MARCH 30, 1998


Imagine this scene: You're lying on a beach chair on Thailand's island of Phuket, sipping a cool drink and gazing into the horizon as the sun settles into the Andaman Sea. A light wind blows through the coconut palms and cools your slightly sunburned skin. Relaxed yet? If those thoughts aren't compelling enough, contemplate this: Such a day in tropical paradise can be had for at least 40% less than what it cost last year.

With the huge currency depreciations that have swept through the region since July, 1997, vacationing on an Asian beach has gotten so affordable you almost can't afford to pass it up. Southeast Asia's prime island destinations--Phuket (pronounced "poo-KET") in Thailand, Penang in Malaysia, Cebu in the Philippines, and Bali in Indonesia--all cost far less now that those countries' currencies have plunged against the U.S. dollar.

Getting there is cheaper, too. Some Asian airlines, keen to generate traffic in these tough economic times, are offering special deals. Cathay Pacific Airway's incredible $899 Internet All Asia Pass, for example, allows you to travel from New York or Los Angeles and make unlimited trips between 18 Asian cities--including Bali, Cebu, Penang, and Bangkok. Rarely do round-trip fares to Asia drop below $1,000--and never do they include so many additional legs. You can reserve a ticket through Cathay's Web site,

While the great seafood and souvenirs of Asia's islands are that much less expensive, the biggest savings are on hotels. One key to getting a good deal is to look for locally owned chains, as well as smaller family-run hotels. Many of the big international chains fixed their rates in U.S. dollars shortly after the region's currencies started fluctuating last year, meaning prices didn't drop as exchange rates fell. But for the most part, locally owned hotels have kept prices in the native currency.

On Phuket, which has direct flights from Tokyo, Taipei, and Singapore, there are fantastic buys. "Everything is cheaper now," marvels Rudd Corwin, a San Jose (Calif.) computer executive staying at the Thavorn Beach Village hotel. His co-vacationers were quite pleased with their exchange rate of 45 Thai baht to the dollar in early March, compared with 25 just a year ago.

The hotel, a short drive north of Phuket's main Patong beach, has charged 4,500 baht for a deluxe, ocean view hillside villa since it opened last year. But with the currency depreciation, the converted price has plunged from $180 to about $100. At the hotel, one of four in Phuket run by the family-owned Thavorn Group, guests stay in houselike villas with wooden floors and traditional teak furniture, a plus for travelers looking for a more authentic experience.

One key to getting these great rates is to book through a local travel agent in the country you're traveling to. Even the Thavorn hotels have rates listed in U.S. dollars for people who call up and inquire in English. If you do that, the deluxe room suddenly runs $190. But any reputable hotel will have a cheaper contract rate available through a travel agent in big capital cities.

If you're hunting for a room on your own, look for a hotel that will quote you a nonfluctuating rate in the local currency. For example, at Phuket's Peach Hill Hotel, between the Karon and Kata beaches, the rate is a flat 1,980 baht, now $45, for a decent room with a balcony overlooking the pool. Last year, that baht price would have converted to $79. By contrast, a nearby boutique resort called The Boathouse will charge the baht equivalent of $105 per night.

If you can say you live in the country, are paid in the local currency--or do the asking in the local language--many hotels will offer an even better rate. For example, Thailand's Central Group, which owns hotels as well as the country's largest department store, charges $143 per night at its colonial-style luxury resort in Koh Samui, Thailand's second-most-popular island destination. But residents of Thailand can have that same room for $82. Also, asking for a corporate rate can result in a 20% discount.

Another way to find savings is to fly the national airline from the capital to an island destination--Malaysian Airlines to Penang, Philippine Airlines to Cebu, Thai International Airways to Phuket, or Garuda Indonesia to Bali. These carriers have not significantly raised prices, and tickets purchased through local travel agents usually will result in cheap fares. Thai Airways has kept the Bangkok-Phuket round-trip fare at 4,000 baht, so what was once a $160 ticket now costs $91.

If all these bargains don't melt away your stress, try a Thai massage. In Phuket, the parlor at the foot of the Peach Hill Hotel charges the equivalent of $4.50 for one hour of vigorous muscle rubbing, down from $8 last year. That's almost reason enough to take an island vacation in Asia this year.

Sheri Prasso