Somehow I can’t hear the word “Macau” without immediately thinking of John Rhys-Davies in the 1980’s miniseries “Shogun” – when he talked of the city’s significance in the Portuguese silk trade between Japan and China.
Today, Macau is far from the pirate-plagued trading port of the mid 1500’s, and accessing it doesn’t require dangerous weeks at sea. All it requires is a few minutes on a helicopter or a couple hours on a TurboJet catamaran.
And where once stood auctionhouses for the slave trade and massive Christian cathedrals now stand cheesy Disneyland-style themeparks, multibillion dollar casinos, and…massive Christian cathedrals.
After meeting Fran at Sheung Wan station in Hong Kong and struggling through nearly an hour of lines at immigration, I found myself in a place totally unlike anywhere I’d ever been. Macau is a perplexing combination of European, Latin, Asian, and American cultures – with traditional Chinese medicine shops on one corner and Roman-Catholic cathedrals on the next.
In general, outside of the Vegas-like strips Macau’s architecture is overwhelmingly Portuguese – so much so that at a glance, I could’ve easily assumed I was in Brazil. But closer examination reveals corners where “Rua de Madrid” meet “Avenida Xian Xing Hai”; where billboards for Batman the Credit Card overhang a 4-story Christmas tree and statue of Santa with sunglasses. Where a poor Chinese child urinates on the street corner and an enormous, glowing Las Vegas-style casino lights up the evening sky. Macau is a place unlike any other.
After starting our day in the pleasant Largo do Senado, Fran and I began following my list of highlights from Lonely Planet – visiting as many of the major tourist spots and getting as complete a taste of the city as possible during our single day’s visit:
First we spent a few hours just exploring the numerous squares and narrow alleys,
Before finding ourselves looking through the windows of the magnificent Ruins of the Church of St Paul (which some consider to be the greatest monument to Christianity in all of Asia).
Heading back out to the central throughfare, Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro (aka San Ma Lo in Cantonese),
We popped over to snap a few pictures in Rua da Felicidade – Street of Happiness – whose red-shuttered terraces were once Macau’s main red-light district…and which provided an interesting set for several scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Next we continued downhill to the waterfront promenade of Avenida da Republica, passing under the shadow of Macau Tower – the bungie jump officially dubbed “highest in the world.”
I’d been pretty excited about making the jump myself, until I heard the absolutely outrageous price tag (even more expensive than a solo skydive in San Diego!)
Finally, once the sun had completely set and the neon signs had begun to glow, we made our way to the newer “Las Vegas” side of the city:
From the fountain show at the Wynn hotel,
To the famous Casino Lisboa,
And of course the indoor canals of the MASSIVE and sprawling Venecian, a near replica of its $1.5 billion “little brother” in Nevada.
One thing I found quite surprising about Macau was how few people seemed to speak English, even in the biggest and most international of the casinos – especially considering its proximity to Hong Kong where everybody can hold at least a simple conversation. You’d think that with billions of dollars invested, Steve Wynn would spring a few extra bucks to stock his casinos with English-speaking staff 😛
Also surprising was the style inside the casinos themselves. Having been to Vegas on countless occasions, I was expecting loud, buzzing slot machines, flashing lights, and scantily-clad waitresses carrying trays full of cheap cocktails to overweight, poorly-dressed retirees. But this was not the case at all. Inside it felt more like Casino Royale than Las Vegas – the patrons were nicely dressed, and neither the lights nor the sounds (!!) were in any way obtrusive. In many cases, the casino areas were even separated from the rest of the hotel, requiring ID simply to enter – very different from the Vegas layouts which require you to walk past hundreds of slot machines just to get from your room to the nearest restaurant.
By the time we’d seen all that we could handle, it was nearly 1am – and we didn’t make it back to Hong Kong for bed until just after 3. Good thing those TurboJets run 24 hours a day!
All in all it was a near-perfect day of sightseeing, with an interesting cultural mix and a good buddy to share it with. We took loads of great pictures and made it to bed with feet so sore I could barely continue to stand on them.
And now that I’ve seen it, I’m satisfied.
Macau is off the list 🙂