MACAU (pop 550,000)
Mainland Chinese can’t get enough of this once Portuguese-administered backwater-turned-gambling megaresort. Its growth has been explosive since 2002 so that it is now called the Vegas of the East. It might be appropriate to put that the other way around as Macau has eclipsed its American rival in gambling income. Profits from gambling are actually ten times that of Las Vegas. And some things Macau does better stem from its Unesco World Heritage Old Town (think cobble streets, Chinese temples and baroque churches), parks and balmy beaches. It has one of a kind cuisine that marriages European, Latin American, African and Asian flavors.
History. Portuguese galleons first visited southern China to trade in the early 16th century, and in 1557, as a reward for clearing out the pirates in the area, were granted a leasehold for Macau. A tiny enclave was established with the first Portuguese governor appointed 1n 1680. As trade with China grew, so did Macau, which became the principal center for Portuguese trade with China, Japan and SE Asia. After the Opium Wars, Hong Kong was established, and Macau went into a steep decline
China’s Cultural Revolution spilled over into the territory as riots broke out in 1966. The Portuguese government tried to hand Macau back to China but China refused fearing a negative impact on Hong Kong.
In 1999, Macau was returned to China and designated a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Like Hong Kong, the pact ensures Macau a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except defense and foreign affairs. What really changed Macau was the termination of the gambling monopoly of casino mogul Stanley Ho in 2002. Casinos have mushroomed to more than 30 and mainland Chinese came. More than 89% of gamblers and 95% of high rollers come from mainland China. The latter play in members-only rooms where staggering amounts are bet every day. All casinos operate 24 hours per day.
Language. Cantonese and Portuguese are the official languages, though few speak Portuguese. English is less well understood than in Hong Kong. Mandarin is reasonably well understood.
Visas. Most travelers can enter without a visa for 30-90 days depending on the country. Most others can get a visa on arrival for 100MOP. If visiting Macau from China and plan to reenter China, you will need a double or multiple-entry visa.
Money. Macau’s currency is the pataca (MOP$) which is pegged to the Hong Kong dollar at a rate of MOP$103.20 to HK$. Both HK$ and MOP$ are accepted in businesses. Chinese yan are accepted in many places but often they are exchanged at par with each other. You can’t change patacas anywhere else so don’t leave the county with any.
Sights. For 20 square kilometers, Macau is packed with important cultural and historical sights, eight squares and 20 historic buildings collectively called The Historic Center of Macau World Heritage Site by Unesco. Most are free if over 60.
Crossing the border with China with me were thousands of Chinese. The border gate is called Gongbei Port, basically a fence separating two big cities. Immigration was a mere formality. A bus depot is right at the border and good maps of routes show which one to take for 5¥. They drive on the left here.
I found my hotel, the Villa Universal, the cheapest I could find at C$85, at least twice what I have paid in any hotel in the last nine years (it can be booked only through Agoda,com). And it was a dive with cluttered halls, fish tanks everywhere and a windowless, tiny room, with no bathroom mirror. The only hostel in Macau, the Auguster, is no longer in business. A cheaper hotel, The San Va Hospoderia replied to my reservation email 3 days after I felt I had to make a decision (rooms here have a shared bathroom). But the Villa Universal is in an ideal location, just off the main street, Av de Almeida Rebeiro and a block from Senado Square, the main square in the city.
It is easy walking though the narrow cobbled streets with many colonial buildings scattered amidst a typical Chinese city to see everything.
Ruins of the Church of St Paul. It was built in 1602 by Japanese Christian exiles, but in 1835, a fire destroyed everything but the façade, which is all that remains today. Considered by some to be the greatest monument to Christianity in Asia, it is an imposing sight. Sitting at the top of wide flight of stone steps, the façade has Chinese, Japanese and Indochinese elements.
Monte Fort and Macau Museum. Next door to the ruins on top of the hill are the walls of this fort. There are great views of the whole city through the crenulated canon ports. The Museum has the usual artifacts displayed in elaborate displays on three floors.
