The tiny region of Macao lies in Pearl River Delta on China’s southern coast. For centuries, cultures have collided here to create a place like nowhere else on earth. The Old World, European-style buildings and narrow streets of Macao’s UNESCO-listed old town sit metres from the high-rises, bright lights and fast road networks of modern-day China, while old men gamble at mah-jong tables in the shadow of huge casinos that turn over billions of dollars each year.
At first glance, it’s ‘Asian Las Vegas’ meets Portugal, but Macao expert and author David Leffman told me that Macao is more complicated than that. “It’s Portuguese-African-Chinese fusion with European overtones,” he explained.
Ten thousand Portuguese descendants still live here, because Macao was governed by Portugal for 450 years. And everywhere, you’ll find a blending of eastern and western cultures. In central Macao, you’ll see the blue and white tiles common in Lisbon and the Algarve. But here, their designs depict Chinese dragons. And in the paved Senado Square the tiles follow a pattern that resembles breaking waves.
Pastel coloured colonial buildings are built around these grand public spaces. Like nearby Hong Kong, its European colonists handed Macao back to China in 1999, but this autonomous region still retains some of the freedoms locals enjoyed before the transition. As I walked through the main square I witnessed a group of protesters sitting in silence. They were playing a recording of their protest chants through loudspeakers. Perhaps they’d found some kind of public demonstration loophole. I suspect this outburst wouldn’t have been tolerated across the border.
Now Macao is part of China again, the superstate is increasing its influence. A new 34-mile road bridge has been constructed to link the territory with the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. I was still fascinated to see the original border crossing to the mainland and my guide Alorino Noruega took me to view it. It was a hive of activity. “You can see the gate,” said Alorino. “People used to drive through it. Now there’s such a flow of visitors, they’ve built a new, bigger one.”
I noticed a large number of hotel and casino representatives touting their venues to Chinese visitors. A fleet of buses was parked next to the entry point, ready to whisk tourists away to their suites. I also saw people cramming cartons of fruit juice into carrier bags before darting towards the border. “These products are not available in China,” Alorino explained, adding “People bring fresh vegetables from China into Macao too. They can only carry a limited amount for their own consumption and they are not meant to resell it.”
Much of Macao’s economic activity centres on gambling, an increasingly popular pastime in China as the country’s wealth increases and the reason for many of these cross-border trips. But it’s actually relatively new. The Portuguese allowed just one licence when they were in control and the first casino was built in 1970. But the floodgates opened in 1999 after the territory reverted to China. There are now 35 casinos – some huge – and together they generate four times the earning power of Las Vegas. They made $14.7 billion last year.
“You can go to very swish, upmarket casinos. There are also some rather sleazy ones with ‘floor’ shows. And then there’s the Venetian, which is a self-contained universe,” explained Alorino.
Spurred on by the casino demand, the buildings keep going up and up. Two of the world’s biggest hotels are now found in Macao. The Sheraton Grand has 4,000 rooms over 41 floors. And the owners of The Sands complex hope to recoup their $6 billion investment by filling their 6,000 rooms.
To be honest, there is some hideously gaudy and over-the-top architecture and decoration displaying the area’s newfound wealth. The 258m-high Grand Lisboa Hotel boasts gold-coloured windows and its tulip-like shape was designed to resemble a giant lotus flower, Macao’s official emblem. I expect Prince Charles would have something to say about the architecture. It often makes the lists of the world’s most ugly buildings. “Some of these buildings are insane and look like spaceships,” said David. “They completely block your view of the 18th and 19th century colonial architecture,” he added.
I don’t gamble so I wouldn’t normally go near a casino, but if you’re going to Macao it’s worth it for the stunning free entertainment. The Venetian casino resort has even recreated the look of Venice. When I visited Macao, the territory was being drenched in downpours following the tail end of a typhoon. It was most bizarre emerging from the top of an escalator to what appeared to be a sunny, outdoor space. I soon realised that they had built a dome over the shopping streets and ‘canals’ to recreate authentic-looking daylight. This incredible scene included slowly moving fake clouds on a sky-blue backdrop. It was like the movie, The Truman Show.
The ‘streets’ of the Venetian shopping centre are filled with high-end designer shops and, unusually, a Marks & Spencers! I did think it was a long way to come to buy a chicken tikka masala. As I walked along the side of the canal and over its bridges, gondoliers serenaded passengers as they punted their boats along the water.
