When hearing "Canals City" many people think of Venice or Amsterdam; both are enjoyable but somewhat lean when compared to the surprising canals below Bangkok’s skyscrapers.
by SeenThat on August 26, 2009
Now as in the far past, water canals are an important way to travel in Thailand. They have shaped modern Bangkok to an unbelievable extent and created a reality in which the traveler can never be sure of the ground’s nature. Is it a covered canal, a former river, or just reclaimed land? Let’s take a look.A Simple MazeThe best way to comprehend the modern layout of Bangkok is to keep in mind that the Grand Palace – the metropolis center - is surrounded by three semicircular and concentric canals beginning and ending at the Chao Phraya River. In addition, the second and third canals are connected by the Mahanak Canal (further east it is called Saen Saep). Other canals exist but are less important for the intrepid traveler, especially since parts of these have been covered to make room for the modern city.Why is understanding the layout important? Simply each one of these canals features several names, each for a different section; moreover, several parts of them have been covered. Thus, a mental picture of which canal is the traveler walking along, eases a tour of the city.Inner Canal: Lot and TalatThis canal follows closely the borders of the Grand Palace. Its northern side – connecting Sanam Luang and Wang Na with the Chao Phraya River below the Pinklao Bridge – has been covered, but east of Sanam Luang it can be enjoyed all the way to the Ratchini Express Boat Pier, in front of Wat Kanlayannamit and the Santa Cruz Church. Its southern end is known as Pak Khlong Talat - Bangkok’s Flower Market.Being in an area featuring many attractions, this canal has several names. Two names are of interest to the traveler. Next to Wat Ratchanaddaram - The Black Metal Pagoda – it is called Khlong Lot and from Wat Ratchabopit to the Chao Phraya River it is called Khlong Talat (the "market canal"). Don’t get confused when next to certain temples it is called as per the temple’s name, like Khlong Wat Mahannoppharam, and Khlong Wat Buranasiri. The Ring Canal: Banglamphu and Ong AngThe second concentric canal delimits the Banglamphu area to the north, crosses the junction between Ratchadamnoen Klang, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Lan Luang roads, then it turns southwards and is renamed Ong Ang Canal. From there it continues straight to the western end of Chinatown. South of it is partially covered, but eventually it reaches the Chao Phraya uncovered just east of the Memorial and the Phra Pok Klao bridges.Dug during the reign of King Rama I to expand space in the city, it is known also as Khlong Rop Krung, the Ring Canal. Khlong Phadung Krung KasemRoughly six kilometers long, Krung Kasem is the third concentric canal and marks the border of Bangkok's Old City. It was dug from 1851 in response to the rapid expansion of the city.Beginning near the Rama VIII Bridge, it passes south of Phitsanulok Road, delimiting Dusit on the south; then it turns south near the very important junction of Phitsanulok with Lan Luang and Petchaburi roads. From there it runs southwards in an almost straight line passing next to the Hualamphong Railway Station and then meets the Chao Phraya River next to the Si Phraya Cross River Ferry Pier, one block north of the Phraya Express Boat Pier. The last is the best access route to the area.RattanakosinRattanakosin Island is the very heart of Bangkok. But where exactly is it? As always, Thais enjoy creating a rich and complex reality. This artificial island is divided into three parts, and sometimes the use of the term is quite ambiguous.Let’s get things right. All the area within the third ring is called the Rattanakosin Island. The area within the first canal is called Inner Rattanakosin, the area between the first and the second canal is known as Middle Rattanakosin, while the area between the second and the third concentric canals is named Outer Rattanakosin. The whole area is also known as the Old City and contains many of Bangkok’s main attractions. Here is a partial list of attractions in each zone:Inner Rattanakosin: Grand Palace, Sanam Luang, Wat Pho, Ratchadamnoen Nai, the City Pillar and others.Middle Rattanakosin: Little India, Ratchadamnoen Klang, Giant Swing, Khaosan Road, Banglamphu Market, Memorial Bridge and others.Outer Rattanakosin: Chinatown, Golden Mount, Ratchadamnoen Nok and others.Saen SaepBeginning at the Ratchadamnoen Klang, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Lan Luang roads junction, the Mahanak Canal flows eastwards. After it crosses the Krung Kasem Road (and the junction with the canal of the same name) it becomes the Saen Saep Canal. Boat taxis traveling along the next eighteen kilometers of it provide one of the fastest ways to travel within modern Bangkok.Balancing BeautyOne of the reasons these canals are so attractive is that their presence and look are counterintuitive. I was expecting to see their full splendor next to main junctions or whenever they pass near a city landmark. However, in these places they disappear under new roads. The waterways are at their best in between other attractions. There, they are well kept, with beautiful gardens and lush trees surrounding them; graceful bridges combining Thai and European characteristics span them. As such the canals balance the distribution of beauty in the city.Surprising TruthFor details related to the true and surprising nature of the modern Chao Phraya River (at least the part along Rattanakosin Island), see the Bangkok Yai and Noi entries in this journal.
