Take a gamble on a trip to Macau

Former Portuguese colony in China is a hybrid of cultures – and experiences

 

In last year’s instantly forgettable Hollywood film Now You See Me 2, the protagonists walk through one of Macau’s casinos. As the camera pans, players roll dice, laugh, cheer and swig alcohol. The reality is different: straight faces, glasses of water, stern stares and calculated bets. This is the real Macau, the biggest gambling centre of the world – a place where gambling is serious business.

But we’re not here to talk about gambling, not at all (not allowed, in fact). Fortunes have changed of late, and the exponential growth in this former Portuguese territory in China has slowed somewhat. Macau now needs to rebrand; to make people aware of its history, its culture – and that’s where we come in. As guests of the Macau tourism board, with an itinerary almost as intense as the boot camp in Full Metal Jacket, we’re going to see every single inch of non-casino wonder that Macau has to offer. After all, it hasn’t always been high-stakes and 21.

Four hundred and fifty years after the Portuguese came to Macau, the European influence lives on. Custard tarts, grilled sardines – anything vaguely Portuguese is here if you care to look for it. Street signs are even in Portuguese, along with Cantonese; colonial buildings line cobbled streets.

This Continental influence abounds in the historical centre of Macau, a Unesco World Heritage site, though the underlying culture is unmistakably Chinese.

Past the Moorish barracks and coffee shops selling flat whites, we’re greeted by a square where smoke bellows into the sky – we’ve arrived at the A-Ma temple. Our guide, Alorino, explains that this is where people pray to A-Ma, the goddess of fishermen asking for things, “such as luck in the casino”. Offerings such as incense sticks are lit by the barrel-load to guarantee such blessings.

Continuing on the tourism trail we arrive at the Ruins of St Paul’s, a 17th century structure that outwardly looks as if it would be at home in Rome. However, only the steps and its imposing stone facade remain (the wooden interior, which housed a college and cathedral, burned down in 1835 after a typhoon).

Family of pandas

Historical sites aside, the big draw in Macau, apart from the gambling, is the Giant Panda Pavilion, home to a couple of pandas, who have now become a family. At the time of our visit the female, Xin Xin, was recovering from giving birth, so her mate Kai Kai carried on the show. Lurking in the specially built panda-friendly habitat behind perspex glass, Kai Kai lay down down on a rock with his back to us, not moving an inch. Today he has no interest in entertaining, or even posing for a selfie.

Macau’s main clientele is from China, so spend on hotels is huge, catering for the super-rich

If antisocial pandas and smokey temples aren’t your thing there are few other things you can get up to in Macau (apart from gambling) like bungee jumping off a platform on the 338-metre-tall Macau Tower. If you don’t fancy flinging yourself off the edge attached to a harness, for €380, you can try a “skywalk” (all the height with only a little fright) on a glass platform, or, my preferred option, buy an ice-cream to eat while watching the show.

Macau’s main clientele is from China, so spend on hotels is huge, catering for the super-rich. One of the more recent exclusive arrivals is the $4 billion Wynn Palace – with more than 1700 rooms and suites available for around €2500 a night. The steakhouse, one of its many restaurants, has a stage where bitesize shows are acted out during dinner. One includes a King Kong set and a giant banana (guess the plot twist), a must for anyone enjoying red meat. The fascination with theatre doesn’t stop there. You can take a ride in one of the cable cars, or skycabs, that floats around the resort. Fountains in the man-made lake dance to the tune of Consider Yourself from Oliver Twist.

Fierce competition

This sort of Herculean effort by hotels is needed, because competition is fierce. The neon-lit landscape is home to all the big names – Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin, MGM. The Parisian, opened last year, has its own half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower. Food is the same, with 19 Michelin star restaurants on offer. Perhaps the opportunity to watch a giant gorilla when chewing a T-bone would convince you to change that reservation.

The huge influx of Chinese tourists isn’t surprising. Hong Kong, with all its sights, and huge prices, is only a short ferry ride away. Hotels are around 60 per cent cheaper in Macau and the standard is staggeringly high. I don’t think I’ve been in a swisher, comfier hotel than the €100-a-night Sofitel we’re staying at. It even has a Michael Jackson-themed room along with a glittery MJ dance move mural for €400 a night. True story.

As well as hotels and restaurants there are plenty of bars and entertainment in Macau, one bar worth mentioning is China Rouge, part of the Galaxy Macau resort, attentive staff line a cabaret-style room serving expensive cocktails while a Chinese band sings western tunes. Or if you fancy a show, the House of Dancing Water is Macau’s answer to Cirque de-Soleil (with water, naturally).

As we near the end of our trip, having exhausted every sightseeing opportunity, our guide points out an incinerator, for the second time. This is Macau. After a couple of days you’re stuck for something to talk about, to do – unless you hit the hotels and casinos. Macau’s culture is interesting but limited; a weekend trip from the mainland, albeit one worth taking.

How to get there

Cathay Pacific offers a choice of three routes between the UK to Hong Kong. These include five flights daily from London Heathrow, and four flights per week from both Manchester Airport and Gatwick Airport. For further information, visit athaypacific.co.uk or call 0208 834 8888.

Dan Lloyd travelled as a guest of the Macau Government Tourism Office macaotourism.gov.mo

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