Arriving in Macao:
Recently your’s truly, went on a trip to Macau. It wasn’t for a holiday but there was plenty of spare time to wander around. This piece is about the trip.
Not many have heard of Macao, although there’s even a James Bond movie “Man with the golden gun” made in the seventies shot briefly in Macao and in 1952 there was a movie produced by Howard Hughes (C’mon aviation buffs, you know who HH is) titled simply as “Macao”. The city-state was a Portuguese territory till the hand over to China and is now called as Macau S.A.R. meaning “special administrative region” of China’s one country two systems policy for Hong Kong and Macao. Macao or Macau has a population of a little more than half a million people.
I made an entry through the Macao International Airport on the Island of Taipa. Macao has the islands of Taipa and Coloane and the Macao peninsula. The arrival is seamless, Immigration formalities are a breeze and visa is on arrival for people from most countries around the World.
Even though it was past mid night as I was driven in a cab from Taipa where the Airport is, to the peninsular Macao, there was a buzz in the air and I noticed everything lit up brightly, reminding me that Macao is now considered as the “Las Vegas” of the East. Yes, there is the very large “Sands” casino that you find in Vegas and Atlantic City and wherever else casinos as allowed to operate and yes there are plenty of other large and small casinos even in the Holiday Inn that I stayed. But I’d stop short of comparing it with Vegas for several reasons. For one, Vegas is all glamour, all glitz, middle of the desert exotic casinos featuring exotic shows as well. Macao is none of that except for the casinos bit. There’s a lot more to Macao than the Casinos and that what I’ll touch on in my blog.
The weather was pleasant, in the low 20 degrees Celsius. A brief word on how to arrive in Macao, there are flights from Singapore to Macao on Tiger Airways that’s real cheap and perhaps more options for anyone who’d care to do a bit of research on the net for flights.
Oh, the cab from the Airport to the peninsula/downtown Macao costs around MOP 60 maximum. The MOP was currently converting to the US Dollar as 1 USD = 7.50 MOP. Check the rates before you travel and always have some local currency on hand before you leave for another country.
Portuguese Consul General's residence
View from top of St. Pauls ruins
Museum of Macau housed within the Fort (mentioned towards the end of this piece)
GODDESS, HAVE MERCY!
The next morning saw me rise early for a mid day meeting. Having never been in Macao before and not having the slightest clue, I set out early to take in the locality and find my way around. I’d like to mention that all hotels have English speaking staff and are very helpful. Don’t expect the rest of Macao to be the same. I mean the rest of the Macanese people as they are called are also equally friendly but severely challenged when it comes to speaking English. I didn’t know Chinese either and that makes it tough to ask around. But, as I set off on a walk through the roads and bye lanes of Macao, having been briefed by the hotel concierge about directions, I felt that one could not possibly get lost in this place. Signboards are Portuguese and Chinese and all major landmarks have English signposts pointing towards the landmarks. If someone can get lost with a map and a city full of signposts, I’d say the person is challenged directionally and perhaps needs a GPS to find the loo in their own house.
I noticed that the streets were well laid out, not too many people thronging around the sidewalks and that generally the place was neat and rubbish free. I wandered off to the general area that my meeting was scheduled to take place, in a real swanky part of the town to find nice parks dividing the roads with well built underpasses and thoroughfares through the park. There was this illusion of real wide open spaces in a somewhat narrow and small country.
I ended up at the famous statue of Kun Lam on the waterfront. She is also known as Kuan Yin, meaning goddess of mercy. My photos of Kun Lam are a bit dull just like the day was, a dull cloudy cool morning and this sort of weather stayed all the time that I was there. Certainly beats walking around in the hot blazing sun with high humidity and perhaps Kuan Yin’s mercy was on me throughout the trip because of the extensive outdoor walks that I took to discover the popular places in Macao. Thank you, goddess!
Goddess Pictured above
One of the many Portuguese era heritage buildings above
I asked the concierge for bus information and went out to catch a bus to the heart of Macao town now labeled as a “UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Bet you did not know that! The whole area in front of the town municipality leading to the famous St. Paul’s ruins, the Macao Fort and the Macao Museum is a World heritage site comprising Portuguese buildings several hundred years old and maintained like they were built recently. I’d take this to the gambling dens any day.
Canons on the Fort
I took the local bus, they are all nice and spiffy and air conditioned (not that you needed it) and will take exact to be dropped into a box next to the driver. A word of caution here. The local money is called MOP or Macao Patakas. Coins come in 10 cent, 50 cent, 1, 2 and 5 Patakas. The bus fare anywhere to anywhere in Macao peninsula is MOP2.50. However, Hong Kong money is equal here and small change comprising HK Dollar may also be used as legal tender for anything. Be sure you look at the coins you are dropping into the box because the MOP 2 Patakas and Hong Kong 5 Dollar coins look somewhat similar to the untrained eye and you don’t want to drop the wrong coin in. Not that the bus company cares but the box will not give it back to you nor give you any change, that’s all!
