Just across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong, lies the former Portuguese outpost of Macao. Today it has a similar status to that of Kong Kong: part of China, but not in China; one of the Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong is the other).
Physically, Macao is made up of a small isthmus coming off the Chinese mainland (it used to be an island but the gap silted up giving a 300m border zone with the mainland), this is where most of the historic old colonial past can be found. Just to the south, and connected by three road bridges, are 2 more islands (Taipa and Coloane), which are actually now one island, as the gap between them has been reclaimed from the sea. The whole place is very urban and built up, no forested areas or fields.
How does this place get on? Very well… Despite being the most densely populated place on earth (at almost 21,500 persons per Sq km, it has one of the highest life expectancies in the world and a high index of Human Development. Whether the same can be said for its visitors I’m not sure, because one of the main sources of income is gambling and they take it very seriously. Macao is now the world’s top casino market – surpassing Las Vegas. Its probably no surprise then that some of these places are huge, with gaming floors the size of several football pitches – the Venetian Hotel and Casino is the 6th largest building on earth (and was the second largest at the time of opening).
Many of the venues lay on shows, events and spectaculars, such as the Dragon that ascends from the floor of the Wynn complex on the hour… (alternating with a magic tree!). Some of the hotel complexes are so vast you can easily get disorientated (maybe intentional) and of course no windows (an old casino trick to keep people at the tables unaware of the world outside). These palaces of gambling are quite spectacular with incredible detail and finishes – plush carpeting etc, but some of them stink of tobacco, which despite being confined to specific (but very large) areas, the smell seems to travel; it hits you when you walk in.
Macao has its own currency – the Pataca (a pub quiz question if ever I heard one) which is pegged to the HK Dollar, they are not identical rates, but most places are happy to trade in HK dollars; which is handy as it saves having yet another currency in your wallet. If you are only there for a day make sure you don’t get saddled with any before you leave.
Getting there: This was only a short day trip, and I guess that’s what most people do. There are Jetboat services almost every 15 minutes in the day and hourly throughout the night for the 60km, hour long crossing from Hong Kong and you can depart HK from HK Island, Kowloon or HK Airport. Fares are about $400HK return. There is an International Airport at Macao too.
Getting around: There is an extensive public bus network and many of the casinos operate free shuttles – to and from the airport and to and from the Chinese border. You could use one of the shuttles to get you to a casino and walk from there. Taxis are everywhere and use a meter, prices are very reasonable and this option can save you a lot of time, taxis are best picked up at key points – they don’t always seem to respond to being flagged in the street.
Even if you come over for the day you need to factor in the border crossings: out of HK, in to Macao and vica versa. The ferry terminals can be very hectic places and queue jumping is far from unknown! Allow at least half an hour for each transaction…
Looking at the clientèle crowding the gambling tables I’m sure most are coming from HK, with a contingent from China crossing the border too. This might have been especially the case as I was there on a Sunday and the streets of ‘old’ Macao were so crowded in places as to be barely passable. As an aside; the day after the visit to Macao I read in a HK newspaper complaints about and even protest action about the sheer number of Chinese visitors swamping HK on some days. They cross the border and put pressure on shops, transport etc – my guess is that the same is happening to Macao. There was even talk of requesting Beijing to close the border or better manage the numbers allowed to cross.
Old Macao is quite nice and has a flavour of Portugal, but its hemmed in by high rise and very commercial (shortage of land I guess), but I could be being unfair – it was very busy and we didn’t have time to see all of the old areas.
Many of the people working in Macao are immigrants, and this might explain why no one knows where anything is; on at least 3 attempts to ascertain where we were, the person clearly had no idea, finger wandering all over the map! This even happened inside one of the complexes; the ‘guard’ had no idea how to get to the shopping area.
Would I go again? Maybe, but no rush. I’m not really into the gambling and shopping lifestyle and this is Macao’s raison d’etre. I guess a couple of nights in a resort hotel could be fun if you throw in a few shows, but as I say; no rush.