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THE WANDER YEAR

Playing the Hotel Game by House Rules

WEEK 26: MALAYSIA; * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

August 06, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

PENANG, Malaysia — The sign in the hotel elevator depicted a prickly fruit inside a circle with a slash through it. "No Durians Allowed," it read.

"They smell," said the desk clerk at the Paradise Tanjung Bungah, explaining that the pungent but popular Asian fruit is unwelcome in most Malaysian hotels. "If you ate one on the first floor, you'd smell it on the third."

After a detour from Singapore east to Bali, Andrea and I had flown to this island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, resuming our westward journey around the world. Although we were unfamiliar with the durian, the hotel ban on it did not surprise us. Each new country--Malaysia is the 11th of our trip--brings a new set of house rules, amenities and nuances. We've been lucky to sleep in some exquisite digs--from beach bungalows to mountain lodges to desert castles--all enhanced by local flavor not found at home. And even when lodging has been ordinary, like our hotel on Penang, some entertaining detail has made the stay memorable.

Some of our favorite hotels have been those where we've been allowed to observe, or even participate in, native rituals. In Jaisalmer, India, we shared the Hotel Jaisal Castle with the family that owns it. Each day, members of three generations burned incense and prayed before Hindu altars throughout the building. The hotel is built into the yellow sandstone walls of an 844-year-old fort, and our room's balcony afforded a view of the Thar Desert stretching out to the frontier of Pakistan. So aged is the structure that honey-colored ceiling chips rained down on us in the night like gold dust.

Later, in the Rajasthan city of Bikaner, we checked into the Hotel Harasar Haveli on the eve of Holi, a festival marking the end of winter. Revelers celebrate by dousing one another with water and brightly colored powders. Tourists are urged to stay indoors, as festivities can turn rowdy. But our hotel's young, exuberant owner didn't want us to miss out, so he threw a Holi party in the courtyard, complete with trash cans of water and mounds of pigments. After we were sprinkled and smeared, he packed 16 guests into his vehicle and drove us through town as we were bombarded with water balloons by merrymakers shouting, "Happy Holi!"

In several countries, hotels have featured niceties that seem standard issue throughout the nation. The first question we were asked in every New Zealand motel was not "Smoking or nonsmoking?" but "Full fat or skim?"--as in milk for tea. Rooms come with electric teakettles and tea bags, as well as a fridge to store your milk of choice, which is handed out at the front desk. But don't linger too long over that cuppa; the Kiwi checkout time is almost always 10 a.m.

Vietnamese hotels' ubiquitous amenity is the toothbrush. No matter how modest the room, we always found two individually packaged toothbrushes on the sink. I pack light, but I doubt I'll ever consider a toothbrush too heavy to stick in my knapsack.

Our average nightly room rate thus far is $28. The most we've spent is $78, for a deluxe room at the Grand Chateau in Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. The mountain resort is rich with character, but it is not our favorite to date. That spot is held by the Chomrong Guest House, in Chomrong, Nepal, where $1.80 bought a room with a panoramic view of the snowy Annapurna range.

As we seek a place to rest our heads each night, we employ two tactics we've never used at home: inspecting rooms and bargaining, both routine in this part of the world. We rarely settle for the first room we're shown; the more we look at, the better they get. At the Prince Hotel in Hanoi, $15 can put you in a cramped, windowless cell (the first we were shown) or a spacious, double-windowed room filled with antiques (the fourth).

Discounts of up to 75% have also been there for the asking. In Ubud, Bali, Andrea negotiated a $65 bungalow at the idyllic Fibra Inn down to $25, including breakfast. Staff dressed in elegant sarongs glided by throughout the day to place offerings of flowers and fruit on the Hindu altars standing directly off our porch.

In China, every hotel required a cash deposit of as much as four times the nightly rate. All rooms displayed a list of prices we'd be charged if specific furnishings were damaged or stolen. At the Ming Yuan Hotel in Nanning, the mattress was listed at 900 yuan ($1 equals about 8 yuan), luggage rack 50 yuan, bath towel 30 yuan, toilet 300 yuan, carpet 100 yuan per square meter and so on. I have no idea what a "pot culture" is, but if we broke it or swiped it, we were out 30 yuan. The Ming Yuan also prohibited "gambling," "wrestling" and "lecherous cats."

The most memorable house rules so far (and the easiest to comply with) were at the Freedom Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The sign on our closet door read: "It is against hotel regulations to have firearms or explosives in your room without our approval." Durians, however, were acceptable.

NEXT WEEK: Off to Europe.

*

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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