Now Macau, where is that? Well, if you thought that Hong Kong was small, welcome to Macau (also spelt Macao). Lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong, it has a population of 480,000 and is just 28 square kilometres in area. It is a tiny country steeped in history, and due to its having been colonised by the Portuguese in 1557 and subsequently being governed by them until very recently, it has an interesting and colourful past as well as cultural mix. In 1999 however, it finally passed from Portuguese hands back to Chinese ones, and like Hong Kong, was made an SAR (Special Administrative Region). Although its two official languages are Cantonese (technically a Chinese dialect) and Portuguese, not many people speak the latter. Whilst 95% of the residents are Chinese, the remaining 5% are made up of Portuguese and Macanese (people with mixed Portuguese, Chinese and/or African blood). With a fusion like this, which manages to seep into many facets of the Macanese lifestyle, the total sum of this little spot really does amount to more than its infamous casinos and gambling!
This is the Macau where we spent four very worthwhile days. We caught a ferry across from Hong Kong to Macau, and it took a little over an hour. Although no visa is required (nor for Hong Kong) for Australians, we still had to go through the formalities of passport control, and before we knew it, we were making our way towards our accommodation. We had pre-arranged this one, a gorgeous place called Pousada de Mong Ha, which is actually the educational hotel of the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macao. Situated on Mong Ha Hill, and on the site of what were once military barracks, this beautiful hotel is a refuge of peace and tranquility. It is far enough from the casinos that you do not feel like you are in Las Vegas, but close enough that it really is only a short bus ride or half an hour walk to either the UNESCO historical centre or the very places where you can either make or lose millions! As soon as we set foot inside, we knew that we would love it. Included was a fabulous buffet breakfast, excellent coffee, a tiny gym (which I used a couple of times) and a business centre with internet. The attention to detail was superb, from the slippers to the toothbrush and toothpaste. The staff were friendly and helpful and the service was impeccable. Why am I going on about this? Because it is one of Macau’s hidden gems, and a bargain considering what it offers. It is basically a place where students do their hospitality training, yet if I was not told, I would never have guessed! You have to give credit where credit is due, and this place deserves every bit of credit that I am giving it.
Dragging ourselves away from the gorgeous room we stayed in and the sumptuous buffet breakfast was difficult, but manageable. Like Hong Kong, Macau is not the cheapest of places, but out of the main tourist areas, it is not impossible to find reasonably priced food and goods. Like any place on earth, you have to know where to shop! This task is always a little more difficult when it’s not your abode! So, off we went, exploring this two faced little so and so! Ex- Portuguese colony (with all the trimmings that come with it) versus the self-styled Las Vegas of the East!
To some, the above comparison may sound excessive, but after checking out “the strip” and the only days old (end of August 2007) “The Venetian” (an exact replica of it’s big brother in Las Vegas), we realised how very true this is. Rather than skyscrapers and offices, the construction here is all about Las Vegas-type casinos…….we saw several “familiar faces”, such as the Sands. Remember that unlike China and Hong Kong, gambling and casinos are legal here. It’s a monstrous market. Guess who just plugged the hole? Alex and I popped in to see a couple of places briefly, but alack and alas, the interest was minus 100! I am afraid that this just doesn’t float our proverbial boat. That aside, the cigarette smoke was more than we could bear. Like their Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts, the people of Macau like to smoke, and like to smoke a lot! Gag, gag! Despite both Hong Kong’s and Macau’s very obvious campaigns to curb smoking in public places (both countries had signs everywhere), the whole concept seemed to vaporise every time you walked into a casino. Would I be suggesting a link between money and smoking? Never! Maybe the people who smoke in these places are immune to the plethora of diseases that could be potentially be inflicted upon themselves and others. Ah yes, the money god is looking over them here!
I must say, we were flabbergasted by our trip to The Venetian, on the Cotai strip, which joins Macau to the small island of Taipa. Before I go on, I just read the following: “HONG KONG (AFP) — The world’s largest casino resort, the Venetian Macao, welcomed its one millionth visitor Friday just 17 days after opening, its operators said.” How is that, almost Australia’s entire population. This resort type casino is virtually a mini-Venice, with canals, gondolas, bridges and the whole shebang. The opulence was definitely OTT+ (that’s over the top plus). All Alex and I could do was walk around as if in a daze. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Well, that’s a lie, we had been to Venice recently! Click on the Cotai strip link above…..there are more to come!
On to the other face of Macau, the one that I thought was gorgeous! Welcome to a land of fortresses, outstanding museums, , churches, temples and food with a Portuguese flair! Now, we’re talking.
Hard to believe, but only a ten minute walk away from The Venetian was Taipa Village. It is a small and traditional village, and a window to the island’s past (which is perhaps why it was a fraction more than disconcerting to see The Venetian looming not very far in front of us). Easy enough to walk in a short time, we visited everything from traditional sweet stores to churches and temples. Only a stone’s throw away, along the waterfront, we visited the gracious Taipa House Museum, which was a collection of five villas, clearly showing how the Macanese middle class lived in the early 20th century.
Most of our time was actually spent on the Macau Peninsula, and after a few days of lots of walking and taking a look at the map, we were amazed at how much we had actually walked. Macau is packed with important cultural and historical sights, many of which have been named World Heritage sights by UNESCO. The Historic Centre of Macau is outstanding and brimming with such sites. There seemed to be something interesting around every corner. The list is endless, so I have tried to pick some of the highlights. Senado Square, with its pastel coloured buildings, is Macau’s urban centre and has been for centuries. It is still the place of choice for celebrations today, and is always full of people. As you can imagine, great for people watching. The Ruins of St Paul these days…is actually only a facade, literally! This church, originally built between 1602 and 1640, was destroyed by fire in 1835. It was fascinating to stroll through an area, which is totally open, and imagine what must have once been. Their are view points from which you can see the surrounding city. The Na Tcha Temple close by, was tiny but traditional. Interesting is its proximity to the church, presenting a dialectic of Western and Chinese ideals. It is one of Macau’s best examples of multicultural identity and religious freedom. Again, I had to wonder where we had gone wrong.
As in Hong Kong, Macau also has a multitude of different temples. My favourite one was the A-Ma temple, at the tip of the peninsula. It was possible standing when the Portuguese arrived. With quite a lot of open space, it consists of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards built into the boulder-strewn hillside and connected by winding paths through moon-like entrances and tiny gardens. I felt like Alice in Wonderland! Again, a very peaceful energy prevailed. It is said that Macau’s name is derived from this temple. This temple was dedicated to the seafarers’ goddess, A-Ma, and so this area was called A-Ma-Gau (or Place of A-Ma). Supposedly over time, the name morphed into Macau. There’s a bit of trivia for you!
There were also several parks in Macau to keep one out of mischief. We walked through several. It’s always lovely to see the locals doing their thing; chatting, playing chess or mahjong, sleeping under the trees.
They say that good things come in small packages! They also say that all good things must come to an end! Our time in Macau was short, but sweet. So, with Hong Kong and Macau under our belts, it was time to move on. On the day we left Macau, we did not actually know exactly where we were going until an hour or so before we left. With the border only kilometres away, we were not terribly worried however. China here we come!
(Photos: 1.- Casino Lisboa. 2.- Historical centre of Macau. 3.- Venice in Macau! And as you can see, there are more to come! 4.- Temple offerings. 5.- Temple on Taipa Island. 6.- The Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. 7.- Inside the Macao Museum, 3D image. 8.- Inside one of Macau’s many temples. 9.- A-Ma temple. 10.- Mid-afternoon nap.)