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Destination: Nepal : A Far-Away Vegas : Casinos give Katmandu a new spin on the term long shot

October 09, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dahlburg is The Times' bureau chief in New Dehli. Dhruba H. Adhikary, a Katmandu-based journalist, contributed to this report

KATMANDU, Nepal — Walk out the entrance of the Soaltee Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, turn right, stroll past the burly man with the mustache and piercing gaze, plunge downstairs, and prepare for a unique Nepali experience.

There, gleaming with lights of the same multicolored hues as a roll of LifeSavers, the shiny imported machines line the walls, their unfamiliar foreign names positively glowing with temptation.

There's King Lotus. Pinnacle Jackpot. Bally Quarters. And keno.

If fatigued from hoofing it over the Himalayas with strong-backed Sherpas or pondering the intricacies of Tantrism, a tourist can dwell here on other mysteries: For instance, how those five slot machines in the corner labeled "McCarran Airport" got here from Las Vegas, Nev.

Four casinos, each attached to a luxury hotel, are now operating in the capital of Nepal, 4,500 feet above sea level, in what must be one of the most bizarre gambling environments anywhere.

Nepalis, who live in one of the world's poorest countries, are not allowed inside, except as croupiers or service personnel. Most wouldn't be able to bet much anyway. The annual income in this landlocked mountain kingdom averages less than $200.

The bulk of the casinos' clientele--about two thirds--are visiting Indians, who contribute 90% of the revenue. Pakistani tourists, who are equally deprived of legalized gambling at home, make up the second largest contingent.

"It's basically for fun," Santosh Tater, 36, of New Delhi, said one evening this summer as he made his second visit to Casino Nepal. "I do not come to earn a windfall profit. All I do is to throw away a couple of hundred rupees."

Others fare better--like an Indian driver who was playing the slots and hit a jackpot of 1.7 million rupees, or $34,000.

Although decidedly down-market by world standards--some clients come shod in bath clogs--Katmandu's gaming parlors hold a ritzy and unmistakable James Bond-like allure for people who have never set foot in a casino before.

"I am not here to play, or gamble," Kailash Khurana, 45, said as he wandered through the pillared and mirrored premises of Casino Nepal.

Awe-struck, the Bombay resident said he just wanted to take it all in with his senses.

As Hindi, Urdu and Western pop music plays, employees in white shirts and bow ties take customers' bets at three roulette wheels, four baccarat tables, a pair of blackjack tables and two stations devoted to a British derivative of blackjack called pontoon. Regional games like flush and poplu are also offered.

For the novice or the downright intimidated, printed guides on how to gamble are available. Guest relations officers are on hand to provide explanations.

By flashing an airline ticket within a week of arriving here, a visitor to Casino Nepal is delivered coupons that entitle him or her to about $13 worth of free chips.

Win or lose, if the traveler sticks around until 10 p.m., there's a free dinner. Transportation to and from most hotels is provided at no charge. Such freebies draw patrons--such as C.K. Aggrawal, 55, owner of a Calcutta chemical factory--in droves. Aggrawal and his wife came to Nepal a few weeks ago to visit a celebrated Hindu temple at Pashupatinath, about three miles northeast of Katmandu, and willingly gambled away their free chips when they made a stop at Casino Nepal. But they refused to bet their own money.

Such low-rolling visitors are on the increase, Narayan Gurung, a member of the casino staff, grumbled a few weeks ago. "Most of the visitors turn out to be people looking for free coupons and free meals," he complained.

*

Not far from the action, in an air-conditioned, windowless office, sits the American responsible for bringing keno to Katmandu. R.D. Tuttle, a straight-talking and engaging Oregonian, is the uncrowned king of casinos in Nepal. A former serviceman and ex-civil contract employee in Vietnam who left the United States in 1959 when he was 19, Tuttle now manages all four Katmandu casinos under a joint venture and operating arrangement with a Hong Kong-based company, Continental Resorts.

He arrived here in 1976, eight years after Casino Nepal opened.

"When we came here, the government was ready to close the casino due to negative reaction over Nepalis playing," Tuttle recalls. "But we were able to convince them it could be a source of tourism and not contaminate Nepali culture."

To enforce the government ban on locals that was enacted the year after Tuttle's arrival, the tall and portly P.B. Khatry stands guard nightly at Casino Nepal's doorway. The job of the mustachioed, laconic man in his 50s is to filter out Nepalis from the tourists, but no one is sure how--or if--he manages.

In 1991, Nepal's first democratically elected government in three decades took office, and its more liberal economic policies provided leeway for increased gambling.

In 1992-93, three more casinos opened: the Anna at the Hotel de l'Annapurna, the Everest at the hotel of the same name, and Casino Royale at the Hotel Yak & Yeti.

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