Beijing Getaways: Macau 澳门
Mad about Macau: Lisbon meets Las Vegas in southern China's other ex-colonial outpost
Like its close cousin Hong Kong, which lies 70 kilometers to the north-east, Macau's colonial heritage adds a touch of the exotic to this glitzy, booming southern Chinese enclave.
Indeed, the former Portuguese trading outpost is a place with a split personality - the castles, cathedrals and cuisine of Macau's long-time European masters bring a uniquely Mediterranean style to this coastal city.
Yet Macau is also the self-styled Las Vegas of the Orient, with a growing population of mammoth, neon-clad casinos, coupled with a bustling and increasingly profitable economy.
Macau is famed for the permanent Portuguese presence that began in the mid-1500s, and the resulting southern European influence is still clearly evident in the city today. In effect Portugal governed Macau for centuries, before the official agreement with China that ceded governance to the Iberian country in 1887.
Macau was returned to Chinese sovereignty in a highly publicized handover on December 20, 1999, and is now a Special Administrative Region (like Hong Kong), governed under the policy of "one country, two systems", with its own law, currency (pataca) and police force.
95% of Macau's 470,000 residents, who cram into a space of just 28 square kilometers, are Chinese. Cantonese is the most commonly spoken language of Macau. Mandarin is also spoken by a significant number, especially by the educated and those working in the tourism industry. However, while most locals can understand Mandarin, they are by no means fluent. Less than 1% of the population still has any competency in Portuguese, although all official signs are still bi-lingual.
Nine years after its return to the bosom of the motherland, today's Macau takes commerce and tourism to new heights. While the proliferation of mega-casinos means there's plenty of places to try your hand with Lady Luck, many of the city's pleasures are cultured and charming, architectural and atmospheric, without a croupier in sight. The weather is pleasantly sub-tropical, and a host of dining and accommodation options make Macau a great place for a short city break.
More than 20 million visitors now arrive in Macau annually, largely drawn by international casinos like the Grand Lisboa, Wynn Macau, Sands Macau, Venetian Macao, MGM Grand Macau, Crown Macau, and StarWorld. The fact that Macau has now surpassed Las Vegas to become the largest gambling location in terms of gaming revenue has further solidified Macau's position as a world-class entertainment city.
Most of Macau's casinos are located along the waterfront on the southern side of Macau Peninsula. North of the Lisboa is a strip with many smaller casinos, hotels and bars, and quite a few restaurants. An interesting area, it also has quite a good Indian restaurant and several Portuguese ones.
New casinos have also opened in the NAPE area south of Avenida de Amizade. Both of these areas will soon be overshadowed by the Cotai Strip, which is being developed as "The Las Vegas Strip of the East". The biggest casino in the world, the Venetian Macao, opened its doors here in August 2007, and more have followed.
St Joseph Seminary Church, Macau
For those not into gambling, there is, of course, much more to Macau than casinos. Like Las Vegas, Macau is attracting a wide range of entertainment and leisure activities to cater to the diverse desires of so many tourists. Being so compact, the city is a fascinating place to just walk around, and is packed with churches, temples, fortresses and other old buildings of a Sino-Portuguese nature. There are also myriad narrow alleyways in the old part of Macau where people go about their daily business, and a sprinkling of beautiful, tranquil gardens.
One popular tourist hotspot is the statue of the Bodhisatta Avalokitesvara, located next to the sea near the Sands Casino and MGM Grand. Despite being a Chinese deity, the statue is distinctly European in design, resembling the statues of the Virgin Mary you can find in Europe.
Non-history buffs should check out the Macau Tower for some panoramic views and adventure sports, and Fisherman's Wharf for theme-park activities and shopping. Thanks to its free port status Macau is a shoppers' mecca - popular purchases are jewelry (particularly gold), brand label clothes, Chinese antiques, porcelain and pottery, as well as wine and electronics.
A large part of the Macau Peninsula has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, with 25 buildings and sites deemed to have cultural and historic significance. One of the best ways to cover the sights is to do the Macau Heritage Walk circuit. Macau also has several excellent museums, such as the Macau Museum, the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History, and the Taipa House Museum. Museum buffs should invest in a single pass for all museums which works out cheaper than purchasing individual tickets.
Like Hong Kong, Macau is a paradise for gourmands, with a plethora of restaurants offering a diverse array of dishes and cuisines. Traditional Macau cuisine is a unique blend of European, African, Indian, Malaysian and Chinese flavors and ingredients - popular dishes include Bacalhau (dried codfish, a Portuguese favorite), African Chicken, Galinha Portuguesa, Linguado Macau, Paella, and stir-fried clams with garlic. All these can be washed down with some excellent Portuguese vintages.
- For cheap flights to Macau check elong.com. A lot of budget airlines (Bangkok Airways, Jetstar Asia, AirAsia, Tiger Airways etc.) fly to Macau.
Macau International Airport has flights to a number of international destinations worldwide including Bangkok, Manila, Seoul and Taiwan and to many other Chinese cities including Beijing, Guangzhou, Guilin, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shanghai, Shantou, Xianmen and Xian.
- Trains - for non-fliers the best option is to take a train to Hong Kong from Beijing West Railway Station and then a ferry to Macau.
Tip: A cheap / fast way to get from Beijing to Macau is to fly from Beijing to Shenzhen and then take a coach to Hong Kong. The flight from Beijing to Shenzhen is considered domestic and therefore much cheaper compared with flying to Hong Kong direct.
- Buses and taxis are the major modes of public transport in Macau. Pedicabs are also available for sightseeing. Macau drives on the right, like the rest of China, except Hong Kong.
- Visas: most passport holders of Western countries receive a free 30 or 90-day visa on arrival. To re-enter China requires a multiple entry Chinese visa, or a valid single/double entry visa.