Senada Square is a pedestrian street lined with all the typical tourist shopping. At this time of year it is full of Christmas stuff. The road (and all the sidewalks along Rebeiro) are wonderful small white cobbles with black designs and animals. Near the square are the Church of St Dominic, the Cathedral de Se and Lou Kau Museum (an elegant Cantonese-style mansion with great stained glass windows).
Walking south are the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, Church of St Augustine, Dom Pedro V Theater, St Joseph’s Seminary Church, Church of St Lawrence, and Government House. Walk along the water of Baie de Praia and Lago Sai Va to:
South Peninsula area. Here are The Residence of the Portuguese Consul General (not open to public but fabulous grounds in the previous Bela Vista Hotel, one of the most storied hotels in Asia) and Santa Sancha Palace. Then walk north up Penha Hill to The Chapel of Our Lady of Penha for more great city views. Down the hill through colonial Macau and the oldest part of the city to see The Mandarin House and all the colonial villas and civic buildings along Avenida Republica. It was a busy afternoon.
I slept through the evening and went out around midnight to see some of the large casinos. It is not like the Las Vegas Strip. Only the Grand Lisboa Hotel has a fantastic shape – a flaming, torch-shaped megastructure that is used as a landmark to navigate your way around the city. The Casino Lisboa next door was once the best-known casino in Asia for its faded ‘60s glamour. I walked inside and kibitzed the tables. All were full. Minimum bets were 500 pataca (~US$85) and most were playing baccarat which I don’t understand. Compared to Las Vegas where slots are king, there were few and not many players. There were also a few black Jack, poker, dice and other unrecognizable tables. I then walked over to the Wynn, a Las Vegas brand. The casino was around the back and had a much more subdued look than in Vegas. Hotels and casinos were spread around a few city blocks.
The next day, I walked to the Macau Ferry Terminal. On the way, I passed through the St Lazarus Church District, a lovely neighborhood with quiet, cobbled streets.
It gets confusing getting there on foot. To navigate the huge hill down to the ferry zone, I traversed stairs through a construction zone crawling though holes in fences. The ferry itself is further south than it looks on the map and I needed the help of a fellow who had lived in Canada to finally find it. It might have been easier to take a bus.
The ferry to Hong Kong cost HK$153 (~US$25) and was aboard a jet boat. It was a rough crossing and felt like we were well out to sea. It took one hour.
HONG KONG (pop 7 million)
Sky scrapers march up jungle clad slopes. Neon blazes at night. The harbor is crisscrossed by freighters, ferries and motor junks. Streets teen with traffic and five-star hotels stand next to tenements. It is expensive as Asia goes, but there are cheap things to do – take the $2 Starr Ferry, walk through markets or stroll through its many parks. The cuisine is world-famous.
History. It was an obscure backwater until European traders started importing opium into China. The British developed the trade aggressively trading for tea, silk and porcelain. China tried to stamp out opium trade and the First Opium War was won by Britain so that in 1841, the Treaty of Nanking ceded the island to Britain for ‘in perpetuity’. At the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, Britain took possession of Kowloon Peninsula, and in 1898 a 99-year lease was granted for the New Territories.
Through the 20th century Hong Kong grew with each wave of refugees from China during times of turmoil. Trade flourished as did British expat social life, until the Japanese army invaded in 1941. By the end of the war, Hong Kong’s population had fallen from 1.6 million to 610,000. More refugees (including industrialists) from the communist victory in 1949 increased the population to more than 2 million. Along with a UN trade embargo on China during the Korean War, this isolated China for the next three decades. Hong Kong reinvented itself as one of the world’s most dynamic ports and manufacturing and financial service centers.
In 1984 Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 with the provisions it would retain a free-market economy and its social and legal systems for 50 years as a Special Administration Region (SAR). An economic downturn, SARs, and mistrust of the government were ‘storms’ that Hong Kong weathered.
In 2012, Leung Chun-ying became NK’s fourth chief executive but has ‘red’ connections. Living costs spiraled and there was disagreement about China’s treatment of dissidents. For the elections in 2017, China decided to dictate who the candidates would be. In September, 2014, revolt of mostly young Hong Kongers resulted in the “umbrella revolution”. Several streets were completely blocked by camps causing severe traffic problems. The government responded with tear gas and riot police and there were several violent incidents. Finally (as many HK citizens were getting tired of all the disruption), in December barricades were finally removed first from the Admiralty and then in Causeway.
