The typical way to start any article about Macau is to be as cliche and begin like this: “The Las Vegas of the East, this former Portuguese colony has more going for it than wealthy Chinese trying to double their money…” But then buy the worlds best travel guides (Lonely Planet (self proclaimed)) and then get pissed off at the pathetic effort that they have put into Macau. About 12 pages and a couple of useless maps. I researched the place en route from Hong Kong as the hydrofoil sped across the South China Sea and I wondered that the lame and lacklustre attempt could mean one of three things.
First of all was there simply that little to do in Macau that all it required was a few feeble pages of contradiction? Or perhaps they writer was on a super quick day trip and so asked a few questions and then gambled the day away at the Venetian? But then after actually visiting Macau I come to figure a third, and probably most likely scenario – That the writer who penned Macau didn’t actually visit and rather got their information from either wikitravel, or courtesy of the tourist board and a free give away map taken over by advertisements and taxi numbers. Needless to say, Macau doesn’t nearly get the ink it deserves.
Some 60km from Hong Kong island, until recently the vast majority of visitors to Macau (or Macao) rocked up courtesy of a super fast hydrofoil cum speed boat from HK. With one way economy prices starting at about $151HKD and the return $147HKD if bought together, tickets sell like hot cakes and so either book online, in advance or shell out for a premium ticket for the hour long journey. Or, if your wallet resembles a door stop take the helicopter and arrive in style.
The hydrofoil we used was Turbojet from the HK-Macau terminal on HK island (the biggest pier right at the end, take Star Ferry from Kowloon to central and then turn right and keep walking along the harbour until you reach it) Despite what some guide books say, the claim that boats also leave regularly from HK China city on Kowloon are wrong, but the morning departures are at 8.30 and then the next is at 12.30.
Anyway, like I already said, the vast majority of visitors to Macau have always come from Hong Kong, but now, though most people still do take this route budget airlines have started to fly from parts of Asia directly into Macau, flying passengers are on the increase and so keep an eye on routes opening up.
So we headed to Macau and I was genuinely surprised at how fast the boat went, literally the front comes up out of the sea and it skates along. Once at Macau we went through immigration and was given 180 day visas free of charge, Most other countries get just 90 days, but what this does mean is that if you are British you can get 180 days into Hong Kong, then nip to Macau and come back meaning you could perhaps live in Hong Kong on a tourist visa. Of course you couldn’t work and your British pension wouldn’t go really far. But still…
Macau is essentially a main island and then two outlying islands closely connected by a couple of bridges. Taipa and Coloane, with one of the ports of arrival being on Taipa and the other (the main one) on Macau island.
We rocked up in Macau and as soon as we left arrivals were mobbed by Chinese girls in short all in one dresses looking slick and I felt wanted. Naturally once I’d been convinced to hop on the bus to the Venetian I was ditched. But it didn’t matter and the great thing about Macau is that from the ferry terminal to every casino are free shuttles which anyone can ride at leisure.
Macau is indeed home to lots of world class casinos like the MGM, Wynne, Sands, Venetian etc and does attract people from all over Asia to come and gamble and have a hedonistic few days away courtesy of relaxed legislation on certain vices A little known fact is that the casinos in Macau collectively have more revenue than the casinos in Las Vegas. And so it really is a gambling paradise. But whereas Las Vegas popped up to satisfy a mob led urge for gambling and women Macau has popped up around stunning Chinese scenery, well kept gardens and all to the backdrop of some quite beautiful historical and religious monuments and the odd cherry blossom tree.
With about half a million residents Macau is undergoing an influx of immigration and given it is relatively small with each of the three outlying islands being realistically walkable (with a bit of effort) the economy is growing at a phenomenal pace. Yet it still retains its Portuguese charm with low rise European-esque streets and fine Portuguese architecture keen on bold whites, salmons, yellows and other pastel colours. And though you can stand and stroll the streets admiring the tranquility it usually isn’t long until you catch a glimpse of the Lisboa casino a large leaf like golden structure towering high above the city. Oddly though it doesn’t seem to take over, and though to call it subtle would be an overstatement it fits in quite comfortably.
The journey to the Venetian showed just how small Macau really is, but once at the world famous casino it felt like the sprawling resort went on forever. Straight out of Las Vegas the only thing it lacked was pissed up Westerners stumbling round dressed as Elvis and Looking to get married on the cheap.
As much as I fancied a flutter myself and perhaps fixing up some keen Filipino with a British visa we had an agenda.
We hopped in a taxi and headed to Seac Pai Van park and the giant panda pavilion. The taxi took about 8 minutes and cost the equivalent of about 2 quid. We hopped out of the taxi and just inside the park was a play area, panda information centre and random war plane just seemingly stuck there for no reason. The park itself is actually relatively big and could really take a good deal of time either walking and exploring or making use of the well kept gardens and play areas. But we headed directly to see the pandas, paid $10MOP (80p) tried our luck seeing if Hong Kong dollars worked in the vending machine (they did, and we also used them in a shop, but MOP is not used in Hong Kong, or at least not anywhere we tried)
80 pence is probably as cheap as you can pay anywhere in the world to see a panda and so I wasn’t expecting a great deal, perhaps some made in china teddy propped up by a bamboo shoot and running on Duracell. But we were surprised that actually there were two huge enclosures and both had a panda in.
