Miraculous Macau: Modern and MystifyingThe name Macau brings to mind bygone days of pirates roaming the South China Sea, of a mysterious mix where East and West collided and the unfamiliar could be explored. Today Macau is still a place well worth spending time and is full of mixes, both modern and mystifying, with glimpses into the colonial past.
While the growth is phenomenal, strolling the historic city center still evokes a link to the past. Macau itself needs no apology; its reputation, once tarnished, just needs updating. In 1999 Macau was handed over to China after 450 years of Portuguese rule.
Originally my plan was to see Hong Kong and then check out Macau, only an hour by ferry. I would now advise to by all means to check out Hong Kong on your way to Macau.
The days of old smoke-filled casinos and pawnshops are over; Las Vegas’s biggest players are all building big bright new ones there. I’d like to double down on their hunch.
Still, if you’re feeling lucky, by all means take a chance at some of the world’s newest and best gaming places. Whatever your choice, I am willing to bet that you’ll be glad you came.
Macau is a now an SAR Zone or specifically a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China. Like Hong Kong, it benefits from a, “one-country-two-systems principal.” Simply put, it is easy to get there with no big visa problems and easy access is assured. That was surely evident by the number of visitors heading there via the ferry. A huge number of visitors cross over from the mainland, also.
China did not acquire Macau with the expiration of a lease agreement as they acquired Hong Kong from Great Britain. The Portuguese requested the transfer.
While this caused some concern in the beginning, it seems to have worked out fine. Before withdrawing, the Portuguese made vast improvements to the city and its historic center. Their stamp on parts of Macau will be evident for many years to come.
In the Beginning
My home base in Macau was the Landmark Hotel, which is a prime example of a modern casino hotel. It's large at 451 rooms, all with floor-to-ceiling windows and a marble bathroom large enough for a family of four.
The prices at the large hotels, due to the growing number of available rooms, are quite reasonable. After finding my way out of the large bathroom, I found my way to the nearby Largo do Senado (Senate Square) the heart of old Macau.
In all of Asia the Largo has a reputation as one of the most charming. It is well deserved. The surrounding colorful colonial-style buildings masterfully blend with the black and white stone tiles that make up the square. Sitting on benches and enjoying the area seems to be a big Macau pastime and understandably so. People watching and shopping are prime and I often walked there both day and night.
Nearby is the Cultural Club, housed in an old pawnshop building, a precursor of today’s modern banks called Tak Seng On. This award-winning tall fortress-style building is a throwback to the days when possessions and not cash was king.
The temple on this site was there before the Portuguese arrived in the 1400s. Many from mainland China come here to pray. The vibe is wonderful, and walking to the various sites is invigorating.
The most active and historical temple in Macau is Kun Iam, the place China and the US signed the first treaty between the two countries in 1844. It is also the busiest temple in town, perhaps because of the ancient banyan tree know as the Sweetheart Tree. Inside there are pictures of the departed with offerings of their favorite things. It is also a place where the paper icons are burnt so they may meet the recently departed.
To mix things up, the Old Protestant Cemetery is a peaceful place to reflect on those sailors who never made it back to the West. Before 1821 there was no place to bury Protestants because church law forbade interning them on hallowed grounds. Many were clandestinely buried in unmarked hills. Among the tombs is that of Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China and author of the first Chinese- English dictionary.
One Small Step for Mankind
As the wind whipped by I was strapped into gear and jump suit. The line runs 746 feet (227 meters) to the ground you're falling at 47 mph (76 km/hr) and you will never forget the rush. It is the tallest jump of its kind in the world; the second is in Auckland. If climbing is your thing, do the mast climb. It takes two hours and is only for the fit and brave.
No matter what you decide on, a meal at the Tower should be mandatory. I chose the Lua Azul with some superb Dim Sum and elegant setting. The 360-degree café offers the highest dinning in Macau with views over the city and Pearl River Delta.
Place Your Bets
The Venetian, Galaxy and Wynn groups will all be opening soon and most on reclaimed land, leaving the old Macau in peace. It is expected that Macau will come close to the US$7.5 billion collected in Las Vegas last year.
One "must visit" is the Lisboa, a gaudy but pleasing landmark known as the wedding cake that was opened by Stanley Ho, the "king" of the island. If you came by ferry, thank Stanley. The newly opened Fisherman’s Village will keep those who cannot gamble busy. Other modern options are the Grand Prix Museum and greyhound racing at Macau Canidrome. Win or lose, relax the next day back in the old Macau.
So Much More
Ferry travel from Hong Kong was easy and frequent and takes about one hour. Two companies that provide service are Turbo Jet and New World First Ferry. The cost runs around $18 to $24 depending on the class.
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