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Affordable Asia

MALAYSIA Until the end of the year, the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort in Kota Kinabalu, on Borneo (60-88/241-800, fax 60-88/217-155), offers a package for $197 (versus $276 before the currency took a dive) that includes a two-night stay with American breakfast; 10 percent off food, beverage, and massage service; use of tennis courts and equipment; and airport transfer and shuttle to the city center. Weekly rates at the Club Med Cherating in Pahang (60-9/581-9133, fax 60-9/5819-1720), the chain's first property in Asia, are down to $721 per person—from $868 last year. That includes meals, wine, sports and instruction, and evening entertainment. The Pan Pacific Resort Pangkor (60-5/685-1091, fax 60-5/685-1852), surrounded by tropical jungle and fronting a half-mile-long private beach on the Strait of Malacca, offers deluxe rooms for $57 through December 31, versus $180 in 1997. At the swank Datai Langkawi Resort (60-4/959-2500, fax 60-4/959-2600), set amid a seaside rain forest on the island of Langkawi, double rooms are $242 per night until December 19, versus $301 last August.

VIETNAM For resorts as for city hotels, in Vietnam it's best to go through a local travel agent to get the prime deals. Exotissimo Travel in Ho Chi Minh City (84-8/825-1723, fax 84-8/295-800) recommends the Ana Mandara Resort in Nha Trang (84-58/829-829, fax 84-58/829-629), a 68-room oasis on the country's finest beach, with villa-style lodgings, a pleasant pool and gardens, and a wide array of activities. For $125, you get a room with breakfast, transfers included. The price drops to $105 if you book three nights or more. On famed China Beach in Da Nang, Furama Resort (84-511/847-333, fax 84-511/847-220) has top-of-the-line luxury—200 rooms, two pools, water sports, good restaurants, and a discount rate of $110, including transfers and breakfast.

PHILIPPINES The Shangri-La Mactan Island Resort in Cebu (800/223-6800 or 63-32/231-0288, fax 63-32/231-1688) is offering a rate of $158, 20 percent less than last year's. In addition, guests who stay two nights get a third night free, or a credit of $26 toward room charges. The Pearl Farm Beach Resort (63-82/221-9970, fax 63-82/221-9979), off the southern island of Mindanao, has doubles starting at $89—lowered from $185—until September 30.

THAILAND SPAS

Thailand (and indeed, all of Southeast Asia) has become known for its luxurious—and heretofore expensive—spas. Things change. At Bangkok's Oriental Spa (66-2/439-7613, fax 66-2/439-7587), treatments have suddenly become very affordable, because they are still denominated in baht. An hour-long Swedish massage is $35; half-day packages (including a facial, Swedish massage, and manicure) start at $99. A full day of pampering (body polish, a bunch of massages and facials, and a manicure or pedicure) starts at $174. The spa gets busy, so it's best to book well in advance. Major discounts are being offered at the Banyan Tree in Phuket (800/525-4800 or 66-76/324-374, fax 66-76/324-375): garden villas are now $225 per night. Chiva-Som (800/525-4800 or 66-32/536-536, fax 66-32/511-154), in Huahin, has a five-night package (doubles from $1,260 per person) available through the Small Luxury Hotels group. The price covers three meals a day, a medical and spa consultation, a daily massage, one foot massage, spa bath, and loofah scrub.

FOOD

Restaurants in Asia have been less affected by the slump than hotels. It's true that while room rates at hotels are quoted in dollars, meals at their restaurants are usually priced in the local currency. Why doesn't this make for extraordinary bargains?Because the restaurants simply raise their prices. The Indonesian rupiah, for example, slipped in value from 2,405 to the dollar in 1997 to 9,458 in 1998, but a meal for two at Amandari averaged 100,878 rupiah ($42) in 1997, and costs 332,740 ($35) now.

So the best advice is to look where the locals eat—outside tourist centers, away from the resorts. The food is cheaper, more authentic, and often surprisingly good.