There are two times during the day to go, the first is 10am until 1pm and them 2pm until 5pm. We we there around midday and the pandas looked like they’d just had a water pipe and were now chilling out. I am told the best time to visit is actually around 2pm when they get fed and get enthusiastic. But we really weren’t bothered, we were there to see one of the most beautiful, elusive and sadly endangered animals in nature and it was every bit as exciting and amazing as I hoped it would be.
As we stood in awe at probably the most gorgeous and loveable, teddy wannabe animal we have ever seen it occurred to me that I was hungry. And if I was hungry the kids we likely impoverished and so we made our exit and tried to find a bus stop, which was easy as it is right outside the park. Figuring out what bus we needed was a little more taxing and so in the end a bus came along and we just jumped on it and hoped for the best.
The bus went to Coloane village and took only 5 minutes, my keen eye spotted a bakery and it was BLT’s to go (oh how I have missed sliced bread and bacon!)
Resorting to my lonely planet book I realised yet again it had failed and just about every bus was incorrect and so I asked a local who helped us out. The issue with the bus is that like everywhere else in the world, the bus stops are defined by the street name and which street it joins. The problem was that the map I had (courtesy of my guidebook) had only a few main streets on, with the remainder just been white lines that must be somehow connected to a crystal ball which I did not have. Thankfully bus 50 took us to the Lisboa casino in Macau and in what seemed like the main bus station, which was just a few bus stands and workers looking important, but speaking absolutely no English whatsoever. It was actually quite funny, we were trying to get to ‘ruins of St Pauls’ and I was trying my hardest to ask for directions, or at least to be pointed in the right direction since the island was so small I knew we’d end up there at some point. About 5 workers were all stood around me scratching their heads and looking clueless as my Portuguese is worse than my Chinese and I don’t speak Chinese! Charades wasn’t working and I realised I didn’t know sign language as they looked at me blank. So I pulled out my guidebook thinking there must be a photo, and sure enough there was. I showed them the photo and they all sprang to life, started laughing, back slapping and high fiving each other and pointed forward. I laughed along with them and was gonna do a jumping chest bump with one of them in celebration until I realised it would probably be a step too far, and with that we headed off – Straight ahead and past the stunning Lisboa.
Within a couple of minutes we were walking past low rise Mediterranean style buildings and we really could have been in Portugal, well, other than the fact the text and names were also in Chinese (except the street names) it was actually quite a refreshing and relaxing stroll and before long we picked up signs and made our way into the little side streets. Perhaps it was because we had just left Hong Kong which is a metropolis of skyscrapers, but Macau felt like toy town, like we were in amongst a miniature village.
After some 15 minutes we were faced with the steps leading up to the ruins of St Paul and though it was the number one thing to see in Macau I couldn’t help wondering why. I mean, it’s nice, almost quaint and significantly beautiful. But really, its just a wall. When you dodge all the up and coming photographers of the year and walk under the ruin the are parts of a ruined church that are preserved in glass and again, it was a bit lacklustre and though I knew how culturally significant it was it lacked any kind of prestige. Definitely worth a photo opportunity we took an obligatory snap and then walked up to some fort complete with brand spanking new cannons painted so that they looked old. To most people walking past the cannons and around the fort they probably wallowed in history. But we just walked around for the sake of it, until we sat down to chill out and take some photos and that’s when it hit me.
As I looked at a cannon there was a break in the fort wall, and through that break we could see the huge Lisboa casino flickering its golden leaves high into the sky. Between the fort was traditional Chinese buildings and some temples. It occurred to me that the magic of Macau was not so much the standard of the historical sites, but more the seamless mixture of history, culture and excess combined with every day Chinese moving on from a Portuguese rule. The balance is as perfect as it could be and after a while I realised that you could come to Macau and never visit a single casino, it would feel just like a cultural getaway and wouldn’t be infringed upon by tourists looking to make it big on the roulette wheel. The casinos are not imposing, or relentless like in Las Vegas, and yet Macau is the most successful gambling city in the world. Perhaps it’s the non imposing nature that makes them so appealing. It’s almost like they operate under the radar, until of course you enter one.
We chose the the MGM for a flutter and it was beautiful, no expense spared the Casino is as luxurious as you could imagine. Kids weren’t allowed in the casino, and so I had to get my swagger on quickly. Which I did, I beat the casino at Black Jack and emerged some $40 better off. Though my high didn’t last long when the guy at the cashier desk next to me was cashing a cheque for $18,000 I did feel a tinge of inadequacy. But I was over in minutes and we went back out onto the to streets to stroll around and relax.
The night before heading to Macau I really questioned whether or not it would be worth it. There wasn’t much hype surrounding it and I had plans for us in Hong Kong. But Macau was a much needed relaxing escape from it all. It was a relaxing reminder of a gentle culture and was great to experience.
Knowing that when we left Macau we had 3 days of travel ahead of us it really was the respite we needed and as I write this on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (Borneo) I am so glad we took our time in Macau to relax…it was certainly the down time we needed before we began the second part of the 2013 trip.