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East of Eden

A grand tour of Southeast Asia's five-star hotels and resorts . . . at a discount? It's a game called "millionairing," and all you need to play is champagne taste -- and the region's fallen currencies.

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I share a hot tub with Madeleine Albright's security detail, within shouting distance of an albino water buffalo. Albino buffalo are roughly the color of Northern Europeans after a day in the sun. You, no doubt, are envious. (Of me, not of the buffalo.) Ah, but this is a typical experience for me, as a top competitor in one of the world's most harrowing sports.

I know, I know: The decade of the extreme sport is coming to a close, and we are all a bit bored with buff I-bankers hanging from bridges by rubber thongs. Still, in the interest of closing the era in style, I'd like to describe my mastery of the last and most demanding of these events. I call it "millionairing." Millionairing involves touring the world's exotic locales, sleeping and eating only at the most vaunted five-star hotels, while -- and here's where it gets scary -- maintaining the budget of a publishing intern. In November, I decide to go millionairing in Southeast Asia.

The currency crisis of fifteen months before has been credited with an eruption of good local buys, but many think these are restricted to the mid-priced hotels and backpacker bungalows; conventional wisdom maintains that wild values are not to be found at the five-star properties. If you want a bargain, you'll have to settle for a squat toilet, and malaria.

Sorry, but I don't believe it. I intend to spend a few days in the finest hotels in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bali. I first investigate one of the world's most lavish colonial hotels -- the Peninsula (011-852-2920-2888), in Hong Kong.

I fly Cathay Pacific. Next to Singapore Airlines, this carrier is widely regarded as Asia's most luxurious. And in the wake of the economic crisis, it has been offering spectacular discounts. If you fly economy, you can sign up over the Internet for the All Asia Pass: $999 round trip, including 31 days of hopping about in Asia (www. cathay-usa.com).

Mightier Than the Pen

I am picked up at the new airport by a sleek, almost noiseless Rolls-Royce. Millionairing devotees will be pleased to note that this ride -- 90 bucks American -- is hardly necessary. The new hypermodern Airport Express train can be faster, and it's just under $8.

The lobby of the Pen is justly famous: The limestone floor has been polished to a glasslike state. (Rollerblading is, unfortunately, discouraged.) The bronze fu dog guarding the elevators -- a feng shui requirement -- was sculpted by pop heart specialist Jim Dine.

I am met by a phalanx of devoted hotel employees, including May, who shows me to my room. May is typical of the unbelievable staff you find at hotels in this part of the world: When I turn up in the lobby over a month later, she remembers my name. She demonstrates the fax machine hidden beneath the burl desktop and informs me that there is a television in my bathroom, so that I "won't be boring."

My hexagonal bathroom is clad in marble, buff, and sea green. Angled mirrors multiply images to infinity. Soap reclines in tin boxes. My room features a padded wall behind the bed (should I go mad in my sleep) and elegant Chinese detailing: black lacquered lamps, rattan furniture, twin vases lit like a museum display.

My little chamber is a "superior" room -- the lowest category -- and the rack rate is U.S. $377 (quoted rates don't include tax). The Pen has very few merely superior rooms; book this class, and you stand a good chance of being upgraded. For the first time in history, this room has been discounted, although nobody will admit to it. The discount is hidden in a new $338 "no frills" package. I do some digging and discover that the no-frills label is a decoy. You don't miss out on a single frill. It's simply that the Peninsula is embarrassed about dropping the price.


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