The attention to detail was incredible. I spoke with gondolier, Pesa. She’s been recruited from Italy for her singing skills. “Many people from Italy come here because they are curious,” Pesa told me. “We don’t have microphones. We sing live. We try and interact with the passengers and entertain them every day,” she explained.
If you want more free sights in Macao, there’s quite a bit to see at the Wynn resort and casino. They’ve got a huge aquarium running the length of one of their hotel receptions, which is filled with moon jellyfish. The tank is backlit with a blue light and the overall appearance is mesmerising.
At night, across Macao, you get all the colour and vibrancy of the famous Las Vegas strip multiplied by ten! All of the hotels and casinos light up. I love the free show set around the lake adjacent to the Wynn. There are 200 water jets beneath the surface and every fifteen minutes from 11am until midnight you’ll see a five-minute show, set to music. The jets gently rise, fall and sway from side-to-side in time with classical music and show tunes. I found standing downwind of the waters to be quite refreshing in the humid Macao climate.
Heading indoors, there are two impressive shows in the Wynn’s atrium. In one performance, a huge dragon rises through a hole in the floor at half-hourly intervals. I’m told it terrifies children! There’s also the tree of prosperity. It’s another captivating show. You stand under the gold-domed roof of the large auditorium. The ceiling changes colour and opens from the centre, almost like a giant orange being peeled. Above the open roof you’ll be transfixed as lights twinkle and flash. Then, in time with the ethereal Chinese-influenced music and drumbeats, a massive chandelier made up of 21,000 shimmering crystals is lowered from the ceiling.
During this performance, the entire room keeps changing colour from blue to red to purple. If that wasn’t enough, a huge golden tree then rises slowly from a hole in the floor to eventually fill the 75ft-high space. People throw coins as the tree stretches up to an orchestral climax. And then the tree, along with everybody’s money, sinks down and disappears. Well this is a casino – that’s what happens.
Be there early and stand your ground! You can’t be too British and let people in to the space you are occupying. People will turn up and try to barge in and elbow you out of the way!
From animated trees I moved on to the real thing. Just like Hong Kong, you can turn the corner in Macao and find peace, quiet and nature. Downtown, people are crammed tightly into tower blocks but you’ll also find green spaces. We drove across a bridge and a causeway to the island of Taipa. The road runs through a cutting in the rock and then passes through woodlands before you skirt alongside the tree-lined beaches. When you wind down the car window, the hustle and bustle of the street is replaced by the chirping of crickets.
Alongside a hill in Coloane is Macao’s Giant Panda Pavilion. I walked a few hundred feet from the car park to find Kai Kai and Xin Xin, inside. Apparently the happy couple don’t actually get on that well – they live their own lives in separate areas of the large, glass-fronted enclosure. I found it hard to believe that I could spend ten minutes standing a few feet away from a panda as it munched on its lunch of bamboo shoots.
There were no other visitors. I think many people become transfixed by the flashy shows and bright lights of the casinos and might overlook this amazing experience. For me, it was worth visiting Macao just for the panda encounter alone. Incredibly, admission costs under £1.
Portuguese ex-pat and resident Carl Da Silva told me that I should spend time visiting some of the historic areas. “It’s not the casinos that are Macao. It’s the old Macao. It’s a unique place where you can feel the European and Chinese ways of living,” Carl told me.
We drove the short distance to the Taipa Museum Houses. They are a collection of green and yellow colonial homes that would have been occupied by well-off Portuguese residents from the time of their construction back in the 1920s. The area is very pretty and the buildings are set alongside a cobbled street with gas lamp-style lights.
Inside you can walk around a wooden panelled building and climb its creaky wooden stairs to see how it would have been furnished during that period. It was incredibly hot and must have been tough to live in without air conditioning.
If we are seeing the historic sites, we should start at the beginning – or at least at the place that gave the territory its name. The Ama Temple is a popular tour stop. It dates from the 1400s when local fishermen built the shrine to honour the goddess who protected them. According to folklore, a young woman begged for free passage but the commercial boatmen refused. She finally did get a lift and set sail but a typhoon hit the coast. The vessels carrying the mariners who refused to transport the woman sank. The sailors who had let her ride on their boat reached the shore safely.
