Macau (or Macao, depending on preference) is one of the two special administrative regions of China, the other being Hong Kong. It is one of those places that is relatively close to Hong Kong, being only 70 minutes away by ferry. Yet, it never occurred to me to take a day trip to Macau when I stay in Hong Kong, until I met a friend in Glasgow who is a Macanese native, born and raised there. I had one day to spare in Hong Kong before I headed to Southeast Asia for the Christmas holidays, and not knowing what I would do in Hong Kong (again), I thought that it would finally be time for me to head over to Macau for a look. What’d you know, my friend was back in Macau for the holidays at the same time…eh! She gladly agreed to be my local guide – with a car! – and I was spared from having to look into the places that I would be able to visit in one day, hooray! So I hopped onto a ferry in the morning and sailed away from Hong Kong – off to Macau we go!
Once a Portuguese colony, Macau has preserved many cultural characteristics of Portugal, which can be seen by traits such as architecture and cuisine (and the fact that Portuguese remains as one of the official languages, in addition to Cantonese). However, if Macau is known for one thing internationally, it would be its gambling scene with revenues far exceeding those of Las Vegas – perhaps not surprisingly as it is so close to China, which is by far the largest source of its market. With only one day in Macau, I was only able to get a first taste of Macanese culture guided by my Macanese friend, and we were lucky enough to stumble across a few special events in light of the Christmas season. I certainly did visit at the perfect time!
Macau – the old and the new
One thing I noticed immediately about Macau – it was crowded! Though, somehow I felt like it was a different kind of “crowded” compared with Hong Kong, the kind that didn’t suffocate me (sorry Hong Kong). It was later that I realized that the region of Macau has the highest population density in the world (I actually read that somewhere before, but it didn’t occur to me when I was IN Macau) – WHAT! Certainly not quite expected for a small place but precisely because it is small and has a big population, the density is so high. It wasn’t so obvious when you walk through Taipa or Coloane in the far south, but when you head to the main attractions in the Macau Peninsula, such as the ruins of St. Paul’s, the crowds suddenly hit you and you’re easily lost in a sea of people.
Macau as seen from the steps leading to the ruins of St. Paul’s
Statue of Guan Yin
An abandoned shipyard
Macau from above
Macau from above, with Casino Lisboa on the right
Macau does have a new side and an old side, as apparent in its streets and façades. Understandably, the Portuguese colonization had a big influence on Macanese culture, and many remains of Portuguese rule can be seen in the European-style architecture in Macau. Additionally, the rise of the gambling scene in Macau contributed to its rapid modernization, with high-rise buildings and shiny exteriors. However, if you explore the region as a whole, you will see that there are signs of age and history – abandoned shipyards, tattered roofs, unseen alleys…
The magnificent casinos of Macau
Of course, you haven’t really been to Macau if you skip its casinos, which are really huge entertainment centers that serve not only the gambling industry, but cater to shoppers, diners, movie-goers, and vacationers in general. I didn’t intend on entering the casinos, but my friend convinced me to go into a couple and check out what the big fuss was about. I was curious too, and I did want to see for myself whether the gambling scene portrayed in Macau’s image is really that extravagant. So with my friend, we explored two of the most glamourous casinos in Macau – The Venetian and Galaxy.
Inside The Venetian
Inside The Venetian
A painting on the ceiling of The Venetian
A jolly gondolier
Inside Galaxy Macau
A concert inside Galaxy Macau
The exterior of Galaxy Macau
A casino area inside The Venetian
I’ll first just say that I was impressed. The Venetian was designed and laid out to mimic the real Venice in Italy, with canals, bridges, Venetian-style buildings as decorations, and even singing gondoliers. The ceiling was adorned in such a way that it’s always “day time”, even inside the buildings. You could really lose track of time when you’re inside, and perhaps that’s exactly what they want the gamblers and shoppers to do, hah! The Venetian felt like a huge, luxurious shopping center built for the rich and if you enjoy shopping for luxury brands or gambling your money away, then you’ll find it a paradise. However, I got bored of the place because of the following reasons: (1) I’m neither an avid shopper nor a gambler, (2) the artificial “day time” made me really dizzy and I almost felt sick after walking around for 15 minutes, (3) Venice is one of my favourite cities in Italy, and everything in The Venetian just seemed so fake after having been to the true Venice, and (4) the casinos were interesting but reminded me of a very crowded Gare du Nord (north train station in Paris) or worst, a train station in China with people everywhere. My lack of appreciation for the place has reduced a luxurious casino into an ordinary train station – sorry!
As for Galaxy, I don’t have much to say about it except that I felt much better inside, being able to breath more easily because it was less crowded and didn’t have the artificial day time effect that made me feel bizarre. Galaxy also felt more classy, and that was probably because of the small orchestra that was playing in an orchestra as we were passing by. All the same though, no interest in real casinos and gambling, so going inside these buildings was really just to say “I’ve been there and done that”. There are much better things to do in Macau anyway…
Winter Christmas village
…one of which was to visit the Winter Christmas village that was taking place in December! It was an extremely colourful flower show that reminded me of Keukenhof in the Netherlands, but Christmas-themed with Santa and reindeer and gingerbread houses – are gingerbread houses even related to Christmas?!
Flower displays in the Christmas village
Santa is a violinist?
Friends at the Christmas village!
Flower displays in the Christmas village
After the rain
I quite enjoyed this part of the trip because the colours brought so much life to the place, and I preferred this kind of liveliness over the casino any day! I feel like Macau certainly put a lot of efforts into events like this, whether to attract tourists or to engage local residents in the festival atmosphere. Again, I must say that I felt super lucky to be visiting during Christmas!
Macau by night
Before I left in the evening, I had to see a little of the night scene of Macau. The Christmas season meant that in addition to the Christmas village, there was a myriad of other events going on in Macau, including the Light Festival! Various light installations were set up along a route in the main center of Macau, with light shows taking place every half an hour. With limited time, I was only able to see one show at the Holy House of Mercy (Santa Casa da Misericórdia). I gotta say though, my favourite installation were the little electronic shirts and socks that were hung on a line above an alley. You see these often in Europe with real shoes and clothes and even swimsuits, but the electronic version was just too cute ^_^
Electronic cloth lines
Light show at the Santa Casa da Misericórdia
Because of an error in timing, I was in a rush to get to the ferry terminal, and regrettably I didn’t have time to see the casino strip in its full glory at night! I could only imagine the lights and glitter that dress up The Venetian and Galaxy at night – that would be an experience for the next time I visit Macau, hopefully with more than one day to spare!
Of course one post is not enough to elaborate about all that I’ve seen and experienced in Macau, so expect a second part to be posted very soon. One would certainly wonder why I hadn’t written about the food, but be not impatient! Food was aplenty in Macau, and it was some DELICIOUS food, alright. If you’re wondering where’s the pastéis de nata and the bacalhau and the pork chop buns, come back for the next chapter of the Macau adventure and satisfy your virtual appetite! 😀