Macau in Three Short Days

We landed in Macau late enough to see the lights of a few casinos from the window, yet leave us with absolutely no idea of the general topography. Looking through the airport for a free tourist fold-out map I stumbled upon what looked like the tourist information desk. Aside from a few foreign-language tourist books I spotted a poker magazine and with a lack of price I figured it was complimentary as were the others. Taking one step away I heard a shout from another counter:

“You pay! Magazine, you pay!”. I looked up to see a previously hidden guy behind the counter in front of me busy reading a book, but a glance around revealed a lady two desks down, shooting her meanest frown at me and holding an angry crooked finger in the air. I walked up to her to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

“Magazine! You pay one US dollar!”. Call me crazy, but for some reason I didn’t bring any greenbacks to Asia. I was out of luck and I didn’t like my chances of reasoning with somebody both angry and foreign, especially when I was tired and foreign. Holding an eyeline with my new best friend, I walked back to the other counter and exaggeratedly placed the magazine back on the pile. The guy behind the counter still didn’t acknowledge what was happening. He might have coughed.

As we passed her desk she pointed in the air again; “You pay! One US dollar!”, to which I just shrugged, smiled and walked away. Soon after we found the real tourist information and I picked up a map after making absolutely sure I wasn’t being followed by a crooked finger.

Map in hand, we took a trouble-free taxi ride to our hotelI and took in the mix of hotel and casino lights of the city along the way.

It’s hard not to compare Macau to Las Vegas on account of the score of casinos that light the cityscape. Macau at night seems more like a real city than Vegas’ over the top facades, which hide smoky caverns of free drinks and people paying for the city through slot machines. Not that you can’t find that here; somehow the Macau city center still manages to come off as classy.

I wanted to stay at the Grand Emperor on account of the location, but it was eventually decided that a hotel a block and a half away, the Royal Macau Hotel, would be our base. We soon realised during the cab ride that we were half way up Guia Hill toward the old fort and lighthouse, so any trip into the city center would be an easy walk down and a hard walk back up.

The hotel itself was palatialII ; they use natural stone extensively on floors and walls,III almost as if it were the cheapest and most plentiful way to decorate. At any time there seems to be at least twice as many staff as there should be, who are for the most part cheerful (doormen are a little worn-down understandably) and can usually understand you the first time you speakIV .

Somehow we received a room on the Premier floor (although we weren’t entirely sure if we’d paid for it), which greeted us with more marble mania and opulence all the way to our door. The rooms were surprisingly large for Asian standards, and you could actually walk around without moving bags or doing the typical door-shimmy to get into the bathroom. More marble flooring and a completely marble bathroom was impressive, as was the modern room itself. Outside the window we had a small view toward the lighthouse and harbour, with bamboo scaffolding across our window and stretching over the entire side of the hotel.

Breakfast was included and was thankfully western; I’m happy to eat local food, but having a familiar breakfast is so much better than us experimenting with the strange eastern breakfast samplings in KL. The only side effect; I’ve developed a small grapefruit juice habit that I can hopefully lose cold-turkey when I get home.

Another pleasant surprise was the return of real bacon. In Kuala Lumpur you’re treated to what they call Macon, or manufactured bacon. It’s essentially beef pressed with little perfect squares of fat, and flavoured somehow so it’s not as beefy in taste. Thankfully here nobody is scared of pigs.

As we were leaving the concierge appeared from nowhere and gave us another map, this time with his special shortcuts to where we wanted to go.

Taking his advice we headed downhill through a maze of some great smelling (and a few bad smelling) streets, winding our way down to the city center. Even though the map he gave us was completely out of scale and without street names, we managed to stumble upon a few historic buildings that were bursting with tour groups.

We found ourselves on flat ground, and in front of the Grand Emperor. The lobby and ground floor made our hotel look like a three star joint, with it’s well publicised kitschy design. Beefeaters even guard the front door, although somebody ought to tell them that they shouldn’t talk to tourists or lean against the wall. Inside, the main desk is surrounded by gold bars behind a plexiglass floor, which (although impressive) serves as much purpose as any of the other wacky things this place does to look British.

