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East of Eden


In rainy season, the hotel puts a laser-disc player in each room and offers a library of serious films. If it's not raining, take one of the day trips. They'll speed you in a boat to Ang Thong Marine Park, where you can snorkel in the archipelago as they prepare your barbecue lunch on the beach (half-day: $35). The Baan Taling Naam remains your best choice if you want five-star service in Koh Samui: You can still bargain, especially in the off-season. November, for instance, can get quite rainy; a $300 room can be had for $200.

Yes, You Do Want to Go to Malaysia

If Thailand, where it's almost impossible to find high-end bargains, is the killer hill in the millionairing Tour de France, Malaysia is the bunny slope. It's generally considered unsafe -- a fiction fostered by CNN, who would have you believe there are riots in the streets of Kuala Lumpur -- so things look up as soon as I cross the border.

Consider the Datai (011-604-263-5112), on the island of Langkawi. Every little detail from the handrails to the wall sconces has been designed to within an inch of its life, with excellent taste. Each deluxe room contains a king-size bed, a daybed, and a huge bathing-and-dressing area finished in local marble and balau. The beach is glorious, the spa the most inventive I've yet experienced: They cure me for an hour like a piece of smoked meat, rubbing me and cleaning me and wrapping me up with deep-heating spices before massaging my body into a blissful coma. The service here rivals that of the best Thai hotels -- no mean feat in Malaysia. The Datai is as perfect and urbane as you might wish, yet it's still very much a jungle property: Monkeys threaten to trash your room should you leave the balcony doors open, and the world's longest snake -- the reticulated python, a personal favorite -- lounges somewhere in the rain forest behind you. Here it is absolutely crucial to take one of the scheduled treks, not simply for the terrain, which includes plants that curl up shyly when you touch them, but for the guide, a truly knowledgeable banker turned ecologist.

Okay, so how much is this going to set you back? Well, the Datai quotes in Malaysian ringgit, among the world's most battered currencies -- once 2.4 to the dollar, the ringgit is now 3.8 -- and a deluxe room that went for $435 a couple of years ago is $275. None of the Malaysian resorts I visit, by the way, has raised its rates to counteract the absurd bargain the rooms have now become. Yet.

But if you really want a jungle experience -- à la Sheena, the Queen of -- you really should consider Pangkor Laut (011-605-699-1100), which occupies its own private island. Some of the pavilions stand on stilts off the beach; mine is nestled next to the rain forest, with giant hornbills calling in the morning and macaques playing on my roof. The service here is refreshingly lax, to complement the environment.

I particularly like Uncle Lim's Kitchen. The roof looks like an oversize wooden umbrella, and the dining-room floor wraps around a huge boulder. The food is Malaysian-Chinese fare, with Thai and Indian influences.

I spend the morning hiking though the jungle, and the afternoon reading beside the infinity pool, where a peacock strolls among the sunbathers. Pangkor Laut has something unquantifiable -- hominess. I just like the place. There's a real scene around the bar at night, in contrast to anything I experienced at the high-end properties in Thailand. The rates have not gone up: a room on stilts (the most desirable standard room) is $275. It would have been more than $400.

And You Might Prefer Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur gets a bad rap. It's never been considered much of a tourist destination, and most recently it's been likened to Kent State on a bad day. Truth is, you may witness a quiet demonstration. But you certainly won't feel threatened, especially if you stay at the magisterial Carcosa Seri Negara (011-603-282-1888), a pair of mansions quietly ensconced in the middle of a great park. This hotel is run by the Aman group, although it's quite a departure from the New Agey Amanresorts: It's a stately colonial property with absurdly high ceilings and rooms large enough to play Frisbee in. The Carcosa is a Gothic mansion; the Seri Negara, next door, is more Victorian folly. Only the swimming pool is disappointing -- I've seen larger plunge pools -- but even this seems appropriate for a property with these sorts of pretensions: It's hard to see the queen (who stayed here recently) getting much of a frisson from an infinity pool. You should put in at least one night in K.L. if you're off to the jungles: Huge rooms here start at $280 (down from $400).

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