With its extravagant casinos attracting thousands of gamblers from across Asia, it is no wonder that Macau is often called the Vegas of the East. But what do non-gamblers do when they arrive in Macau? Well, you’d be surprised at how much this casino town has in store for a financially constrained backpacker (like me). And the best part about it is the fact that sightseeing doesn’t cost a single penny!! Or should I say a single Pataca?
To Rent or not to Rent, that is the question!
Having done some extensive research on Macau before leaving for my Asia Trip, I knew exactly what to expect from it. I knew that Macau is a special administrative region of China, as is Hong Kong. I was aware that our Chinese visa wouldn’t get us into Macau, as was the case with Hong Kong. I knew that Macau had its own currency, just like Hong Kong did. I had also seen lots of pictures of this city’s unique architecture. All this random information added up to a lot of excitement – I was about to witness all the still visuals in my head coming to life before my eyes! So one visa stamp, a whole lot of bumps on the sea, and three quarters of an hour later, I arrived in Macau with my friends on Star Ferry from Hong Kong. [nggallery id=13]
We had barely made our way out of the dock when a Chinese man approached us to ask if we wanted to rent a car for the purpose of sightseeing. Just then, I remembered reading that Macau has buses that pick people up free of charge and duly transport them to and from the casinos in the heart of the city.
The man interrupted my thoughts. “Everyday, 10,000 people coming Macau. Buses full! You no find space! 10,000 people! Look here!” He explained as he unfolded a thick pamphlet to reveal a large map of the city. We all gathered around to look at it in disbelief. The popular tourist sites were all clearly marked and did they look far apart from each other or what! Wow! This is such a big city! How’re we ever gonna make it to all these sites? Are we gonna be able to make the most of our day? “For 600 HK dollars, I give you 4-hour tour. You get off, then come back. Then we go next place. Very good!” We started considering the offer but thought that the price was ridiculous so tired to bargain it down. “No No! You 6 people! 600HKD for 4 hours!” he insisted. The man decided not to budge, and we decided not to take his offer.
As we walked away from him, another salesman who had been eyeing our interaction with the Chinese man, jumped at the opportunity to deliver his sales pitch to us. It sounded all too similar. At this point, my group seriously started discussing the tradeoff between cost and convenience. I tried to tell everyone about what I knew from my research and how I felt that we were being ripped off. My friend F also felt the same. “Renting a car and going around would be like seeing downtown Toronto in a car! It doesn’t make sense!” she reasoned. Although that huge map spread out before us did not help, F and I somehow convinced everyone to abandon this man’s offer as well. I won’t say that I was confident with this decision. We climbed up on local bus number 3 with hesitant steps wondering if we’d be able to make it to any tourist site at all…
After about ten minutes, the bus driver notified us that our destination was close by. We got off and learned from a bystander that the Square was just a 15-minute walk away. Relieved, we finally started paying attention to the lively atmosphere around us. Macau was definitely packed with tourists – rich tourists – and the streets and stores spoke to them. I pressed my nose against the window panes of luxurious jewellery stores to admire the beautiful designs and shining gems on display. One day… [nggallery id=14]
Walking into Portugal
With McDonald’s icecream helping us fight the pounding heat, we stepped into Macau’s landmark that is Senado Square. It was like walking into somewhere in Europe! (Not that I’ve been there, but really!) There were neo-classical buildings all around, cobblestone streets with a beautiful black and white pattern, and sign posts in Portuguese! After we had taken enough pictures, the call of hunger led us into one of the many restaurants in the square. As always, I had a great deal of trouble with chopsticks. A waitress who’d been closely watching my struggle to feed noodles to myself voluntarily brought me a fork, for which I was very thankful! Once the food had been gobbled down, we walked on not exactly knowing where to go but determined to find the next landmark.
We followed one of the many confusing sign posts and ended up in a busy street branching off the back end of the Square. Soon enough, materializing along the bends of this continuous route were all the sites on our list! One after another! Everything was at walking distance. They had both been misleading – those men and those blown-out-of-proportion-maps! We were now finally satisfied with our decision to not trust them.
The streets were full of people enjoying traditional Portugese-inspired foods. We bought eggstraordinary egg tarts (get it?? :P), and snacked on one too many almond cookies samples that were being offered by vendors in hopes of luring people into buying them. We came across St. Dominic’s Church, the Ruins of St. Paul Cathedral, the Guia Fortress. The churches, the balconies and the streets made me think that Macau almost didn’t belong in Asia! Enjoying the scenery from on top of the Fortress (the highest viewing point in Macau), my friend Farwa decided it was the perfect time to employ her artistic skills. In the matter of a few minutes, she transported the houses, the river, and the docked ships on the horizon into her little notebook. I stared in amazement at the magic. Check out her sketch: [nggallery id=15]
Day turned into night, which meant that it was time for a first hand look at Macau’s biggest attraction. As I walked towards the shimmering Grand Lisboa building, I felt enthralled by its massiveness. I felt like I was in Vegas!!! (No, I haven’t been there either, but really! Mind you, most casinos in Macau are exact replicas of Vegas casinos). Eyes mesmerized by the shine of the luxury around me, I walked into the casino to discover a whole new world. [nggallery id=16]
People lost and won fortunes around me, but gambling was far from my mind. I simply observed: shining, tinkling slot machines, clinking plastic coins, the semi-circle of serious faces sitting in front of the dealer, cards held tight, smoke rising from cigarettes clenched in the gamblers’ teeth, an unfamilair, bitter smell in the air. For someone like me who’d never been inside a casino before, it was a scene straight out of a movie. One of my friends tried her luck with HK$10 for fun. The tiny amount was swallowed by the slot machine before I could even understand how the game was to be played.
But what drew my keen attention for a good hour soon lost its charm. The chandeliers, the neons, the serious faces of the gamblers, the glitzy confines of the casino, all started to feel so fake, so superficial. It wasn’t just me; my friends also got very uncomfortable. We got out of there and sat outside the casino for sometime, enjoying the fresh wind and singing songs from Barney and Arthur. That was more like us.
We did gain something from the casino though – all visitors got bus tickets back to the ferry dock. We’d had a great day – a free walk through mini-Europe, free entrance into forts, temples and historic cathedrals, free almond cookies and a free bus ride! As if to celebrate this, we obnoxiously continued to sing songs, this time more loudly, while waiting in line for the bus. On the way back, the uneven yet smooth movement of the ferry lulled my friends to sleep while I stared into the deep water with one thing on my mind: our next destination Singapore, where chewing gum is illegal.