HONG KONG In the last two years, a United Nations of restaurants has sprouted in SoHo, the new name for the neighborhood that abuts the Central Escalator Link south of Hollywood Road. Most of the new places are concentrated on Elgin and Staunton Streets. For local fare, you're better off skipping the largely unlicensed streetside stalls, or dai pai dongs. Recent hygiene alerts (E. coli, bird flu, cholera) have made it clear that Hong Kong still falls short in safe food-handling practices. Noodle and dumpling houses, however, are safe and wonderful. A favorite is Peking Shui Jiao Wang in Wanchai (118 Jaffe Rd., ground floor; 852/2527-0372). The Formica tables fill up quickly at lunchtime, but turnover is fast. The vegetarian pan-fried dumplings (jiaozi), filled with crunchy bits of celery, leek, and carrot, are divine. You'll order more than you can eat for less than $5. Over in Central, the quaint Dumpling House (26 Cochrane St.; 852/2815-5520; dinner for two $7) has hordes waiting to be served. Beijing-style beef dumplings in a clear broth is only $2.50. Way up on the style scale is the Noodle Box (30-32 Wyndham St., ground floor, shop 1; 852/2536-0571), recently opened by Rosemary Lee, one of Hong Kong's most innovative chefs. The sha cha beef noodles with ginger and garlic ($5) is a meal in itself. On the scenic south side of the island is the relaxed Shek O Chinese & Thai Seafood Restaurant (303 Shek O Village; 852/2809-4426; dinner for two $13). You can't go wrong with any of the curries.

VIETNAM Vietnam's restaurants are as affordable as ever; that won't change anytime soon. It's possible to eat well at incredibly cheap prices (30 cents for a filling bowl of pho—noodle soup—in the markets), and very well for not much more: a fabulous three-course French meal in a lovely refined villa can cost less than $10 a person. Two of Saigon's best Vietnamese restaurants, Lemongrass (63 Dong Khoi, District 1; 84-8/822-0496) and Vietnam House (93-95 Dong Khoi, District 1; 84-8/829-1623), offer great deals at lunch: $3.75 for a five-course meal—soup, spring rolls, vegetables, sautéed fish or chicken in lemongrass with rice, tea, and dessert—in a chic setting. A fixture of Vietnamese street life is the sidewalk bia hoi—literally, "draft beer"—a simple stall where locals enjoy super-cheap but tasty food (fried noodles, spring rolls, steamed rice pancakes) and decent lager. There are hundreds of these in the major cities: to find the best and, as a rule, the cleanest, simply follow the crowds. Some have no menus, but it's easy to point to what you want, or what others are eating. You can have a full meal and a beer for less than a dollar each. Or try a market food stall. Saigon's Ben Thanh Market and Hoi An's Central Market are both terrific spots for snacks and light lunches. Pho, steamed or fried fish, and rice dishes are usually less than 50 cents.

SINGAPORE The city's street stalls, or hawker centers, are clean and cheap. Adjacent to the Central Business District is the Golden Shoe Food Centre—it's where the local businessmen go. Park a friend at one of the small tables and make your rounds of the stalls (fresh juices, bowls of noodles, saté, spring rolls). They'll bring your food to you when it's ready. Another favorite is the East Coast Seafood Centre, on the East Coast Parkway on the way from the airport into town. This is a large family-style covered dining "mall" where Singaporeans go for chili crabs and prawns. As for more traditional restaurants, all serve pretty much the same fare. The Red House (1204 East Coast Pkwy., Unit 1-5; 65/442-3112; dinner for two $35) stands out from the pack. In a traditional shop house in Chinatown, the more upscale Blue Ginger serves traditional nonya food, the only truly local cuisine (97 Tanjong Pagar Rd.; 65/222-3928; dinner for two $30).

BALI One of the first stylish restaurants in Ubud, Lotus Pond (Main St.; 62-361/975-660) is where expats gather for breakfast. Feast on bulging omelettes, fresh juices, and homemade yogurt for less than $2. Over in Legian, 10 minutes by taxi from Kuta, the open-air La Lucciato (Oberoi Rd.; 62-361/261-047) attracts young trendies. A typical tab for two is less than $10.

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