Like Hong Kong, Macao is an island just off the southern coast of China that spent much of its history as a European colony, in this case belonging to the Portuguese for 500 years. From our previous travel experiences, it is clear that it was much better to be a British colony than a Portuguese one. In 1993 when the British left Hong Kong, it was a thriving, money making world power house. When Macao returned to China in 1997, it was a sleepy town with crumbling buildings. What kept Macao alive was the fact that gambling is allowed there. Chinese folks love to gamble. The last time we tried to go to Macao twenty years ago, all the ferries were totally full. We were worried that this would happen to us again on a Saturday, but many more ferries have been added. They leave from both the Kowloon and Hong Kong side and sometimes leave every five minutes if demand requires.
The politics of it all was quite mystifying. Even though Macao and Hong Kong are part of China, they each have their own currency. We had to show our passports and fill out immigration forms to enter and leave both places. In Hong Kong we feel comfortable because most Chinese signs are also written in English. In Macao they are written in Chinese and Portuguese, so as soon as we arrived we could see that we needed a bit of help. We hired a local guide who claimed to speak English and he took us around the island in his car. He seemed to stop at all the major highlights listed in our guide book, but usually said nothing more than "blah, blah, blah statue. Blah, blah, blah temple. Be back to the car in ten minutes." We didn't learn much, but it got us farther than we would have on foot.
We especially enjoyed the 1,000 foot Macau Tower. We love to go up high and get panoramic views of a city,
but we were distracted by all the activities going on right outside the viewing platform. You could bungee jump off the tower, climb to the very top of it like a rock climber, or march around the metal lip next to the platform - if you were insane...
The facade of the old St. Paul's Cathedral
is the symbol of Macao that appears on all the tourist paraphernalia. The rest of the church burned down in 1835. In my mind this ruined building has been an apt symbol of Macao until very recently. Nearby a fortress that only fired its cannons once overlooks the old town area. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and efforts have been made to preserve and renovate the old Portuguese colonial buildings.
Especially picturesque are the black and white tiled streets and a fountain in Senado Square.
Not everyone comes to Macao to gamble. The old town thronged with shoppers and gawkers. Vendors gave away free samples of two food items that are specialties here: dry cookies that would be good dunked in coffee and jerky. Unlike our jerky, this stuff was quite thick and gave the jaw and teeth quite a workout.
Recently powerful Las Vegas powerhouse casinos have discovered Macao and much new construction is underway. The contrast between the old casinos and the new ones was stunning. Although Las Vegas is being used as a model,
the new casinos we saw were attractive, but not nearly as impressive.
There were no shows or other entertainment venues. But the gambling halls were packed with people. Our guide book said that within the next two years, Macao will take in more money annually than Las Vegas. As the standard of living rises in China and more Chinese venture abroad, Macao will be one of the first places they go. And the Chinese really like to gamble.