Climate. Hong Kong rarely gets very cold although it is cool between November and March. Summer is hot and unbearably humid with 80% of the rain falls partly due to typhoons. The best time to visit is between mid-September until February. Pollution, most from China is severe. Much is from coal-fired power plants in Guangdong owned by Hong Kong citizens.
Language. Almost 95% speak Cantonese though Mandarin is increasingly used. English is widely spoken with bilingual signs and menus. The traditional characters are more complicated than the simplified characters used on the mainland.
Hong Kong has four main areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and the Outlying islands. More than 70% is mountainous, most of it in the New Territories. All areas are connected by the metro system (MTR). Of 234 islands only three are accessible by ferry.
It cost 100 HK$ to exchange money in a bank. So everyone uses money changers – I was given 118 HK$ for 100 ¥ with the official rate of 126.41, a rather heavy commission.
I went out to eat at Satay King near my hostel. They don’t have satay, only Chinese food! Two days ago (December 11 2014), it was ordered that all the barricades in the umbrella revolution be removed. They were cleared from Admiralty that day. I went down to Causeway Bay where they are still intact. It was a very orderly place with rows of tents under awnings all surrounded by big metal barricades blocking 3 of the 4 lanes of Hennessy Street. “I don’t need sex – the gov’t fucks me everyday”. This area will be cleared today.
Hong Kong is an incredibly busy place. But there is no spitting and despite the crowds, fairly pleasant to walk around. They even line up on the right side of the escalators allowing climbers and wait till everyone has gotten off the metro before boarding.
Hong Kong Island. Sheung Wan is in the west, Central is central and Admiralty is in the east, then Wan Chai and east of it is Causeway Bay.
Central-Mid Levels Escalator. At 800m, it connects Queens Road Central and Conduit Road in Sheung Wan.
Victoria Peak Tram was the first funicular railway in Asia. It climbs 552m up Victoria Peak with great views on clear days and at night. It was a gorgeous sunny day but still a smog haze lower down. I walked around the peak with a young American woman and enjoyed. Then we walked down through the zoo/botanical park. It is not a long walk up especially if you take the escalator part way.
Tian Tan Buddha statue. At 26m, this is the world’s tallest seated Buddha. Take the metro to Tung Chung (HK$24) and then the cable car. This must be the longest cable car in the world as it makes two turns and goes over a mountain and is relatively expensive at HK$180. It was a 2-hour wait to get onto the cable car as I went in the early afternoon, so go early to beat the crowds. Walk through a lot of souvenir shops to get to the base of the Buddha, then a long stair to the statue. If I was not into collecting all things Buddha, this may have not been worth it. Consider taking the tram up then walking down (2-3 hours).
HSCB Building. Norman Foster designed, it is a masterpiece. In 1985 was the most expensive building ever built.
Dragon Back Hiking Trail. This is part of the 50km long Hong Kong Trail that covers a short section on the east part of the island. Take the metro line 2 to Shau Kei Wan station Exit A3. Turn left out of the exit to the bus station and take Bus #9 (Shek-O) to the Tei Wan stop, a long climb up the mountain. Climb up to the Dragon Back Trail for impressive views on both sides – down to beaches, the water and a very nice golf course. With no stops it took me only 30minutes to walk to where the trail descends to join a level trail that contours on the west side of the ridge through the trees and eventually a bus stop (another 40 minutes). Take the bus back down to the metro.
Starr Ferry and Kowloon. One of the best deals on the planet, the ferry (HK$2.80) takes you 10 minutes over the bay to Kowloon on the mainland side of Hong Kong. It is a nice walk along the promenade with views across the water of Hong Kong and its ocean of skyscrapers and Victoria Peak behind.
I then took the airport bus (A11 on the south side of Gloucester just east of Percival St), HK$ 40 to the airport for my 18:10 flight to Manila and then Palau via Guam (22:55). I have a 15-hour layover in Guam which I purposely made. Who knows what there is to see there? I’ve heard not much.