In the last six years, Macau has gained prominence on the world map, thanks to a steady stream of five-star hotels with casinos coming up along the Cotai Strip. So much so, that it is now known as the Las Vegas of Asia. Today, though Macau sees an influx of tourists, especially from China over the weekends who want to make the most of their holidays with gambling, there are still many people who make it a point to visit the province to get a feel of its Chinese Portuguese influence. When yours truly got a chance to visit Macau, the unanimous response from friends and family was, ‘Go, gamble.’ But with a spring in my step and my heartracing, I was eager to know what the ‘real’ Macau had in store for me.
A walk back in time
After a direct flight to Hong Kong, I follow it up with a 45-minute ferry ride to Macau. If the word ferry conjures up images of ferries lining up the Gateway of India, then you are mistaken. With over 100 seats, it’s like travelling in an aeroplane, complete with flight attendants, albeit on water. Once I reach the Holiday Inn Hotel, it’s almost lunchtime. After a three-course meal comprising a fresh salad garnished with slices of fried bacon, tossed noodles with lamb and a dessert made with bean curd and sliced fruits, I freshen up and decide to explore the lesser-known side of Macau.
I’m joined by my guide, Elsa. She lets me in on some interesting facts. Macau, one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China apart from Hong Kong, was a Portuguese colony from the mid-16th century until late 1999.
Even today, influences of the regime are visible in the Portuguese town that house several bungalows. Painted in pistachio green and white, they make a pretty picture and remind me of the pristine art deco buildings of Europe. In fact, they are so popular that newly married couples from China travel here just to take a picture against this backdrop. I’m lucky to see one such couple, dressed up in their wedding finery, posing for pictures in front of one of the bungalows along with their friends and families. I ask them to pose for me and they happily oblige. Next, my sights fall on a trishaw, a hybrid of the tricycle and the rickshaw. They were a major mode of transport before 1970s but are now used as showpieces, Elsa tells me.
What lies in a name
After a 10-minute bus ride, Elsa and I make our way to the A-Ma Temple, the oldest temple of Macau. It was built in 1488 as an ode to Mazu, the sacred sea goddess who blesses the fishermen. Macau got its name thanks to this temple. Before the Portuguese settlement, Macau was known as Haojing Mirror of the Sea. When the Portuguese landed on a sea promontory near a temple, they asked local inhabitants the land’s name. But the latter misunderstood, thinking that the Portuguese were asking for the name of the temple. So they answered Ma Ge. The Portuguese translated it as Macau.
As we make our way to the A-Ma Temple, the fragrance of incense sticks welcomes us. Devotees pray in obeisance and burn incense sticks asking the goddess to fulfill their wishes. Various poems and inscriptions are carved on the interiors of all these halls. In 2005, the temple became one of the designated sites of the Historic Centre of Macau enlisted on UNESCO World Heritage List.
Where two worlds meet
Later, we make our way to the famous ruins of St Paul’s Church. A 17th century Portuguese cathedral dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle, the church caught fire in 1835. While the rest of the structure was burnt down as it was made of wood, the iron façade remained intact. It remained unchanged until a restoration was undertaken and completed in 1991. The sight of the façade, which is crowned by the cross of Jerusalem, and below which there are three tiers with niches containing bronze statues leaves us spellbound. As we stand on the steps leading to the façade, we feel as if we have been transported back to the Roman era. The structure has certain grandeur and serenity that makes us stay put for a long time. Elsa breaks me from my reverie and tells me, “If you want to shop. Now is the time. Look, behind, there’s the Senado Square.” As I turn back, I see a narrow lane lined with shops and start wondering where is the square. Elsa urges me to follow her and soon we reach a vast area. She informs me, “The Senado Square is one of the four largest squares in Macau as it covers an area of 3,700 square metres.
It derives its name from the Leal Senado Building (the General Post Office building). In the early 1990s, local authorities hired Portuguese experts to pave the square with a wave-patterned mosaic of coloured stones. From then on this area has become a popular place for cultural activities in Macau. Predictably, we see a band prepping up, setting up their instruments and mikes gearing up for their act. We are tempted to stay back and watch their performance but the innumerable fashion, eatery and souvenir shops lining the square beckon us. After a marathon 90-minute shopping exercise, we realise we are famished and decide to indulge in some street side fare. We opt for pork chop bun and Portugese egg tarts. While the former is a famous Macau street snack and is a juicy pork chop nestled in a bun with a crunchy exterior and a soft centre, the latter has a flaky pastry shell, with a rich custard filling and a caramelised topping.
I head back to the hotel and collapse on the bed almost instantly. After a sound sleep, I wake up next morning and head to Venetian Macao, a five-star hotel across the street that is hosting the Dreamworks Experience from November 21 to March 16, 2014. As part of this programme, visitors can click pictures with famous characters from Dreamworks films such as Shrek and Fiona of Shrek fame, Po of Kung Fu Panda fame and Alex of Madagascar and enjoy an elaborate breakfast boasting of items that are inspired by these characters (read Poh’s pork buns, Shrek’s scrambled eggs with bacon, hams and mushrooms etc.) After gorging on these delicacies, I head to the Ice World wherein these animated characters have been sculpted in ice. I slip into the comfortbale coat available at the counter but can’t stop shivering as it is freezing cold. Forty sculptors have worked on these 200 sculptures for a month using 40,000 ice cubes. In the evening, I head to Venetian Macao’s foyer for the inaugural ceremony of the Winter at Cotai Strip ceremony. For the next half an hour, I’m regaled by an outdoor winter wonderland, replete with a towering Christmas tree bathed in lights, an ice-skating rink and a dazzling 3-D light and sound spectacular titled Seasons of Wonder on The Venetian Macao’s facade.
After a hearty dinner, I finally heed my family and friends’ advice and decide to gamble, albeit cautiously. Within five minutes, I end up losing HK$30. But I’m not disappointed. After all, this two-day sojourn has left me with a lifetime of memories.
(The writer travelled to Macau as a guest of the Venetian Macao )
Other things to do at Macau
>> Visit Taipa Village that is home to traditional Portuguese and Macanese restaurants as well as as the Taipa House Museum and Our Lady of Carmel church.
>> Adrenaline junkies can bungee jump from a height of 233 metres from the Macau Tower.
>> Visit the Macau Maritime Museum that has on display exhibits, which depict major events in the maritime history of Macau, China and Portugal.
>> Visit the Macao Tea Culture House that has on display
There are daily flights from Mumbai to Hong Kong. From Hong Kong, one can take either the Turbojet or the Cotaijet ferry.
When to visit
October to March
There is a good range of accommodation options available in Macau that suit most budgets starting from about HK$600 (Rs 4,800 approximately) per night for double occupancy with breakfast.