In the next few hours we walked the streets snaking between casinos. It’s great they haven’t gone the path of the Vegas strip – you can literally walk out of any casino and get onto the street, without the need to walk through the Vegas maze of casinos, walkways, tunnels and overpasses to make your way walking across town.

The one casino that stands out is the Grand Lisboa, due to the architectural curiosity of the exterior. Greeting you inside is a bronze horse headV which Stanley Ho paid a whopping $69HK million for, then plonked down in his landmark casino for everybody to ogle over. Oh, and beside it the too-huge-to-be-real 218 carat Star of Stanley Ho diamond for good measure. Walking through the lobby (you have to pass security worthy of an airport to get any further) visitors are treated to scores of priceless eastern antiques. The majority of the pieces are large, and I can imagine Stanley Ho running out of room in his mansion garages and having to put these things *somewhere*. It’s great to be able to check it all out for nix, as most of it is better than you’ll see in the museums, although on the same token it’s sad to think of what’s still sitting in private collections.

After visiting both cities it becomes clear that casinos are really a different beast in Macau. The main difference that’s easy to spot is the layout. Everybody here seems to come to gamble and casinos are designed with that in mind. You can literally walk in and find where you want to go; restaurants this way, hotel rooms that way, but most surprisingly they don’t hide their exits, or force you through gaming floors to get anywhere else. The labyrinthine mazes found in Vegas simply don’t exist here, and it’s not by accident – people don’t need cajoling to gamble.

You could forgive the Stanley Ho monopoly-era casinos for this type of design, but it’s true even of the modern American imports such as Wynn, MGM and The Venetian.

The other (and more surprising for me) difference was that there seemed to be less smoking in the casinos, my pet peeve in Vegas. There were still people smoking all over the place, but it’s either less than Vegas or they have much better ventilation systems. In either case it’s great to walk through and come out the other side without smelling like you’ve got a pack-a-day habit.

There’s two other peculiarities that I can see that are different on casino floors here. The first was the automatic roulette tables, a strange asterisk-shaped table with touchscreens for each player, with a roulette wheel inside a glass bubble at the center of the table. You insert your notes and drag your chips around the screenVI before the ball is ejected mechanically onto the wheel. All the social fun of roulette is completely lost with these so-called tables, as everybody sits heads-bowed tapping away at their own screens in silence.

The other difference is their love of Sic Bo, which was only second to the horde of Baccarat tables for popularity on the casino floors. As I’d not even heard of the game before I couldn’t understand the cryptic domino-like display of the table, although the amount of happy and social crowds around the table seem to lead a lot to it’s popularity.

Passing more baccarat tables and an Omaha Poker tournament inside Wynn, we elected to find the bar and had a few drinks inside an expensively furnished yet completely empty cafe styled bar.

All I needed to see were Chicken Feet on the menu at the restaurant to look elsewhere, so we left for MGM Grand instead. We picked a half-full restaurant called Square Eight, where I ate what was supposedly a Macanese dish. The servings were huge, tasted great, and the price in no way matched the luxurious look of the decor.

In the next couple hours we trekked through every casino we came upon, and in the Sands I snaffled a free bottle of water from a tray that held at least a thousand perfectly aligned bottles for guests. As I walked away it was swiftly replaced with another.

Casino’d out, we reached the shoreline and walked past what looked like old Expo grounds at Fishermans Wharf, which now hold stores that must be ran by eternal optimists, as from the outside everything looked to be closed down. At one end stands a well made but ghastly fibreglass volanco, imaginatively entitled Vulcania, which holds a small volcano museum.

Mostly everything else was closed, so we poked around the exterior for a while then spent the next hour walking around trying to find where our shuttle bus stopped, before catching a taxi back to our hotel.