Standing Atop Khlong Bangkok NoiRecently, I was standing atop one of the bridges spanning the Bangkok Noi Canal. On one side I could see the Bangkok Railway Station, while on the other the canal run all the way to the Chao Phraya River, much of Bangkok Noi could be enjoyed from there.The river was out of sight. I took a few pictures and later I named one of them published in this website as "World Wide Canal." Even without being a professional on the topic, it was clear that Bangkok Noi was too wide to be a canal. It was very different from the canals described in the "Venice of the Orient" entry of this journal. I couldn’t imagine thousands (millions?) of people digging it.Yet, reality was even wilder.World Wild CanalHaving seen the section of the Chao Phraya River running along the Rattanakosin Island – where the Grand Palace is located – is essential for fully understanding the fact about to be mentioned here. It is very wide. The nearby Pinklao Bridge is 658 meters long (part of it is on the mainland). However, the mean width of the river’s lower estuary is 800 meters, meaning that in front of the Grand Palace the river is a bit narrower than expected. Why?Unbelievably, until the year 1522, what we know now as Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi canals were the Chao Phraya River. Then, King Chairachathirat of Ayutthaya commanded a forty meters wide canal to be cut along the modern mouths of these canals; the word "lud" (shortcut) was added to the name of the new section. After finished, the new and straighter canal was widened by the faster flowing waters and became wider than the original riverbed. The last narrowed into the actual Bangkok Yai and Noi canals. Once the new shortcut became the main river, it got a name of its own: Chao Phraya River.The modern river is the former canal. I still can’t imagine thousands (millions?) of people digging it. A World Wild Canal.Touring Khlong Bangkok NoiBangkok Noi features a few modern sites on its western end – a main highway and a large shopping mall - but it still houses many sites belonging to a remote past.The best way to explore the area is by boat. From Bangkok Noi there is a boat service to Bang Yai a district of Nonthaburi, the province just north of Bangkok. The service operates between 6:30 AM and 11 PM from the Tha Chang Pier (see the piers entry in this journal), the fare is 30 baht and the trip longs fifty minutes. A point to keep in mind is that the boats depart every half an hour until 11 AM and afterwards only when there are enough passengers. Here are listed the main attractions along the way, see the Bangkok’s Secrets journal for more details.Tha Chang is the closest pier to the Grand Palace on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya River, thus this trip enjoys good access from downtown Bangkok. Along the way are various attractions; some of them can be enjoyed from the boat, while others demand a detailed exploration and then waiting for the next boat. Once in Bangkok, the first attraction is the Royal Barge National Museum. Reaching the museum overland from Thonburi is quite difficult – the narrow road advances through an intricate labyrinth – thus this approach is recommended. It opens everyday between 9 AM and 5 PM; the entrance fee is 30 baht. The museum displays several barges used for various royal processions. Dating back to Ayutthaya times, each one is unique and has a name. After the museum, all the main attractions are of Buddhist nature. The first is Wat Suwarnaram, a royal monastery constructed during the reign of King Rama I. It contains what are considered to be the best mural paintings in Bangkok, depicting stories of the Buddha.Next is Wat Si Sudaram, or Wat Chi Pakhao, which is also older, dating back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Renovated by King Rama I, it houses the residence of Sunthon Phu (the greatest poet of the Rattanakosin period) and an interesting pavilion. Even older is Wat Chalo. Apparently it dates back to the Sukhothai Kingdom, as hinted by the shape of the Buddha images of the bot. Other temples can be enjoyed along the way.Temples are not everything along the