Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Macau, China

Map picture

Scratching A 40 Year Old Itch: Macau

Yesterday Lisa and I took a ship sponsored day trip over to Macau. There was nothing really there to see, but when I was in Hong Kong 40 years ago, my group went there, however I was sick at the time and missed the trip; ever since I have had this “itch” to see what it was that I missed. In truth, as it turns out, I should have stayed at Hong Kong, which is where our ship is again parked as we travel north towards Shanghai.

I had always assumed that Macau was another island at the mouth of the Pearl River as is Hong Kong; I could not have been more wrong! Macau is a city at the tip of a peninsula from mainland China. Unlike Hong Kong, which is an island and therefore isolated from the mainland, Macau is an integral part of China and is well connected to it by an elaborate road system. Another mistake I have made all these years was in thinking that Hong Kong and Macau were essentially “sister” entities, and here again, nothing could be further from the truth. The island of Hong Kong and the surrounding territories of Kowloon and the New Territories were the spoils of war to Great Britain from what is known as the Opium Wars. By treaty, Great Britain was granted the rights to those lands for 100 years. In 1997, control of these lands was turned over to China and under the terms of a new agreement, Hong Kong is designated as a “Special Administrative District” of China for 50 years at which time, it will fully revert to Chinese control.

Macau, on the other hand, was not captured as a spoil of war, but was instead given in perpetuity to Portugal in recognition for all they had done for the Chinese Emperor. In that respect, Macau became the very first European city on the continent of Asia. Seeing the transition in Hong Kong, Portugal decided to enter into a similar agreement with China in 1999, and it, too, is now a “Special Administrative District,” which in 50 years will revert over to China.

Hong Kong has been known for two things, it has been the finance capital of Asia, and it is the largest department store in Asia. The city is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and it has a heartbeat all its own. Macau, on the other hand, has developed into the Asian equivalent of Las Vegas. In the small area that is Macau, only 30 sq. km., it boasts over 33 casinos along with a very small population of around 500,000. Last year they topped Las Vegas according to our guide; a fact, of which, he was most proud. The city hosted over 33 million visitors. Now can you guess from which country most people originated? Try this on for size: 85% of the visitors to Macau were from China itself.

After our early arrival into Hong Kong, our tour was the first to depart the ship at 8:30am. We were transferred to the ferry terminal where we boarded a high speed turbo-jet catamaran over to Macau, a trip of approximately 1 hour. Before boarding the ferry, however, we first had to clear immigration from Hong Kong, and the lines were very, very long. The trip over to Macau went quickly and upon arrival, we had to complete immigration forms and stand in another series of very, very long lines in order to enter Macau. Why all the hassle between two entities of China, I really do not understand, but it would get worse as I will explain later.

We had come to Macau to fulfill an old desire on my part, but also because it was advertised that we would visit the St. Paul Cathedral which dated from the 1600’s, then we would visit a museum, and finally we would visit the A Ma Temple. For lunch, we would go to the top of the Macau Sky Tower and dine 60 stories up at a revolving restaurant. On paper, it sounded like an exciting day lay ahead.

The reality, however, was somewhat different. We first visited the Macao Museum which was opened in 1998.


It was a beautiful building and housed a collection of artifacts and dioramas depicting early life in the Portuguese Colony. It would have been OK, except that our tour guide was very full of himself, and he stopped in front of each and every exhibit, and droned on and on until I almost begged him to stop! We slowly went from exhibit to exhibit until after an hour and a half, he thankfully said we would now move on to see the Cathedral. As it turns out, the Cathedral was right next door to the museum so no travel was required. The edifice of the building was very impressive, however our travel guide failed to mention one tiny little fact; yes, the massive structure was built by the Portuguese in the 1600’s, but it was burned to the ground in the 1850’s and never re-built!


The only thing that remains is the front edifice, which stands supported by a steel platform behind. So our visit to the Cathedral was of necessity very brief. At least we still had the Temple to visit. However, when we arrived at the Temple, our guide announced that he was sure we had all seen enough temples by now, so would we please follow him down a side street where we could all sample a delicious almond cookie which was special from Portugal.


Thus, we dismissed the temple. So at this point, our day in Macau had involved a rather boring visit to a museum, a stop at a burned out Cathedral, and a pass by a Temple.

At this point in the day it was 2:30pm and we had yet to have lunch, so that became our next stop. We were whisked up 60 floors to the top of the Sky Tower where a very nice buffet awaited us along with a magnificent view of the surrounding city.


The tower was built alongside the river on the southernmost point in Macau. When looking north, we could see the entire area of Macau, and in every other direction, we were looking into Mainland China. The entire area was encircled with highways, and except for the rivers, it was impossible to tell one area from the other. I will say that Macau was a beautiful city and it did remind me of Las Vegas being full of fantastically large and visually stunning casinos.


Alas, it was time to begin the return to Hong Kong and our ship. Once again we had to face long lines at immigration to depart Macau. This time our catamaran was not the nice high speed ship from the morning. Instead this one was much more crowded and it took almost 50% longer to make the return trip. On our arrival, it took our group almost an hour to clear immigration back into Hong Kong, which meant that we arrived back at the ship almost two hour later than scheduled.

Our ship spent the night in Hong Kong so we had yet another opportunity to visit the city, but waiting in our rooms was a special letter from Chinese officials notifying us that because of our trip to Macau, we were now required to present ourselves the following afternoon for “special immigration processing” before the ship would be allowed to depart. Was this a great experience or what? That was Macau!


PS Since we spent the night in Hong Kong, we got to witness the laser light show that is performed every night at 8pm. Enjoy the pictures because they are quite special.


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