Why go back to our hotel in the afternoon? Well, on account of the unbelievable 2pm-8pm free beer, wine and snacks in the lounge, held every night of the week to a live pianist in the background. Again, only a handful of people turned out for it while we were there.

After a couple hours of that we formed the brilliant idea to ride the shuttle bus the entire loop, so we could see exactly where we could pick it up from town to avoid walking back up the hill (or more likely, the taxi ride).

The shuttle leaves every ten minutes, and they’d told us it takes twenty to loop so we were all set. Once aboard we told the cranky grimacing driver three times, gesturing a loop with out hands (not beside our heads, although that might have helped). Finally he looked away into the distance so we took that as a yes, and jumped on. The shuttle filled up with people and we were on our way.

The first stop was Wynn, and after cutting off another two buses he flung himself into a small car space, opened the door and glared at us.

“Wynn, you, Wynn, off!”. I looked behind me to see everybody else waving at us, laughing at the silly tourists who didn’t know their stop.

Shaking our heads, he managed at least three different frustrated face-pulls before shutting the door and cutting more traffic off as he launched the bus out into two lanes of traffic.

Then something strange; we skipped two stops, not even going down the streets. All at once it became clear why we couldn’t see the bus at fisherman’s wharf. Nobody got off so they skipped that whole part of town.

Entering the ferry terminal, the last of the others got off the bus, the last of which (speaking perfect English) asked us where we wanted to go. He laughed heartily at the idea and shared it with the driver, who cackled with him before screwing his face up and angrily shooing the man off the bus.

We were almost out of the terminal when out of nowhere the bus double-parked across another, the door opened, and two people emerged from deep inside a crowd of hundreds and jumped on the bus. Just how that happened remained a mystery our entire stay.

We eventually did the full loop, and thanked the bus driver as we disembarked. It was hard to see any reaction as he was all but hanging out his window to look away from us.

Another neat gadget that the hotels have here are digital replacements for the do-not-disturb door hangers – a button on the inside turns an electronic display on the outside of the door, that tells the cleaners whether you want the room made up or left alone. There’s even a doorbell on the outside.

Unfortunately for us we must have hit DND while looking for light switches, as our room was as we left it, so for the next hour and a half we called the lobby fruitlessly requesting fresh towels. The doorbill chimed around 11pm that night.

The next day we set out early in the direction of the historic sites, but partly through the gently winding streets (and our inability to read) we managed to get seriously off-track. This turned out in our favour though, as we got to see some of the non-touristy (read dirty, cramped and completely non-English) streets that you would otherwise miss on guided tours and walking trips.

It really is amazing just how much they utilise land here and how cramped their living space, shops, streets and life is. I’m sure they’d laugh if they knew how most Gold Coast high rise apartments cost equal or more than a house with a garden. One feature of a house for sale in a real estate window bragged, “Single Numbered Street Address!”. If you live in a house here, you’re doing very well – everybody else lives in small apartments with even smaller windows, no balconies, and hang their clothes out to dry across swinging arms in the dirty, hazy air outside their windows.

We reached the shoreline again and the Pontes (which I imagine translates to Piers) and were greeted with trucks offloading fish to dry on the footpath. Not a bird, pet or even fly touches the thousands of fish left to dry in these flat boxes of fish, some still trying to jump their way back to freedom.

We found another casino hotel, Ponte 16, and walked through the metal detectors and guards (a fixture at most casinos and expensive hotels) into a simple, huge open space filled with gaming tables and an unusual amount of smoke clouds floating around. We stayed for a drink before the clouds floating down to eye level, then made haste outside. I’ll take smog over smoke any day.

We found ourselves (only literally) at Sao Domingos, a nicely built church with a series of steep, narrow staircases out the back that lead to the various floors of the Treasury of Sacred Art. The art unsurprisingly consists solely of religious artefacts, without title or explanation which make it more difficult to appreciate. The exhibits range from the impressive to the outright strange, such as a wooden box filled with carved timber crucified hands. The walk to the top to see the old church bells is worth the trip alone, if not the building itself.