way. Old communities – like Ban Bu – have survived to modern times. "Ban" in Thai means "village" or "house." "Bu" means "metal beating." The Metal Beating Village is an appropriate name for this old community within Bangkok Noi. Founded by exiles of the fallen Ayutthaya Kingdom (1767), the village has specialized since then in the production of stone-washed bronze bowls called "khan long hin." They are the only ones left in Thailand using the traditional methods, in which small pieces of stone are used for polishing the metal; the result is an opaque, uneven exterior with a shiny inner part. Nowadays, the only workshop left is called Jiam Sangsajja, and is located on Soi 32, Charansanitwong Road, not far from the Arun Amarin Road. It is open daily between 9 AM and 6 PM; entrance is free. Since the production process is complex and the result expensive, the items produced in such a way are mainly intended for decorative use.Other traditional industries in the neighborhood include shredded rice (at "Trok Khao Mao," "Alley of Shredded Rice"), casting of Buddha images at Ban Chang Lor and cotton-stuffed mattresses brought from the Ayutthaya’s Muslim community.The Thonburi Railway Station, this terminus was built in 1900 as the main gate to the southern parts of the country and Malaysia. This was the departure point to Kanchanaburi for the Japanese troops during the Second World War and the reason for Bangkok being bombed during that war. Eventually it was destroyed by an Allied bombing on March 1945. After the war it was rebuilt in 1950, and was in use until 2003, when a new terminus was built about a kilometer westwards. It is possible to visit the unused building, though a highway bridge east of there and over the Bangkok Noi Canal offers a much better view of the complex from above.Next to it is Wat Amarintraram. Dating back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, this temple is popularly known as "Luang Por Bot Noi," literally the "Priest of the Small Ordination Hall." Why small? Simply the temple was scaled down during the reign of King Rama V, when the railway was constructed upon an area covered by part of the halls (the temple had four halls, only one was left). Why the reference to the Priest? The term refers to the Buddha statue within the hall that survived the Allied bombings of the area during WWII. So Much Water! I Got Thirsty!That was nice, but what about a decent cup of coffee? To the northeast, Bangkok Noi is delimited by the Pinklao Highway, a major artery of the metropolis. Roughly at the center of the neighborhood and next to the highway is Central Pinklao, a major shopping mall offering coffee, restaurants in a variety of styles, the Major Cineplex and other entertainment options fit for the end of such an exciting day.
As commented in the Bangkok Noi entry of this journal, the modern Chao Phraya River in front of the Rattanakosin Island is the result of a shortcut dug between the Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai canals. Bangkok Yai is the name of the southern part of the former riverbed and it means "Big Bangkok." It is surrounded by the district of the same name.If Bangkok Noi still maintains part of its rural past - many of its attractions are related to the canal crossing it - Bangkok Yai is very different. This was the Thonburi Kingdom capital. Accordingly, most of its attractions are royal and religious in nature.Thonburi Palace - Wang Derm PalaceIn 1767, a general and provincial governor named Taksin (the name means Sin of Tak) freed most of Siam after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya. He established the new capital in Thonburi, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River. One year later, a new palace was built. The Wang Derm Palace served as the residence of King Taksin until his death in 1782. King Rama I used it until the new palace across the river – now known as Bangkok’s Grand Palace – was finished. Built mainly in Chinese style, the complex includes several structures. King Pinklao – which held the title of Second King between 1851 and 1866 – lived here for a while in the first Western style royal residence in Thailand. The