I can’t pretend to be a gambling enthusiast and so the choice to visit Macau- the gambling epicentre of China and the Eastern answer to America’s Las Vegas– might seem odd. However having said this it wasn’t the grand casinos that attracted me here. While in China visiting Hong Kong I took the opportunity to take the hour boat ride to Macau which is made up of two islands bridged by roaring roads and is attached to mainland China.
I do have a curiosity for the excess and excitement of the gambling culture, it is at once fascinating and repellent. Though what ignited my interest for this place was the seemingly lesser celebrated old Portuguese remains.
A former Portuguese colony, Macau was controlled by Portugal from the mid 16th century until 1999- in fact it was the last remaining European colony within China. As a result the recently departed Portuguese have left a discerning stamp on certain areas. The mixture of colossal gaudy casinos and bucolic crumbling buildings is jarring but also strangely beautiful.
Stepping off the boat with utter relief (swaying endlessly in the South China sea is not a particularly pleasant experience) I was astonished by the rows of ostentatious casinos sitting august and out of place on the dilapidated harbour. Almost identical versions of the iconic Las Vegas casinos such as The Bellagio and The Venetian tower above you, pumping out adverts and music with flashing banners and an array of iridescent lights. It is clear a lot of money has been poured into this place and I know that top poker players frequent these streets to contend with rich business men. But even so the roads were empty as everyone flocked to the numerous casinos which left the pavements ghostly and void of people. The extravagant buildings with fountains and rows of flash cars circling the entrances sat at odds with the rest of the surroundings which were unkempt and a little neglected.
I spent the evening in typical Macau style: enjoying free drinks at every casino bar I sat at and chancing my luck at each table I came across. Unsurprisingly the night left me slightly out of pocket and exceedingly tipsy. However I had been wooed by the lavishness of the interiors and mesmerised by the diverse characters who perch next to me at tables. The young giggling girls with a cavalier attitude towards losing and the stern suited men who seemed not to notice the opulence of the place were highly entertaining to watch. The casinos are vibrant throughout the day and night- I was told by a waitress that regulars will arrive at 3pm in the afternoon, leave at 6am the next morning and repeat this ritual each and everyday. I found these vampiric tendencies odd but not unexpected.
The next day feeling no desire to return to the casinos I went in search of the beautiful old centre I had heard about. Coming in from the wide car-ridden roads, pollution and garish buildings of the modern Macau I was stunned when I finally found the other Macau. Tiny cobbled streets in a maze of criss-cross patterns with beautiful shops selling ice-cream, traditional Chinese ingredients and clothes were a refreshing relief and quite enchanting. Tan stone buildings complete with rust-coloured roofs and ornate iron work lined the many little squares which gave shape to the winding alleyways. Here you can find traditional Chinese and Portuguese restaurants and the atmosphere is jovial and friendly. At night the squares are lit up with dangling fairy-lights and the romantic ambience is infectious.
What makes Macau so alluring is its conglomeration of old and new. Both can be appreciated and are in fact enhanced by the presence of their antithesis. It is a bewitching place that keeps visitors on their toes in its fusion between European and Chinese culture. It is beguiling and one of the most seducing places to visit- eradicating your presumptions- Macau is truly fascinating and definitely worth seeing for yourself.
Things to see in Macau:
- Bodhisatta Avalokitesvara: although a Chinese deity this stature is distinctly European in style.
- Macau Tower: For awesome views
- Sao Paulo Cathedral: incredible edifice with no back!
- The Fort
- Macau Museum
- Taipa Village: fishermen use to live here and there are interesting colonial-era shops
- The “Las Vegas Strip of the East”at Cotai and The Venetian