Have you ever been curious about how many countries have you visited? I sometimes open one of those websites where you can count that, but many of those include a little surprise – Macau is listed as a separate country. Macau does have it’s own flag and a coat of arms, but in fact it’s a special administrative territory of China, and not a separate country. Macau is an example of “one country-two systems” principle in China, same as Hong Kong. Although it’s not a separate country, Macau is allowed to have it’s own relations with other countries, and capitalism, not socialism rules here. What does that mean for the regular tourist? A simple example is that a Latvian citizen needs a visa to enter China, but doesn’t need one in Hong Kong or Macau. If he or she were to exit China to visit Macau, a double or multiple entry visa would be needed, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get back. Few Europeans visit only Macau, and most of the times it’s combined with a visit to Hong Kong or mainland China.
When Statistics Lie or the Best City
There are many interesting facts related to Macau. It’s the most densely populated territory in the world! In the 30.3 km2 there are over 630 thousand inhabitants. The street signs are in Chinese and Portuguese! Since the 16th century this was a territory that mostly interested Portuguese, as Macau had a good location for a port. At that time there were no major villages here. Of course, initially, Portuguese didn’t own anything here, but after First Opium war Portugal occupied Taipa and Coloane islands and signed the Sino-Portuguese treaty on the ownership of these territories. In the beginning of the World War II Macau was neutral until Japanese attacked it and formed a protectorate here. Finally, when Macau wanted to sell aviation fuel to Japan, USA did an airstrike, destroying the warehouses. After protests from Portugal, in 1950 the USA paid over 20 million dollars for this incident.
Already in 1949, when People’s Republic of China gained power, China announced that Sino-Portuguese treaty wasn’t fair to China and was forced on it. At that moment talks of returning Macau begun. Macau was the last European colony in Asia, and the ruling of return to China came into force in 1999. But until 2049 Macau will have the rights of autonomy, as specified in the contract. This situation has greatly benefited the economy of Macau, as years ago Macau could be called the Vegas of Asia, now it’s more the other way around, as since 2006 Macau has the largest gambling industry in the world, fueled by crowds from mainland China and other countries. Macau also is one of the richest territories in the world, as it’s GDP per capita (PP) is the biggest in the world, and life expectancy of Macanese people is the fourth longest in the world. Sounds like it’s a nice place to live! However, looking at the regular people’s houses in the city center, doesn’t seem all that prosperous.
Arriving in Macau
Most of the European only visit Macau for a one day trip on a ferry from Hong Kong. We are’t the typical crowd this time around, as we come from Guangzhou in China by bus. It takes a bit over two hours and costs roughly 10 euro per person. There are bus stops at all major international hotels in Guangzhou, and buses depart almost every thirty minutes. Bus doesn’t go directly to Macau, though, but stops in Zhuhai and you have to proceed on foot. When we exit in Zhuhai, we are slightly confused – where should we go now? We decide to spend the last of remaining yuan for dinner and then look for the border crossing. Turns out it’s inside a large shopping center, where goods remind those of a typical marketplace – clothing, electronics, phone accessories and numerous useless things. To get to Macau, you have to go to the second floor, and we wouldn’t have found it on our own, have we not asked. Then the labyrinth begins. Seems like we walk for several kilometers through different barriers, tunnels, hundreds of steps, and finally we are at the Chinese border. A lady crosses our visas and then we go to the Macanese side. No stamps here, good news for those who visit often, not so good for the stamp collectors!
Once entering Macau, we quickly change yuan to Macanese pataca. Yes, same like Hong Kong, also Macau has it’s own currency. One pataca is 11 euro cents (1 yuan is 14 cents and 1 Hong Kong dollar is roughly 11 cents as well). You can pay in yuan or Hong Kong dollars everywhere, just have to be mindful of the exchange rate. We decide to change some coins nevertheless, to be sure we can pay in the taxi. Despite the fact that Macau was Portuguese colony, driving is done on the left side of the road, same as in Hong Kong. In China driving is on the right side of the road.
Most of the times you can avoid using the taxis in Macau, as largest hotels have free transfer buses. Once we exit the gates, we try to find the bus, apparently they were just there, on the left side, but we though those were just advertisements. Unfortunately the last bus headed to the direction of our hotel has already left, so we are stuck taking a taxi. Everybody uses the buses, doesn’t matter that you actually live in a small hotel nearby. Usually noone asks anything. There are also such buses going from the city center to the largest casinos and Macau tower. If you do decide to take a taxi, credit cards might not get accepted, and the driver might only speak Chinese, doesn’t know how to read a map and it may take a while to explain where you need to go. But most tourists won’t need a taxi anyway, as in the city center everything is within walking distance.
