lens about new year loads of info here thanks

    • chocochipchip profile image

      chocochipchip 4 years ago

      Cambodia is a great country

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      It is too bad that I missed Khmer New Year this year ... I really should read your lens sooner. But I bookmarked it for the next year - it will be fun to celebrate new year in April:). Thank you for sharing.

    • Fridayonmymind LM profile image

      Fridayonmymind LM 4 years ago

      I would love to visit one day and in the meantime your lens gave me lots to absorb.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      This is a wonderful lens. This is a celebration I would like to see. You have some wonderful videos and lots of information.

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 4 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      Stunning lens! I feel like I've been there ..... almost! Blessing this lens!

    • JumpinJake profile image

      JumpinJake 4 years ago

      schools should use this lens for educational purposes when learning about Cambodia!

    • profile image

      fifinn 4 years ago

      I've never been to Cambodia.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      A beautiful and interesting lens. The architecture is absolutely stunning.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      sounds like there's some overlap with Thai culture?

    • profile image

      john9229 4 years ago

      Is very nice place. I do have a plan to go Cambodia with my colleague.

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      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      Reading this article is like being there for the celebration. Wonderful pictures - they add so much!

    • jayavi profile image

      jayavi 4 years ago

      Lots of information. very interesting, thanks for sharing.

    • aesta1 profile image
      Author

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @LiteraryMind: I enjoy the food as I like rice.

    • aesta1 profile image
      Author

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @lesliesinclair: Thank you so much. I learned from the Khmer myself.

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