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East of Eden

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If I were secretary of State, I would choose the Regent. I would certainly choose it over Saddam. The two-story pavilions open onto covered patios where you can eat breakfast. (Specify a room in the upper story; you'll get a high peaked ceiling and better light.) The food is ordinary, and pricey; the spa, however, is charming. As is the tennis pro. And there's an infinity pool! Also known as a "knife-edge pool," this feature tends to turn up at high-end hotels in Southeast Asia. The sidewalls extend only to the surface of the water, which flows over the edge, so that the pool appears to be contained by nothing but air pressure, and the water seems to flow off into the sky.

Chiang Mai itself is a bit sleepy relative to Bangkok (hell, so is New York a bit sleepy), but it's worth a couple days. You don't have to remain at the mercy of the Regent's cuisine; much cheaper -- and often better -- restaurants can be found in the ancient town. Check out the Gallery, whose candlelit patio overlooks the river, or the pedestrian-looking Arun Rai, which serves the most authentic northern Thai cuisine. The exciting night market rivals Bangkok's floating markets for bargains in Thai crafts.

The Regent is by no means cheap, but various packages can reduce the overall cost. The Hideaway Package gives you a fourth night free if you pay for the first three. Rooms range from $320 to $365.

If you want a real bargain, purchase one of the residences built on the property; they were going for $880,000 before the baht fell, and now can be had for $600,000. (And perhaps less. Haggle.)

My next stop is the island of Phuket, which has been pretty thoroughly deracinated by tourists but where you'll find a couple of Thailand's most exotic hotels. Phuket is not the place to go millionairing these days: Tourists scared off by the violence in Djakarta have chosen it as a substitute for Bali, so occupancy at the major hotels has increased. (Bali, by the way, is far from Djakarta, and ludicrously safe.)

The most celebrated property in Phuket completely thwarts my competitive efforts: There are no discounts to be had at Amanpuri (011-6676-324-333). None. The Aman people, who run the most exclusive small hotels in the world, generally don't have trouble filling their bouquet of rooms, and they want you to pay through the nose.

Amanpuri does have its extraordinary features. If you approach at night, the dramatic lighting reflects off the burnished wood to create a quasi-religious effect. It has a lovely library, and a 24-hour business center. During the day, however, you notice the unsightly maze of elevated concrete walkways and the undeniable tininess of the property. The Italian restaurant hardly holds its own with Il Mulino, and the beach is unimpressive. Though someone is eternally replenishing the ice water in your insulated glass, it would be nice to have a beach-side bar. The architecture is mostly winning -- a riff on traditional Thai building customs, including walls and windows that slope inward as they rise -- and the entire resort is oriented toward the View: a dramatic drop off a rocky precipice. Ordinary pavilions start at $480 and can rise to $1,070 during high season. And almost nothing is included: no meals, no significant activities, nothing. Still, among the things not included is a fleet of vessels -- little ones, big ones -- that you can charter to take you to the stunning inlets and natural formations nearby, such as Phangnga Bay (where a very peculiar carrot-shaped island was featured in The Man With the Golden Gun).

Another resort, a short distance away, thrills me as much -- for considerably less money. The Banyan Tree (011-6676-324-374), part of a constellation of high-end hotels, offers most of the charms of Amanpuri and has recently won all sorts of awards in the spa community. Check out www.banyantree.com for discounts: A garden villa is as low as $170; and the Garden Villa is as lovely as an Amanroom, even if the resort itself is laid out like a luxe suburb. The dramatic open lobby, minimal and vast, is almost as impressive as the jewellike Aman. The beach itself is superior, and the spa features a bizarre swimming pool that twists in a labyrinth of forking lanes. Massages are given in the open air, in covered pavilions -- very nice until someone begins mowing the lawn a few feet away.

The restaurants at the Banyan Tree -- Thai, Italian, and seafood -- are terrific. If you really want to save money, however, a superb café is located in the mall five minutes away by shuttle: the Albatross Cafe and Pub, where a Western breakfast or Thai lunch can be had for about $3.

My last stop in Thailand is on Koh Samui, very recently a backpacker island but quickly becoming the next Phuket. The most swish hotel is Le Royal Meridien Baan Taling Ngam (011-6677-423-019-22), built into a cliff face in a remote part of the southeast shore and offering panoramic views of the water below. The beach is drab, but the infinity pool is impressive, its multisided, idiosyncratic form perching over a steep landscape. The Lom Talay restaurant is open at the sides, with a view into the Gulf of Thailand, and the Thai cuisine is superb, if not cheap: There's no reason to spend $30 on a Thai meal in Koh Samui, where local restaurants cost a third of that.


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