Swashbuckling pirates roaming the South China Sea, ancient Chinese temples wafting pungent incense, priggish Portuguese Padroado reaching across the oceans with their clenched Catholic fists; these are impressions of Macau which endured for nearly 450 years, until the process of the 1999 handover to the Chinese government began. Today, as the Chiang Mai media was settling onto the virgin direct Air Asia flight from Chiang Mai to Macau, the buzz was about three things: gambling, shopping, and eating. Two and a half hours later, we landed to the garish kaleidoscopic lights of Macau’s night skyline.
Macau is a pretty whacky little place. Opulent, resource-sucking, energy-feeding casinos churn and chew through unimaginable sums of money. Nearby, stand ancient Chinese temples steeped in feng-shui, religion, superstition and hoards of pilgrims. Rows of stunning and historical Portuguese edifices glister and gleam next to clusters of Hong Kong-styled apartments, spewing air-conditioned units, unsightly wires and drying laundry from their façade. At night, hotels jostle for gambling punters by putting on extravagant shows, and entire buildings turn into light stages…like tropical flowers trying to seduce greedy bees and butterflies with their cloying scents, startling hues and pretty petals. It is simply so much; too much.
Like Lego land plugged into a mainframe, Macau’s casinos bling and buzz. Names long synonymous with Las Vegas – The Sands, The Venetian, Wynn, MGM – are now making their mark on Macau peninsular and Taipa Island…and soon, with more and more islands miraculously being built from scratch or expanding, Macau will become an even larger and decked out playground. Up to 2 million visitors per month, of which over half are from mainland China, pour into Macau, mostly on one-day gambling jaunts. This staggering number of people fill the casinos around the clock with tea-sipping, smoke wafting, phlegm discharging, coins clanging gamblers. So much so that the Macau government, in 2010, declared that it would be giving all of its 550,000 citizens between the ages of 18 and 65, a lifelong pocket money of around 60,000 baht per year, that is how much, after vast investments in infrastructure, was left over from gambling tax.
Casinos provide all sorts of non-gambling entertainment and if you are fed up with feeding the gluttonous machines, then you can be serenaded by Filipino gondoliers at the Venetian (though beautifully designed with gleaming hard wood, these gondolas are powered by an electric engine and cost the same as a latest BMW), shop for just about every exclusive brand name imaginable in all of the casinos, dine in all-American fast food chains or a plethora of Chinese and international restaurants, and simply wander the vastness of each casino/hotel, exploring the glitz and gilt on offer.
Thai people go stir-food-crazy in Macau; souvenir shops selling sweet dried pork, salted fish, prunes, pickles and other Asian delights swarm with Thai tourists daily. Those looking for authentic Chinese cuisine will also find all manner of restaurants serving up exoticas such as pigeon feet and other unmentionables, to more staple Chinese dishes from all regions. All the major hotels and casinos have fine dining options with international chefs vying for accolades and punters. But – listen up foodies! – Macanese cuisine trumps it all. This unique blend of Portuguese and south Chinese cuisine mainly evolved over the centuries as Portuguese housewives struggled to replicate the flavours from home with local spices and ingredients. The Nga Tim Café on Coloane is a must-visit; a casual outdoors restaurant set on the shady square of the beautiful São Francisco Xavier church, near the water’s edge. Tasty seafood dishes, infused with flavours beg you to drop the cutlery and get your hands dirty. Must try dishes include the seafood rice soup, curried crab, drunken prawns and Portuguese baked perch, served with toasty warm buns and melting butter…all of which should be washed down with a cool Tsingtao beer. And don’t forget to walk around the corner to sample the world-famous Lord Stow’s egg tart, munching on it crispy-hot and aromatic-fresh, straight out of the oven.
(OK, they are LED lights, but poetic license and all…)
If you are a big spender, you should try to get into an exclusive club such as The Galaxy Macau’s new China Rouge, where custom-ordered fine art and sexy moody furnishings are both intimate and opulent, and where privacy and exclusivity reign supreme. Touted as a, ‘forbidden chamber of the elite’ where Hong Kong’s movie stars and international tycoons sip champagne while watching cabaret shows and world class singers and DJs, China Rouge is a dreamy reflection of how Macau probably wishes to be viewed by the world – sophisticated, stylish, modern, international and yet steeped in history and culture. More pedestrian, and accessible, however, are the array of free shows put on by rival hotel casinos, whether its Wynn’s pulp-operatic water fountain show, City of Dream’s The Dragon Treasure, The Sand’s cool aqua features, or simply standing in front of the Lisboa and taking in the ever-changing light displays, it is all designed to beckon and seduce…and induce to spend.
Descending from the whirligig of heady consumerism, a visit to an ancient Chinese temple offers a calming and introspective experience. Hazy with incense, adorned with old art and sculpture and most of all oozing in spirituality, these temples are, once you have fought your way through the busloads of tourists, peaceful oases in a city on steroids. If you only have a short time, two temples worth stopping at are the A-ma Temple and the Kun Iam temple, Macau’s oldest, dating back to the 13th century.
Catholicism and Portugal have left quite an imprint on Macau, with the iconic façade ruin of St. Paul’s selling more postcards over the decades than any other landmark. Stroll to the Senado Square, the historical town square of Macau (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), lined with buildings, churches, monuments, museums and charming streetscapes. Here you can souvenir shop to your heart’s content (wines and ports are very well-priced), and take in the contrasting charm of Macau’s old and new, east and west. A short walk will also take you to the old fort, where cannons still stand guard, though instead of pointing towards the sea below, they now point at glittering casinos erected on land recently reclaimed from the sea.
Of course there is more to do. You can excrete a life time’s worth of adrenalin by doing the world’s highest bungee off the Macau Tower, or if you aren’t quite that crazy, simply hook up and do the sky walk. Lovers of art will find the Macau Museum of Art worth visiting and buyers can take a stroll around Senado Square and get in some art shopping. If you have time, a quick one hour ferry (or 15 minute helicopter ride) will take you to Hong Kong and all that she offers.
Air Asia sponsored Citylife’s trip to Macau, so a huge thank you! Direct flights of 2.40 hours are convenient and run daily. For up-to-date information please visit www.airasia.com.
A multimedia version: