A camel's-eye view of world's eighth wonder

LAS VEGAS DAYS
I was standing in the lobby of my hotel eavesdropping on a conversation between two camels. One was called Jody. The other Elias. "Boy!" said Elias. "It was a long walk from Egypt but it sure was worth it!" "It certainly was," gushed Jody. "In fact, the Luxor Hotel is the eighth wonder of the world!"

It is not often that you find yourself in agreement with a camel, but the moment you set eyes on Las Vegas you regress into a state of child- like wonder where absolutely anything seems possible. On the flight over I had read Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson arms himself for the expedition with a suitcase-full of psychedelic drugs but discovers upon arrival that the precaution has been redundant, that Las Vegas itself is one giant hallucination.

For myself, all I can say is that life up to this point had failed entirely to prepare me for Las Vegas's newest creation, the Luxor Hotel, a giant pyramid of black glass guarded by a sphinx with a nose job and bright blue eyes. The sphinx stands six floors high, the pyramid 36. Each of the four sides of the pyramid's base is twice the length of a football pitch.

I went through the glass doors and found myself inside the biggest indoor space in the world. As my guide on the Nile River Cruise would later inform me, you could fit nine jumbo jets in here and still have space left for a couple of hundred slot machines. It was like a city turned inside out. The 2,526 rooms were contained within the pyramid's inner layer, the structure supporting the black glass exterior. Looking up, I saw rows and rows of doors on open terraces rising, in diminishing dimensions, to the conical roof.

An obelisk rose high from the middle of the casino floor, a jangling inferno in fuchsia and magenta where peroxide grandmothers fed battalions of hungry slot machines. To one side of the reception desk, an airport check-in counter 70 yards long operated by people in orange suits, I spotted Jody and Elias. They looked real. They were tall and furry. They moved their necks up and down and their lower mandibles from side to side. They blinked and wagged their tails. Had they not spoken I might not have noticed that their bodies, between the base of the neck and the base of the tail, were inert. In a photograph you could not tell the difference.

I went up to my 15th-floor room in an "inclinator" with a mirror for a ceiling and emerged rather woozily to discover that I was peering at the top of New York's Chrysler Building. King Kong was clinging to the spire. I fled to my room - reassuringly mundane save for the hieroglyphics on the cupboard - and sought comfort in CNN. Bosnia. Clinton. OJ. So familiar and yet, suddenly, so far away. I turned off the TV and looked out on to a mountain moonscape. For an instant I wondered if it was made of papier mache.

Next morning I went for breakfast to the Pyramid Cafe. (I wasn't quite ready yet for Tut's Hut, Nefertiti's Lounge and the Sacred Sea Restaurant.) On the menu was a dish called Pharaoh's Phavourite, of "delicious chicken fried steak smothered with country gravy and two eggs any style, served with hashbrowns and toast". I decided to settle for the Eggs Benedict Cheops.

Then I went for the cruise on the Nile. Me and 15 others on a barge with a guide in a safari suit who warned us as we stepped aboard that the Goddess Isis had issued a commandment forbidding smoking. Propelled along 300,000 gallons of water by a man-made current, we circumnavigated the interior of the pyramid. "To our right is the Valley of the Kings," said the guide, pointing to a mural, "and just ahead, to our left, Rameses III on a chariot." Mysterious music filled the air. We turned a bend and on the shore, through a mist, saw a mirage: a damsel in a Cleopatra wig performing a silent belly dance. We blinked and she was gone. Then into a tunnel where more mysterious music filled the air. Men wearing white handkerchiefs on their heads were playing flutes and small drums.

I could have spent a month sampling the wonders of this adult Disneyland. Among the things I managed to see were the Tutankhamun's Tomb museum, which contained replicas of 3,000-year-old cats with golden coats and turquoise claws; the hotel souvenir shop where, they sold do-it-yourself "How to make a mummy" books, amethyst pyramids "Made in Mexico" and, for $45,000, a sarcophagus made in the year 2000BC; and Pharaoh's Theatre, where an ice show was playing to packed houses of Middle Americans in shorts.

On the way to the airport, I paused to bid my last farewell to the camels. They were still nattering away. "I know the names of the tributaries of the Nile," said Elias. "You do?" said Jody. "Yep!" "I'm proud of you Elias. What are their names?" "They are called the Juveniles!"

I stepped out into the bright desert sunlight and set off on the long trip back to adulthood and the real world.

JOHN CARLIN

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