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East of Eden

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Should You Leave Your Exquisite Hotel Room

One place you'll save, if you're savvy, is on food. You'll want to dine at Felix, the most dramatic restaurant at the Pen. The design is Philippe Starck at his most inspired; the special elevator makes you feel as if you're riding up inside the trunk of a baobab tree. If you are millionairing, investigate the early-bird special: From 6 to 7 p.m., the restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe menu at $32 (less than the price of most entrées at eight o'clock), including sea bass marinated in ginger and a stellar tirami su.

The finest detail at Felix is the row of freestanding urinals in the men's room. They stand, like expensive vases, in front of a floor-to-ceiling picture window with one of the most spectacular views in the city. It's hard to decide whether you're being a voyeur or an exhibitionist.

But we were discussing food. Many of the top hotels, in fact, have quietly introduced cheap menus. The Kowloon Shangri-la (011-852-2721-2111) has a Japanese restaurant favored by expats from Tokyo, and a prix fixe lunch of multiple tiny courses is less than $12. At the same hotel, the Shang Palace has been heralded as the top Cantonese dining room in Hong Kong (and, therefore, the world). The set lunch is also under 12 bucks and features shark's-fin soup, three kinds of dim sum, greens with oyster sauce, a noodle or rice dish, and dessert.

Hip, not particularly pricey restaurants cluster in SoHo ("South of Hollywood Road"), which has eclipsed Lan Kwai Fang as the hot spot. I have drinks at the Pavilion and dine at Manchu Bistro on Elgin Street; you might also want to check out Two Sardines, the Bayou (for Cajun food), and the Staunton Bar and Cafe.

I have a shirt made at Rashmi Custom Tailor (011-2311-5362). The tailor wants $47, but I've been in training for this moment: $39, and yes, I want the superior Egyptian cotton. Later I find a place that will do shirts for $26, but the quality doesn't thrill me. My new shirt is the finest I've owned. I feel almost airbrushed. If I'd ordered from one of the famous Hong Kong tailors -- say, Ascot Chang in the Pen -- prices would've started at $65, but the end product might have turned me into a thing of rare beauty.

Thai Games

I leave the Peninsula with regret, but not much -- I'm about to stay at a property widely considered the most exquisite hotel in the world. Bangkok is the city of superlative hotels, and the very finest, according to the major travel magazines, is the legendary Oriental (011-662-236-0400). All my life I've wanted to spend a few nights in the Oriental in Bangkok.

And for the rest of my life, I'll wonder why.

The Oriental, like Raffles, in Singapore, trades heavily on its literary reputation. A young Joseph Conrad stayed here, as did Somerset Maugham; a whole section has been named "The Author's Lounge." Most New Yorkers, however, have lived in close proximity to famous ghosts. I occupied a brownstone on 10th Street, upstairs from the shade of Marcel Duchamp; a few doors away slept the translucent Mark Twain. If you want to impress a New Yorker, you'll have to promise more than an encounter with the dead. And frankly, the Oriental doesn't offer much more than this. My "superior" room ($250, down from $270) is dim and kind of ugly: The traditional Thai detailing merely serves to darken and depress. The bathroom is large enough, but the fluorescent fixtures don't quite compete with the Peninsula's "mood light." The lobby -- much photographed -- lies beneath dramatic ornamental bells and may be marginally more authentic than most, but I'm not sleeping in the lobby.

The most elegant sector of the Oriental is the spa, a one-minute boat ride across the Chao Phya river. If the entire hotel had been designed with such attention to detail, I'd understand the fuss. Each massage room, lined in dark wood, features a glorious private shower with a gigantic showerhead that emulates a monsoon. The massage itself is nicely brutal, rivaling the Swedish massage I received at the new Clarins spa in the Pen. A 60-minute massage is $38; four years ago it was $48.


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