We decided to follow the tourist street signs to Macau’s most well-known ruin, the ruins of Sao Paulo. As typical, there were around five hundred people on the steps up to the remarkably preserved facade, which you can walk up the rear of using the steel staircase and walkway. A guard slunk out of the crowd to tell me my water bottle wasn’t welcome up there for some reason, although you’re free to throw coins for luck onto the ledges. Looking through the windows leaves a view of older style buildings with the Grand Lisboa standing proud in the background.

Above the ruins lies the Fortaleza do Monte which is of the same age as Sao Paulo. Sadly we didn’t have the time (nor energy) to walk up to it, so it’s on the list for next time.

Deciding to retreat to the hotel for lunch at one of their restaurants, we again got lost in the maze of streets and before I knew it we’d managed to a full loop after an hour of walking. Deciding it was no longer a good idea to head in a direction, I had a good look at my map and charged off the right way, and found all the landmarks we’d seen this morning on the walk down. Before long we were sitting down for lunch at the hotel.

I chose the chicken with chestnuts, not knowing that the usual chicken served here is the variety that seems to have been hacked apart with a machete into cubes, bones and all. Not wanting to eat the fat, cartilage and bones I spent the next frustrating half-hour separating the meat from the rest with a fork and spoon – I have no idea how people do it with chopsticks, I’d bet they eat the lot bar the bones. It wasn’t all bad; the chestnuts were the highlight and it was otherwise a nice meal and a decent restaurant.

Finishing just in time for 2pm, we spent a bit of time in the lounge making use of the free wine until our twice-daily bus to the island of Taipa came along.

Crossing the harbour to Taipa you lose the sense of crowded space of the city, and the construction work everywhere makes it appear as if you’re amongst the future development of the country. The most recent of it is dubbed the Cotai Strip, a vast expanse of reclaimed swampland, some of which has been carved up into large blocks and is currently being fashioned into a casino strip.

Due to the double whammy of restricted visa laws in mainland China and the financial crisis, some casinos sit partially completed and most of the blocks are still virgin. There are however, the beginnings of what they are trying to achieve at one end of the strip.

Due to the limited amount of blocks (and money) a lot of the developments are partnerships between casinos, although most are owned by parent companies so it’s more brand-sharing than land-sharing. It’s an interesting fusion, with the Hyatt and Crown hotel’s perched above three different casinos on a single block. No luck at City of Dreams? Take the escalator upstairs to the Hard Rock Cafe Casino and try there. For somebody used to Vegas it’s a very surreal experience. And the floorspace is huge, at least as large as their American counterparts.

Outside it’s the usual glitsy lightshow everybody is used to, although the hundred of chandeliers visible in the Crown explains in part why it’s not very affordable to stay as a guest.

Crossing the road is amusing; imagine a six lane street with only the occasional shuttle bus and limo and no other traffic. I’m sure in years to come it’ll match the rest of Macau, but for now it’s almost as if the place has been abandoned.

Across the road are the only two casinos open on this side; the Four Seasons (which we skipped) and The Venetian, the American counterpart being my favourite styled casino in Vegas – though I’ve yet to stay there.

I always have trouble explaining the scale of Vegas to people, so there’s no chance I can get through the size of The Venetian to anybody, let alone people who have been to the American casino. According to the most accurate source of all time (yes, Wikipedia) it’s the fourth largest building in the world by floorspace (coming in at 250,000 acres), and the lake outside is beyond measuring – to me it seems they could place another building of the same size in the lake and double the size of the hotel. People were staring at the body of water in the same way people watch the ocean.

The domed entrance is similar to it’s counterpart, but again supersized. Walking through the entrance into the avenue of boutiques (in which the prices were suitably extreme) you’re led into the casino floor. At first it appears as if the walls are mirrored in a typical larger-than-life casino illusion. But then you realise that the room keeps going, and going, and you can only just make out the walls, which are too far away to walk to so you could make sure you’re eyes aren’t tricking you.