I took the back seat, the only empty seat available and asked the chap sitting next to me whether he knew where St. Paul’s ruins was. He looked at me blankly and I then fished out a small piece of paper that the concierge at the hotel had written on, mentioned the name and bus numbers that I could take to St. Paul’s. Staring blankly at the English writing, the man could not help me but was kind enough to pass the paper around. No one could read it and this was another note I made mentally to myself, maybe one should arm themselves with the names of places with English and Chinese letters so that the locals could read and help.
Hearing an announcement on the PA system of the bus, I looked up to find two LED displays flashing the name of the next stop in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. The announcements are not in English, though. Ha! I was now on “normal mode” and sure enough, after some time, the LED display showed “St. Paul’s ruins” stop and I alighted, keeping in mind that all I had to do the next time around was to have exact change for the bus and look for the LED display to tell me where to get off. See, I told you even idiots can’t get lost here.
I’d tell people to take the bus. That’s how you start sampling the lives of the locals. You’d see a lot more and heck, almost anywhere you go, they are a lot cheaper than a cab. For me, the country experience starts from taking local transportation and ends up tasting, within my vegetarian focus, the local food and local beers.
I got off at the town square into the World Heritage Site. A brief look around from a fountain in the square revealed various Portuguese style heritage buildings featuring the Municipality, The General post Office and other government offices. Some curious things that stood out in the buildings that were several centuries old was a large McDonald’s. Yup, that’s what I am talking about, famished westerners can dig into their biggest Macs without having to experiment with the Cantonese local cuisine. Right opposite Mickey D’s is another American icon, just in case you wanted better coffee than Mickey’s. Starbucks, located in another heritage building! So, if you had taken a round the World trip to get here and after 18 hours of flying if you felt like you missed food from homeland, here it was, welcoming the many famished and hungry westerners. You couldn’t catch me dead in there, so I walked around to find alternates.
I trooped into this little Chinese restaurant or perhaps café’ instead and found that I, obviously, could not read the menu. The waitress (and for that matter anyone else in the restaurant) did not speak English but she was clever enough to fish out another menu made for tourists and that had items that could have made your stomach churn if you were vegetarian like me. Listed among pig intestines and other gory innards and unmentionables of assorted animals was also a noodle dish with dried mushrooms. As unappetizing as that may sound, perhaps it was the only dish I could have ordered and I did. And a cup of coffee with milk and sugar. That would help my food go down easier, was my hope. The tables were filled with local yokels and others who I suspect were visitors from China.
Naturally when the waitress came with the food and a pair of chopsticks, every head turned my way, sticking out like a sore thumb (me, not the food), to watch me make a fool out of myself. As it turned out, they lost interest as soon as I dug in with the chop sticks and started eating the noodles like they did. Practicing with chopsticks and noodles for so many years helped me, naturally, and I am glad that I did not make a mess and ended up as fodder for some local jokes. I even managed the slippery mushrooms which now having been floating in the noodle soup, were far from being “dry”. The coffee, I must say, was better than anything that McDonald’s can throw at you. Let me warn all westerners and others - don’t think you’ll get the so-called Chinese take away food that you get in the West, that’s not the real thing.
Me with St.Paul's ruins in the back
RUINS OF ST.PAUL
Re-charged from the noodles and coffee, I started to wander around the town square, a delight for the eyes with buildings of interesting architecture, a little Portugal in the middle of China so to speak. Following the signs (and I encourage you the reader also to do so when in Macao) and there are plenty of signs there, I worked my way through the throngs of tourists up a narrow road, all closed for traffic and only for pedestrian use. A bit of slope climbing and one comes across the flight of steps leading to the entrance to the ruins of St. Paul. Only the entrance of the church of Mater Dei is still standing as one can see in the picture. The rest of it burned down, along with the College of Jesus for the third time in 1853. It is interesting to walk around the precincts of the old church and visualize the times when it was a spiritual hub.
UNESCO World Heritage Site, City center, Macao
Climbing a small hill, which can be easier by using the escalators that go up and you get to the top of a fort. The fort has its turrets and cannons, aimed somewhat towards the city and the surrounding sea. Apparently this fort was also the place that was the bastion of the Portuguese legions and subsequently housed the Governors appointed by Portugal to oversee their territories. The fort complex also house a small gallery in the complex that depicts the history of the fort and the significant role it played during Netherlands invasion of the territory. Of course the Portuguese won that battle.
The City Municpality, the stop where one gets off for the UNESCO site and St. Paul's
Don’t leave the fort without going to the Museum of Macao, also cleverly positioned within the fort complex. Air conditioned and containing many relics of the past, this is the part where one can catch ones breath and take in some more history. And everybody thinks Macao is only about gambling and has no history or culture. My next part of this trip is coming shortly because there is more of Macao! Stay tuned.
End Part 1