The Baby of China and Portugal
Macau city center is an interesting mix between China and Europe. Old churches and grand buildings next to small streets with underwear drying out on the ropes and someone riding a bicycle transporting some large goods. The streets are full of motorollers and sometimes doesn’t feel at all like it is a former European colony. This is exactly the reason why the historical center is so impressive and is in the UNESCO World heritage list since 2005. Macau city center has about twenty locations that are worth seeing. Churches, theaters, temples and a fort that hosts the Museum of Macau, with an excellent view to the whole city.
Most people come to Macau for the casinos, as clearly, the leading city attraction on TripAdvisor is The Venetian, a large casino that looks like Venice, but indoors. Macau historical center is only the second. Casino is impressive enough, the fake Venice has a ceiling the color of evening sky, pictures of houses with real, very expensive shops inside, and a canal where you can take a gondola right with a Chinese gondolier. I was mostly impressed by the massive light projections on the main facade. We were there shortly before Christmas, which is also the time of the festival of light, and there was a screening of a cartoon on the front of the building. In comparison to this, local Latvian light festival pales. Of course, the budget of this one animation must be lager than the whole city festival money spent in Riga. The show plays every few minutes, and in the end fake snow is sprayed on people, so all ground is covered with sticky white powder. Wedding parties use this place for photo-shoots, tourists take pictures under the fake evening sky and it feels like some people think this is all Macau is, never leaving the one building they are in.
The festival of light has also other shows in the city, another beautiful one at the St.Pauls ruins. There are lit up metal ships on the stairs that sound like they are shooting, the facade is covered in bright lights and police controls the traffic to ensure noone gets hurt. We also notice a family living in an apartment right next to the steps, not paying the slightest attention to the show, watching TV. Life like in an aquarium, for everyone to see.
The ruins of St.Paul are some of the most impressive viewpoints in Macau from the historic perspective, and they are part of the historic buildings group included in the world heritage list. The church was build in the 17th century by Jesuits, and Japanese Christians, persecuted in Japan, worked on the facade. It depicts the early days of Christian churches in Asia, a mix of oriental and Christian traditions. Now the facade is strengthened with large pillars and there is a museum inside (no fee). You can go inside and take a look at the crypt and the archaeological artifacts found here. Why there are only ruins left? After Jesuits where kicked out of the church, army barracks were made here. In 1835 the church burned down, and only beautiful facade remains. Luckily, it was strengthened in the nineties rather that demolished.
We walk in the streets during the festival, crossing the large Largo Do Senado square that has a tunnel of lights and a Christmas tree. Doesn’t feel like this is Asia at all. We also notice a store, Watsons, at the square and think the logo looks a lot like our local beauty store Drogas. Apparently, Drogas is owned by Watson’s since 2004.
You can also buy traditional snacks on the street, such as pasteis de nata or the Portuguese egg tart (tastes just like in Lisbon!). You ca buy them too early in the morning, as they have to be heated right, and in the evenings stores usually run out them. Locals mostly eat street food bought in the small street corner stalls. You can buy also expensive traditional dried meet bakkwa, which costs about 8 euros per 100 grams. I thought it would be similar to beef jerky, but this one is made in large sheets and shop keeps cut a piece with scissors. Tastes like unsavory sausage.
One of the most interesting sights in Macau is the A-Ma temple, where the name of Macau originates. I have some of the best memories of this temple from whole visit to Macau. This temple was build in 1488 and is one of the most well known Taoist temples in Macau, build to honor the goddess of the sea and fishermen, Matsu. The temple is located at a foot of the mountain, and to get to the top, you climb beautiful stairs. The whole temple territory is in front of your eyes then, and you can also see the large round windows of the temple. Locals come, burn candles and incense, and bow. There are also burning sticks in the shape of hats, that move in the wind. Westerners will like the beautiful lotos shaped candles you can buy here.
Not far from the A-Ma temple is another well known building, the 338 m high Macau Tower. It’s the place to do the highest bungee jump in the world (233m), which is quite costly, around 400 euros. Those who are scared to jump, can walk at the very edge, connected to a security lanyard.
The older hotels are on the Macau peninsula, which is connected to Taipa and Coloane islands by bridges. All the new casinos are there. During the night the bridges are lit up, and although pedestrians aren’t supposed to be walking around, we do, and see quite a lot of birds there. The fans of the nature can also go to the newly opened Panda pavilion.
Not Just the Casinos
Macau may be famous for it’s casinos, but here are numerous other viewing points that are worth a visit. The Grand prix museum, numerous historical and not only other museums, the Science center, Taipa and Colonane villages. One day tour from Hong Kong is definitely not enough, especially if you want to see one of the evening shows in the casino.
Macau does have a similar feel as Las Vegas, a lot of people on the street are drunk, they laugh, even sing, and every tourist has a selfie stick. Macau leaves an impression as a place for more wealthy visitors than average, and the numerous expensive brand shops facilitate this impression even more.
If you are curious to find out how our trip continued in Hong Kong, read the full story here!