My first trip to Macau was in 1992, in its last few years of being a down-on-its-luck Portuguese colony before the planned 1999 handover to China. Back then the port smelled like sewage and the gamblers looked more desperate than glamorous.
A lot has changed in two decades!
My recent trip was in early April 2012 when the weather was in the 60s. I flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong, where I met up with a group of writers. We took the ferry boat together to Macau. The landmass of this Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China includes Macau, which is a peninsula, and the islands of Taipa and Coloane. Macau and Taipa are connected by a bridge. Taipa and Coloane have merged into one big mass, thanks to many tons of landfill. This landfill hosts the highest concentration of casinos. The whole SAR covers just over 11 square miles.
The plan for the trip was that the local hosts would show us writers some of Macau’s sights, and then we’d have time to follow our own particular interests. My interests range across the broadscape of vegetarian travel, fitness, religious sites and the arts. If my travels take me to unplanned locations, so much the better—I love to get lost.
We spent two nights in the Mandarin Oriental, a beautiful 213-room hotel with lots of personalized service, and two nights in the much noisier Hard Rock Hotel. At the Mandarin, I loved that my bathtub had a view of the 338-meter Macau Tower. But I was a little too far away to be able to watch the bungee jumpers going over the edge.
Since I was in Macau partly to work on my vegetarian travel guide to Asia, I slipped away from the group our first night to go to Aruna’s Maharajah Indian Curry restaurant. Aruna Jha, owner of three restaurants, left her native Uttarakhand and came to Macau in 1983. The Macau Cultural Institute had invited her to teach kathak dance for three months. Three months turned into three decades, and now she’s an established and well-respected businesswoman in Macau.
Aruna’s recipes are fabulous. I don’t want to say how many different dishes I tried, but the black dal and roti were excellent, and she made the best gulab jamun I’ve ever had. One of her signature dishes, samosa chaat, is samosa pieces drowned in a delicious yogurt sauce. I could have eaten there every day. And many Indian visitors do.
In 2009, the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) held its awards ceremony in Macau. Later, the Bollywood movie Double Dhamaal shot scenes in Macau’s casinos, and the STAR Parivaar and Zee Cine awards were presented in Macau. Indian tourism to the SAR skyrocketed, and travel agents upped their offerings of package tours. According to Jha, “Before IIFA, nobody knows what is Macau. Now everybody knows.” Aruna said the main things Indian tourists come for are gambling, night life and relaxation. “Macau is very peaceful, not like India,” Aruna told me. “That’s why I’m here for 30 years.” Unlike Vegas, Macau doesn’t require a visa for Indian tourists. As one of a handful of permanent Indian residents of Macau, Aruna is a key local contact for visitors from India. She serves up to 600 people a night when package tours are in town, catering to veg, non-veg, Jain and halal diets. Indian businessmen have talked to her about building a Hindu temple.
As for tourists coming from the United States, gambling and nightlife are less of a draw. U.S. gamblers can go to Vegas, where there are even more casinos and a grittier nightlife. Macau also has had a hard time getting big Vegas-style shows off the ground.
Due to low ticket sales, Cirque de Soleil fulfilled only three-and-a-half years of its ten-year contract. That leaves Macau with one major show, “The House of Dancing Water” at the City of Dreams casino complex. Since it cost 2 billion Hong Kong dollars (about 258 million U.S.), I’m sure everybody’s praying it doesn’t close down. The performers in the show are absolutely amazing. As the title suggests, the show is based largely around water. The stage features a pool that fills and empties extremely quickly as different parts of the show require land or water. A team of muscle-bound divers execute flips from way up near the rafters. At one point, ramps are pushed onto stage for nerve-wracking motorcycle tricks. The only weak part of the show was the attempt at a plot, an insipid story about a princess who needed to be rescued and a bad witch who needed to be caged.
So if gambling and nightlife aren’t enough to draw tourists from across the world, what is? The best part is the unique mix of Portuguese and Chinese culture. A-Ma, Chinese goddess of the sea, and Mary, Christian mother of God, are both abundantly represented in Buddhist temples and Catholic churches. Street signs are written in both Chinese and Portuguese. Narrow alleys full of Chinese shops open onto squares with churches or other relics of Portuguese architecture.
To me, much of the fun of exploring a new place is discovering what’s around the next corner. Up Guia Hill, Macau’s highest point, I found the shelter where the metal typhoon warning signals are stored. Coded from one to ten depending on the severity of the signal, the appropriate shape is hoisted from a pole atop Guia Hill so people know how hard the wind is blowing.
On the roof of an old Portuguese fort that now houses the Macau Museum, I saw young men practicing martial arts and a group of women performing tai chi with swords.
Walking up one street, I came across the Maritime Administration Building, also known as the Moorish Barracks. This gorgeous white-trimmed yellow building is an example of the Arabic influenced Portuguese influenced architecture. European soldiers couldn’t take the heat, so the barracks were built for them. Built in 1874, the barracks housed 200 soldiers and gave them a panoramic view of the Chinese coastline, which at that time was known for opium, weapons smuggling, and other piratical activities.
Because Macau has long been a gambling town, it has a history of pawnshops. The old ones are picturesque. Each has a tall storage tower with small barred windows, designed to protect goods from Macau’s humid summers. I toured the Tak Seng On (which means Virtue and Success) pawnshop museum. Walking through the old pawnshop, visitors get a feel for the way business was conducted, goods were stored, and the shame that was sometimes involved, as evidenced by a thick wooden privacy screen that kept passers-by from seeing who was pawning what.
For many visitors, the best part of Macanese culture is the food. While Portuguese and Chinese flavors predominate, other Portuguese holdings, such as Mozambique and Goa, contribute to the taste. There’s not a lot of main dishes for vegetarians like me, but my colleagues raved about the African chicken, a Macau specialty, and many seafood dishes. I did try my share of desserts. Macau makes a variety of puddings and mousses. But my favorite treats were the almond cookies that Chinese vendors bake and serve hot on the street. A box of those was my souvenir of choice.
Macau has long been in Hong Kong’s shadow. It’s much smaller and more laid back. Usually Macau is tacked onto Hong Kong travel guides as an afterthought, or a suggested day trip. Back when I first visited 20 years ago, a day trip to Macau was frequently recommended to travelers as a way to renew their Hong Kong visas. In fact, more than half of the arrivals into Macau are still day trippers, and the average overnight guest stays only 1.8 days. But I was charmed by Macau this time around, and even though I spent four full days there, I wished I’d had time to visit a few more temples and churches, wander another dozen streets, and sample another hot almond cookie.
Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes about health, fitness, travel and the arts. She’s the author of “Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide,” the new edition of which should
be done any day. www.teresabergen.com