site was recognized by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site. Since 1905, the palace is within a Royal Navy dock.Another important structure within the palace was the Wichaiprasit Fort. In the past there was a twin fort across the river. Both forts were connected with an underwater metal chain that allowed blocking the waterway to unauthorized ships. The Throne Hall was built in Ayutthaya style and shaped like a "T," similar in many aspects to Wang Na (the Front Palace in Bangkok, former residence to the Apparent Heir and now the National Museum). Other structures of interest include King Taksin's Shrine, King Pinklao's residence, the Whale Head Shrine and various Chinese styled buildings. The palace is located on Wang Doem Road, next to Wat Arun – which was back then part of the palace complex - and is open from Monday to Friday between 8:30 AM and 4 PM. Unluckily, it is open only for groups; since a special permit must be obtained, visiting it is possible only through a travel agent.Wat IntharamNear the palace is Wat Inthanram, King Taksin personal temple. After he was clubbed to death in 1782, his bones were enshrined in this temple in the lotus bud shaped stupa.Wat ArunWat Arun was built during the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Back then it was named Wat Makok - the Olive Temple; the small village near it was named after it, and even after the last became the modern Krung Thep and the modern kingdom's capital, many people still refer to it as Bangkok ("ban" means "village" in Thai - the name "Ban Makok" got shortened during time).During the reign of King Taksin, the temple was renamed Wat Arun - the Dawn Temple - and became one of the most important temples in this short lived capital.The unique look of Wat Arun is due to the millions of pieces of colorful Chinese porcelain coating it; broken porcelain brought as ballast by merchant ships in the 17th century was used to cover its exterior. Wat Arun's central Khmer styled prang (column) - which at a height of 82 meters is Thailand's tallest - rests on three levels of terraces and is surrounded by four smaller corner prangs, intermingled with four mondops. Below it, next to the riverside are six pavilions made of green granite and including landing bridges.On the first terrace, are designs of giants and monkeys encircling the central prang, along with images of other Thai mythological creatures. The second terrace has an exquisite pavilion, with four statues showing events in the life of Buddha. Near the smaller prangs is an Ordination Hall with an important Buddha statue placed by King Rama II. The third terrace offers a view of the river and the surrounding area. It is possible to climb up the terraces and have good views of the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok across it. Wat Hong RattanaramAlong the same road (on 102, Wangderm Road) is Wat Hong Rattanaram, or the Temple of the Ancient Golden Buddha Image. It is named so after a Sukhothai style Buddha in its Assembly Hall. The temple is open daily between 9 AM and 5 PM; entrance is free.Wat Khruea WanNot far away from the last (on 36, Arun Amorin Road) is Wat Khruea Wan. This temple is remarkable due to its murals depicting different scenes from Buddha’s life. It is open daily between 5 AM to 8 PM and the entrance is free.Wat MolilokkayaramThis temple was part (located on 2, Wangderm Road) of the Thonburi Palace and is remarkable for having been built in Ayutthaya style. It is open daily between 5 AM to 8 PM and the entrance is free.Other AttractionsDue to its importance, this area features many temples. Other interesting ones include Wat Ratchasittharam and the Royal Mosque. Visiting all these sites in a day is impossible – at least if a detailed visit is desired. Yet, temples are not everything. From the main canal in the area – Bangkok Yai – many smaller canals spin off. Along these are quiet neighborhoods with houses built right on the canal. Simple bridges – little more than concrete bars put across the canal – connect the houses on each side of the canal. Flowers cover them. Spirit houses add many colors to the scene. Thainess at its best.
