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An Escape to the Genting Highlands of Malaysia

January 12, 1986|BARRY ZWICK | Zwick is a Times assistant news editor.

GENTING HIGHLANDS, Malaysia — The sun at nightfall sinks like a stone between the peaks of the Barisan Titiwangsa. It daubs the sky scarlet, vermilion, magenta and then, at the horizon, a flash, a sliver of green. We who have seen it swear to it; others laugh about mad dogs and Englishmen.

We are three degrees north of the Equator, midway between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Three generations separate us from the Edwardian planters who found refuge from the steamy Malay jungle in the cool hill stations of the sultanate of Pahang, and much has changed, but only for the better.

Today you can take a helicopter from Kuala Lumpur's Subang Airport to the Genting Hotel, 6,000 feet above sea level. You can try your hand at baccarat in its sprawling casino, swim in a heated indoor pool, golf where the rough swarms with orchids or pray in an incense-filled cave.

Tone up at an ultramodern health club, or play badminton, Ping-Pong or squash. And, far from your friends at home, sneak down to the video game arcade and indulge yourself at Pac-Man and Space Invaders.

Revolving Disco

Rent a boat at the lake, ride down the mountainside by cable car, watch the latest English-language movies in the cinema, or bowl. Unwind at one of three cocktail lounges, or at the wine bar or the revolving disco.

Kids along? Paddle to the islands in the middle of the lake and moor at the teahouse or the aviary. Drive around the lake or ride the train or the merry-go-round.

A bit too much like home? Not unless your home is Shangri-La. "Just like the novel," says Cheng-Huat Quake, maitre d' at the Genting Hotel's spectacular Sails Grill Room. "High on a mountaintop, beyond the clouds, your troubles disappear, and you find true happiness."

The Sails, so nautical that you can hear the waves, is the premiere Western restaurant in Malaysia, with a time-warp continental menu that puts you roughly in Perino's in 1948 at $10 a head for an elegant five-course dinner.

The Coffee Terrace is the spot for breakfast. All you can eat for $2 per adult, $1.20 per child. From a sea of silver chafing dishes you select omelets, hash browns, waffles and sausages, and you return for Asian eye-openers: hot Chinese rice porridge with chicken, shredded ginger and spring onions; vermicelli soup with prawns, fish-balls and bok choy, and nasi lemak-- rice cooked in coconut milk with fried eggs and cucumbers.

Perfume in the Air

Refills of tea or coffee are unlimited, and the perfume of fresh tropical fruits fills the air.

Miniature boxes of cereal are available too, and if you look closely at the Rice Krispies package you will see that Snap, Crackle and Pop have Oriental eyes.

Atop the Genting, the Revolving 6000 serves Western specialties until 10:30 p.m., when it turns into a disco and bar. The 1,200-seat Genting Theater restaurant offers Chinese haute cuisine with an emphasis on seafood plus a stage revue with an emphasis on female flesh.

The Kampung Restoran serves Malaysian Muslim food--curries, satays and some lamb-and-chili dishes that will blow your head off. For those in a hurry, there's a snack bar inside the casino and a cafeteria next to the bowling alley.

Getting to Genting Highlands is half the fun, and dirt cheap.

Round-trip Kuala Lumpur to Genting Highlands runs $12.50 per adult, $9 per child, and it includes all this: An air-conditioned bus ride to the foot of the mountain, cable car to the top, a visit to the Batu Caves, lunch at the Sails Grill Room, golf, 20 coins for the slot machines and 20 chips.

No catch. It's a gamblers' special.

A deluxe room is $62.50 a night, $56.25 for a standard room, smaller and on a lower floor. Just a short shuttle ride downhill is the Highlands Hotel at $33 a night, and the Genting Ria and the Genting Pelangi at $21.

Any travel agent in Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong can book you, although I'm partial to Alice Au of Raya Travel in the arcade of the Merlin Kuala Lumpur. So too are apparently half the young men of the city, who flock to Miss Alice for quotations on air fares to such places as Atlanta and Chicago. "But they never buy a ticket," she laments.

Little Bit of Luck

I stumbled onto Genting Highlands through a bit of serendipity. I was traveling through Southeast Asia with my wife, my 9-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son, and stopped in Kuala Lumpur only because my wife liked the name.

In one evening we saw all three sights: the train station that looks like a mosque, the mosque that looks like a train station, and the Dope Sign: "Avoid Drugs Before They Destroy You," lit by night in a blaze of color and spanning six lanes of traffic.

"We're ready to move on," I told Miss Alice.

"But these are the school holidays, Mr. Barry. All flights are booked. I can't get you out for another six days."

Six more days in Kuala Lumpur. It was the Southeast Asian version of a Philadelphia joke. My family was despondent.

"Why couldn't this have happened to us in Bali?" my daughter asked.

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