The gaming floor is the largest in the world, and thereĀ  is no way to describe how scarily huge the room is. Again, you see people just looking into the distance as they too can’t believe their eyes. It’s that big.

Walking through the gaming floor you arrive at a bar and two spiral escalators which is a mechanical marvel to watch. These lead onto two more floors of shopping and a top floor almost completely unused and screened with red cinema curtains, aside from a pricey health salon that they assure is filled with the, “Most well paid doctors in Macau”.

After spending $122 on drinks (one each, and that’s MOP) at the eclectic circular bar in the center of the casino floor, we checked the map to find there was no other casino in walking distance, so we caught the free shuttle that travels between it and The Sands. It was only after we left that I realised we hadn’t even seen the area with the famous canals and the full-size recreation of St. Mark’s Square.

In foreign countries it’s always a mystery on how safe the streets are at night, so it was welcoming to see women walking alone and families out walking the streets in the city beside us as we made the short stroll through the center and up to our hotel.

We started early to fill up on our last Macau breakfast, we caught the shuttle (different driver, same attitude) to the ferry terminal to pick up our Jetfoil tickets early before setting out for the day.

After the walking we’d done in the last two days we opted for a taxi to the Guia fort, up a road I’d figured was wide enough for one way traffic, until we had to park to let traffic downhill.

Throughout our holiday we saw a lot of unusual signs, most of them government and council warnings about what not to do. Along with playing ball games, walk on the grass or play soccer, around and inside the fort you can’t under any circumstances throw your fish away. Go figure.

The fort itself is a small, well built (it is a fort after all) structure perched atop the hill, with a much more modern lighthouse above it. The large, metal typhoon signals are on display in a plain room in the fort, used to warn locals of the various intensities expected when the weather turns ugly. I would have thought numbers would be more simple, but the odd shapes have been in use for a long time so they must work.

The only peculiar building on the hill is a little old chapel covered inside with frescoes that have been slowly chipped away where people can reach them. It’s completely empty, so aside from the paintings and structure there’s not a lot to look at. The small lighthouse is closed to the public, but the views across Macau make it a worthwhile trip.

We elected to walk downhill, as our hotel was a half-way point down to central. We tried the other restaurant, a semi-buffet where you pick a main and buffet the sides. I had the duck, which came in three slivers as big as your thumb and thin as your thumbnail, which were tasty but a bit of a cheat for a main. Afterward we had our last complimentary drinks and checked out. Lugging our bags onto the shuttle we made another stop-skipping trip to the ferry terminal and arrived just 45 minutes before the ferry left.

On the ticket it said to arrive just fifteen minutes beforehand, which doesn’t seem right if you’ve ever taken a plane anywhere in the last decade. Once there we had to wait thirty minutes before anybody showed up, then as if on cue, everybody arrived fifteen minutes early. One thing you learn in Macau (and HK for that matter) is that you can set your watch to public transport.

The deluxe JetFoil we chose (which cost something like $10 more than the regular one) was decked out like a first-class plane with leather seats and plenty of legroom. The ultra smooth ride was made even better with a complimentary meal, drinks and even the hot face-towel treatment. If there was a downside, it was the smog knocking out the visibility as you passed the hundreds of (I can only imagine picturesque) islands between Macau and HK. As with most boats I’ve been on, you only feel the swell when stationary, the rest of the time you could be on a bus or train.

An hour later we docked in Hong Kong, and the main body of our quick holiday was to begin. If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that Macau deserves a lot more time than we gave it, and I can’t wait to get back. :)

  1. Thanks to the nice lady at the proper tourist desk who wrote the name down in Cantonese for the driver []
  2. As is typical for hotels in Macau and also mostly Hong Kong []
  3. Sometimes ceilings are even treated to the large marble and granite tiles []
  4. On par with America, now that I think about it! []
  5. Godfather, anybody? []
  6. Resulting in a frantic tapping the first time as you get used to the system. []
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