Beginning at the Ratchadamnoen Klang, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Lan Luang roads junction, the Mahanak Canal flows eastwards. After it crosses the Krung Kasem Road (and the junction with the canal of the same name) it becomes the Saen Saep Canal and flows for several kilometers to Prachin Buri and Chachoengsao where the canal ends at the Bang Pa Kong River.WarThe Siamese-Vietnamese War of 1831-1834, started when Siam tried to conquer Cambodia. In 1832, the Cambodians were defeated at the Battle of Kompong Chang, and their king – Ang Chan II – fled to Vietnam. The Siamese continued to advance eastwards until the Vietnamese forced them to evacuate Cambodia.Subsequently, the Saen Saep Canal was built by the order of King Rama III between 1837 and 1840. Its purpose was to facilitate the water transport of soldiers to Cambodia in a future attempt to re-conquer that country. After the canal was finished, the Siamese attacked, and the 1841-1845 Siamese-Vietnamese War began. The Vietnamese installed Queen Ang Mey on the Cambodian throne while the Siamese attempted to install Prince Ang Duoung. After four sour years, Siam and Vietnam agreed to place Cambodia under a joint protectorate, with a Siamese predominance. Ang Duong - supported by Siam - was crowned as Cambodia's king in 1848.TransportNowadays the canal is an important part of the way Bangkok looks and feels, providing beautiful views of traditional teakwood houses and charming bridges that ignore the metropolis dramatic modernization in the last decades. Along several areas, the canal is lined with walkways on either side, displaying an unusual, very relaxed side of Bangkok. A remarkable place in this category is near the Pratunam Pier, next to one of the main commercial sites of town (CentralWorld is in front of the pier).Moreover, the transition from the modern and busy Rama I Road to the old-fashioned canal while walking along the alley in which Jim Thompson's House is located, is an unforgettable experience.Khlong Saen Saep Express BoatThis canal is the only one still providing mass transport in downtown Bangkok. Roughly twenty meters wide, the canal determines the shape of the taxi boats, which are long and narrow, with seats for some fifty passengers. Tarpaulins protect the passengers from the polluted water of the canal, but they make the boats even hotter than the streets and block any residual breeze that could have refreshed the passengers. Yet this is a great way of traveling across Bangkok, and for sure the fastest along the areas neighboring the canal.Using the boats is simple; there are two lines that meet at the Pratunam Pier. The Western Line travels from there to the Golden Mount, while the Eastern one reaches Wat Si Bunrueang. Operated by the same company, the tickets are valid while changing boats; the fare varies according to the distance traveled, but it does not reach 20 baht. The boats are active from 5:30 AM until well after dark. Main StationsThe Eastern Line first stop is at Pratunam, near CentralWorld and Pantip Plaza and then continues to Chit Lom, near Central Chidlom. Along Sukhumvit Road it has several stops including near Nana, Asoke and Thong Lo. From Asoke, the Metro Phetchaburi Station can be accessed. An important stop is at Klong Tan - near the important intersection of Petchaburi, Ramkhamhaeng, Rama IX and Phra Khanong roads, the Skytrain shuttle-bus service stops there as well.The Western Line begins at the same pier – Pratunam – but advances in the opposite direction. Being shorter, it features few stops. The first is called Hua Chang and is near the MBK Center, which is reviewed in this journal. The Bobe Market Station provides access to a large clothes street market. Finally, Phan Fa Lilat Terminal is near the Golden Mount and can be reached by foot from the Grand Palace, Khaosan Road and other attractions in the vicinity, like the Democracy Monument.Modern gondolas roaming the city under the shade of skyscrapers, the boats span the distance between a canal aimed at transferring troops to the frontline and people attempting to bypass the eternal rush hour of the modern city.
Ideal WalkMore than any other canal in Bangkok, the second concentric canal is suitable for a walk along it. Dug during the reign of King Rama I to create room in the inner city, this canal is also known as Khlong Rop Krung: the Ring Canal. The inner canal is too short and has too many main attractions next to it; moreover, most of its northern side is covered. Krung Kasem – the third canal - is a bit too long and has too few attractions in its surroundings. In contrast, the Ring Canal offers easy access to several attractions along Middle and Outer Rattanakosin; these are varied enough to be representative of the city. Thus, if having one day for touring Bangkok, probably this is the best option for a walk.Yet, if having time, the visit is best split in two. One day could be dedicated to Banglamphu and the other to Ong Ang. North and east of the canal is Outer Rattanakosin, while south and west of it is Middle Rattanakosin. The best approach is to zigzag along the attractions on both sides of the canal, while steadily advancing along it.Ideal PathThis canal delimits the Banglamphu area to the north, and reaches the junction between Ratchadamnoen Klang, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Lan Luang roads. This section is named the Banglamphu Canal.From that junction, it turns southwards and is called Ong Ang Canal. This section continues to the western end of Chinatown. Despite