When the woman stepped ashore, the sailors were surprised when she disappeared in a puff of smoke. They named a temple after her – Ama. It’s believed that the Portuguese misheard the name of it when they landed. The area is called Ama Gau , or ‘the place of Ama’ in Chinese. They mispronounced it as Macao.
At the temple, locals were queuing up to buy incense sticks and coils that they were lighting in honour of Ama. Another religious site on the tourist trail is the ruin of the 16th century St Paul’s, once the largest Catholic Church in Asia. It was destroyed by fire during another typhoon, in 1835. The remains of one side of the church stand four storeys high. You can see a shrine behind the façade.
The ruin stands at the top of a long, wide flight of steps that lead into the centre of the old town. It’s bustling and vibrant and nearly every food shop seems to offer samples. My guide advised that you could fill up on the freebies if you’re watching the pennies!
You could easily be in a small market town in Portugal, with the old town’s architecture and busy, narrow, paved streets. But these colonial buildings were decorated with red lanterns edged with gold. That’s very Chinese, as were the products on display – colourful silks and fabrics. The loud background chatter was also Chinese.
The Street of Happiness provides another colourful photo opportunity. Sailors used to visit this thoroughfare when they wanted to pay for ‘entertainment,’ hence its name. You’ll recognise its brightly painted buildings if you’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Macao has offered more respectable pastimes since then. The territory hosted their first Grand Prix in 1954. The circuit has been compared with Monte Carlo’s event. It’s a tough and challenging urban racetrack with tight corners navigated by Formula 3 vehicles, which reach over 170 miles an hour through the city streets. I called into the Grand Prix Museum, which shows how the event has evolved.
I was able to test my driving skills on a simulation of the circuit. It’s very realistic. The display screen replicates the driver’s view as he or she navigates the course through the city’s narrow streets in HD video quality.
Cars and motorbikes, both old and new, are on display in the museum. You can inspect the former Governor’s vehicle, used during the days of Portuguese rule. It sits alongside an original Model T Ford. Petrolheads will love the display of powerful vehicles driven in Macao by motor racing legends like David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher.
As you’d expect from a cultural melting pot, the food in Macao is excellent. You can eat a lavish Chinese banquet in the almost ballroom-sized dining room of the Hotel Lisboa. Very attentive staff serve the food during long, relaxed lunches, which prove popular with the Portuguese expat crowd.
If you want to dine in more low-key surroundings, drive across the road bridge to Taipa and head for Coloane. Here, you’ll find a little bit of Portugal recreated by an Englishman. In 1989 Andrew ‘Lord’ Stowe opened a bakery to produce Portuguese egg tarts. They proved so popular he eventually opened three outlets. Tragically, Stowe died of an asthma attack but the bakery continues to thrive. I stood in the queue watching the frenetic activity as workers pulled the baking-trays of hot custard tarts out of the ovens.
Taipa has a Portuguese village atmosphere with its shady tiled squares and pastel painted homes and shops. If it weren’t for the steamy humidity, you’d forget that you were in Asia. Macanese food is a seafood-rich and spicy mix of Portuguese and Chinese dishes. I dined at Cafe Litoral and I couldn’t praise their curried crab more highly.
Nearby, Restaurant António transports you back to Portugal with its blue and white patterned tile walls and the wandering singer performing Fado – Portuguese folk music – at your table. António Coelho opened his own restaurant in 2007 after years of working as head chef at some of the area’s top eateries.
He’s been recognised by Michelin for the quality of the food, much of which is imported from his home country of Portugal. António was quite a showman, cooking the restaurant’s signature flaming crêpes Suzette at my table.
You can also eat incredibly cheaply in Macao if you dine at one of the many smaller restaurants in the side streets. I thought I’d miscalculated the exchange rate when my bill for a fairly substantial lunch turned out to be less than £3!
If you want to take your first steps uncovering Asia, you’ll find all the sounds, smells and energy of the east in Macao. And if the bustle becomes too much, you’ll also find the familiarity of Europe and the slower pace of Portugal just minutes away.
To visit Macao, you can take the 12-hour flight from London to Hong Kong and catch the excellent, fast hydrofoil ferry for the hour-long transfer to Macao. If you book ahead you can get a 5-star hotel from £62 a night.