Macau - Reno of the East
Written by Alex
This morning’s early departure meant we would arrive in Macau with enough time to explore most of the important places. Our friend in Saigon had suggested this route as a means of getting to Hong Kong and after a bit of Internet searching figured we could fly to Macau, spend a day and then take a ferry to Hong Kong. With a title like the Las Vegas of the East, who could resist.
We arrived in broad daylight and were of course rewarded with an infrastructure that very few cities in South East Asia had – immaculately paved roads, calm traffic and a sense of urban planning. We had arrived in China or at least an area that belonged to China. Our hotel, located only minutes from anything that was remotely worth seeing, was a bargain at $40US per night. And though the mattress could be compared to the stone at Suan Mokkh, it was clean and would do for just one night.
A quick change into shorts and walking shoes and we were on our way. Walking up the stairs to the entryway of a fast food restaurant, I heard “Hey guys, how are you?” Out of context, it took a minute for me to realize that this was the Philippine born New Yorker who we had met on part of the Halong Bay trip in Vietnam. I knew he was headed to Hong Kong but to see him here in Macau was a bit startling. He looked fabulous – city life suited him much better than hiking.
We felt as though we’d been transported to a city in Europe – the central square was restored to reflect ands showcase the architecture left over from the Portuguese. Ultra clean, almost sterile, this bustling square was at the middle of everything. We explored on foot the churches and buildings of interest. We hoofed it up the hill to the fortress, which provided vistas of the city and housed the national museum. We walked down towards the Ruins of the Church of Saint Paul and smiled at the world’s smallest temple. The steps leading away from the ruins had a slight resemblance to the Roman Steps and at the bottom, local life came alive. Pharmacies boasting natural cures and ancient Chinese remedies, along with the most potent of Allopathic prescriptions were full of patrons. The aromas of drying meats and fresh cookies lingered together, while school girls in their pressed uniforms huddled together, coyly discussing the days events.
More like the Reno of the East, Macau is on the brink of transformation. A skyline plagued with the outlines of casino neon, it has the feeling that it is about to happen. (We did not visit the Venetian – which seems to have the world already talking.) Macau’s version of the Strip is rather pedestrian unfriendly. We chose the Casino Lisboa - the grandest of the old school gambling palaces and inside found the expected black jack tables, slot machines and stuffy air. The clientele was all Asian – though the distinction between local and visiting tourist was hard to decipher. We were intrigued mostly with the most popular game – Baccarat - its rules and regulations completely foreign to us. Few of the dealers spoke English and the stationary kiosk at the end of the hall, though it included English instruction, was not the most efficient way of learning a new game. We figured we’d eat and then see what happens.
We chose the formal Chinese restaurant on the 5th floor. Black sliding doors and a computerized koi walkway led us into the private dining area. I felt underdressed and not important enough. Patrick said I was being crazy – we’re in a casino, remember. Regardless, we took up a whole lavish booth, ordered divinely good food and just had one of those “Where the hell are we moments?” We hoped our luck at the tables would change, with a bit of food in our bellies, but inertia to sit down at the tables remained the discouraging factor. So we watched. At one point, the nightly entertainment arrived – 5 Caucasian women, clad in sequin and lace and not much else, began to gyrate and move to the rhythms of sultry music on the bandstand that stood at the front of this large gaming room. And the crowd of spectators grew. All men, all watching in awe. It was one of the weirder things we have ever seen.
We explored the other casinos, but all offered the same thing – tables to games we did not understand. One thing to do in Macau is to have a drink at Fisherman’s Wharf. Our taxi dropped us off at the waterfront but what we encountered was another one of those strange things. It was Fisherman’s Wharf – but a Disneyland version of it. And next door was the Old Quarter of New Orleans, the Art Deco district of Miami, the Great Wall of China, a Japanese Pagoda and so on. Some developer thought it would be a great idea to just copy what works in other places of the world, tourists will like it. Some decisions make very little sense to me. Tired and bored, we returned to our hotel.
16. April (morning)
A taste of Macau
Check out time was noon. That meant we had 4 hours to eat breakfast and find the few points of interest that we had not seen yesterday. The Holiday Inn around the corner provided an American breakfast for Patrick and a dim sum sampler for me and a big window to watch the local world come alive. We happened to be across from a park where the early morning aerobics and calisthenic exercises were already underway.
We found the temple – a stunning place to worship built into the rock. The scent of incense burned through the air and I was amazed to see these giant coils. Hanging in the air like an art formation, these coils simply burned until they were no more, casting a reminder of someone’s prayers and wishes into the air.
Across the way is the Maritime Museum, and after a quick look at our watches, we determined that there was enough time for a flyby visit. Or wait, we could just take our time – where did we really need to go? A group of school children on a field trip exited as we entered…
The Maritime Museum is a well planned and impeccably cared after tribute to the maritime history of Macau. This island was instrumental in the trade route to Asia and beyond and its historical significance is evident. It is incredible to see man’s relationship to the sea and how technology has influenced the movement of civilizations across the sea. We hurried next to the Moorish barracks before heading back to hour hotel, grabbing our packed bags, returning the key and hopping into a cab. “Ferry Terminal to Hong Kong please.”