being partially covered south of it, it eventually reaches the Chao Phraya just east of the Memorial and the Phra Pok Klao bridges.The Banglamphu SectionBeing near the Grand Palace, this area of the canal is packed with an awesome mix of attractions, which include sites of royal, religious and commercial nature.The ideal spot for beginning this tour is the Santi Chai Prakan Park and Phra Sumen Fort right next to the northern end of the canal and the Chao Phraya River. This is one of most distinctively Thai sights in Bangkok; seldom do such park and fort couples exist and it is even rarer when they are easily accessible. Fort Phra Sumen is one of the two remaining forts in Bangkok; while the adjacent park includes a delightful Thai Pavilion, green spaces, sculpted murals depicting traditional Thai scenes, and great views of the Chao Phraya River and the elegant Rama VIII Bridge.The Banglamphu Market begins next to the fort and runs for a while along the canal, providing unforgettable views of a Thai market. From there it is recommended to turn southwards along Chakkraphong Road, to the other side of Middle Rattanakosin. A long block afterwards, Khaosan Road is waiting for travelers at all hours.South of it is a covered section of the Inner Canal. Along it is Ratchadamnoen Klang and further northeastwards - on Outer Rattanakosin are the Golden Mount and Ratchadamnoen Nok. One of the main arteries in town, Ratchadamnoen Avenue symbolizes the transition from the old Siamese absolute monarchy area of the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to the new Thai area of the Dusit Palace of the modern constitutional monarchy. Despite its Western motifs, Ratchadamnoen is intrinsically Thai; few Westerners would even recognize it as a single unit since it is divided into three: Ratchadamnoen Nok (outer), Ratchadamnoen Klang (middle), and Ratchadamnoen Nai (inner). Ratchadamnoen Nai is within the Inner Canal and thus beyond the scope of this walk. Ratchadamnoen Klang features the Democracy Monument – one of Bangkok’s main landmarks. Most buildings along this section were designed in plain early 20th Century European style, rejecting the idea of status and decorations; they proclaimed a big change from the absolute monarchy era. On Ratchadamnoen Nok are important symbols of the monarchy. The most impressive building in this part is at its end: the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, which would not be out of place in any European capital. A large statue of King Rama V stands at the center of the plaza before the throne. Along the way there are colorful arches symbolizing the status of the Buddhist teachings’ "Royal Emperor." This part of the road houses large trees and many benches, which allow enjoying leisurely one of the most attractive parts in town.The Ong Ang SectionThis section is mainly commercial. However, if beginning at its northern side - the junction between Ratchadamnoen Klang, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Lan Luang roads – then two important religious sites await the walker. In Outer Rattanakosin – to the east – is the Golden Mount. Across the canal – in Middle Rattanakosin – is Wat Ratchanaddaram, the Black Metal Pagoda.The Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong) is an artificial hill with a temple built around and atop it. The hill is a slanted ramp which reaches a strikingly beautiful cheddi at its summit, where Buddha relics are kept. Across the street is the Black Metal Temple. The temple is famous for its Metal Castle (Loha Prasat) west of the complex main temple. The five levels castle is square and has thirty-seven spires; the central one reaches thirty–seven meters above the street level. The upper three levels host the beautiful and elaborated cast iron spires which give the temple its common name, unusual shape and black color. Climbing all the way up to the spires’ level and taking a close look at the unique roof is possible; the Golden Mount is in clear sight from there and in clear days, glorious views of Bangkok are available. If advancing southwards along the canal, turn right at Bamrung Muang Road and walk until the Giant Swing and Wat Suthat are reached (on the first main junction). One of Bangkok's landmarks, the Giant Swing provides an unforgettable view to the visitors. Its slim, gracious shape creates a gate into a magical city where strangely shaped stuppas, giant swings and mighty stone guardians compete for a place in the travelers’ heart. The temple in front of the Great Swing is literally dwarfed by the swing’s height, but it is well worth a visit, because it is one of the only six in Thailand defined as a "First Grade Temple." Back to the canal, walk two long blocks southwards along it, this section - along Mahachai Road – is one of the most beautiful ones. Two attractions await the visitor there: on the Middle Rattanakosin side (west) is Little India, while on the Outer Rattanakosin side is Chinatown. The second is worth of a separate visit; its main street runs roughly for a whole mile and almost reaches the third canal and the Hualamphong Railway Station.One long block is all that separates the intrepid traveler from the end of this quest. Advancing southwards along Mahachai Road, the Chao Phraya River is reached. Next to the meeting point are Bangkok’s Flower Market and the Memorial Bridge.Walking around Venice of the Orient is not only possible, but also probably the best way to get acquainted with its own and charming ways.
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