Asia

Macau is sleepy no more!

Flashing neon Casino signs light up the night sky in Macau

A once sleepy, sleazy and largely ignored Portuguese colony, Macau was handed back to China, together with Hong Kong, in 1999 and became a ‘Special Administrative Region’ within China, operating under a ‘one country, two systems’ policy, maintaining its own political, social and economic systems. And since then, few tourism destinations are developing at the same warp-speed as Macau.

The post-handover catalyst was the ending of local tycoon Stanley’s Ho’s 40-year monopoly on Macau’s pivotal casino industry. New concessions were awarded to Las Vegas kingpins Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, injecting new dynamism into Macau’s tourism profile. Its twenty-plus casinos are operated by four companies. The speed of development is breathtaking. Macau’s neon-fuelled, casino-driven economy overtook Hong Kong in GDP growth for the first time, and attracted some 22 million visitors. Gross gaming receipts have outpaced even Las Vegas.

Macau is situated on a tiny peninsula at the mouth of the Pearl River. Two bridges of 2.5 km and 4.5 km respectively link it to its nearest island, Taipa, which in turn is joined to the island of Côloane by a 2.2 km causeway. At the extreme northern end of the peninsula, on a narrow isthmus, is the imposing gateway Portas do Cerco (or Border Gate), which leads to the Zhuhai and Zhongshan areas of the People’s Republic of China. Some 60 km to the east-northeast, across the mouth of the river, is Hong Kong.

Macau was founded in 1557 during the great era of Portuguese overseas exploration. It became the major port between the Far East and Europe and, in 1670, was confirmed as a Portuguese possession by the Chinese. Macau went into decline as a regional trading centre from the early 19th century, when the British occupied Hong Kong.

But there’s more to Macau than opulent gambling palaces. Its historic centre became China’s 31st UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2005. The sloping cobbled streets are redolent of Porto, and street signs are inked onto white tiled azulejos. Even Macau’s currency, the pataca, more closely resembles the old escudo than the yuan. In addition, there are hill-top forts, cathedral ruins, Buddhist temples, a grand neo-classical post office and several atmospheric Portuguese cafes and Cantonese restaurants.

New Macau is still under construction, and land reclamation has doubled its territory, conjoining it with the islands of Coloane and Taipa. The resulting Cotai Strip will be a new hotel, entertainment and gaming centre in 2009, with up to 60,000 hotel rooms by names such as Hard Rock, Grand Hyatt, St Regis, Four Seasons, Shangri-La and Raffles.

Parts of Macau offer serenely traditional countryside, ancestral Chinese villages and pine-forested hills. Much of ‘old’ Macau is preserved on its islands, including fishing boat building yards, colonial mansions, Chinese temples and floating fisherfolk communities. Yet Macau also entices visitors with its glitzy casinos and motor races, making for a fascinatingly unique destination.

How to Get Here

Maucau International Airport (MFM) opened in 1995 on an extended peninsula of Taipa Island reclaimed from the sea. Its present capacity is 6 million passengers per year. Regular flights connect with many of China’s largest cities, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Bangkok. 

It’s a 15 minute drive across the bridge to Macau. Buses to and from downtown are operated by two companies. There is a taxi rank outside the main terminal.

An air route is provided by Heli Express, which operates a frequent daily helicopter service from the Shun Tak Centre in Hong Kong to the Macau Ferry Terminal. Flight times are approximately 16 minutes.

There are many scheduled ferry services between Macau and Hong Kong, and Macau and Kowloon providing passengers convenient transport between these two islands. Quite a number of jetfoils and Catamarans are available, which differ in speed, comfort and price. The duration of the trip is 60-70 minutes.

All major hotels provide pick-up service which can be booked in advance or arranged on arrival.

Taxis are air-conditioned and inexpensive and readily available at the taxi station outside the airport.

An Airport bus (AP1) is also available outside the terminal.

Road access is possible but not practical. Given the strict licensing restrictions on foreigners and the large queues to access Macau by road, driving is not recommended. The vast majority of visitors arrive by ferry from Hong Kong.

Macau Pataca Dollar

Macau’s currency is the Pataca. Like the Hong Kong dollar, the pataca is identified by the $ sign, sometimes also written M$ or MOP$. Hong Kong dollars are readily accepted everywhere in Macau.

The easiest and often least expensive way to get local currency is from an ATM. There are ATMs throughout Macau. Be sure you know your 4-digit PIN and daily withdrawal limit before you depart.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Credit cards are a safe way to carry money, provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash advances using your credit cards at banks or ATMs, but keep in mind that you’ll pay interest for cash advances. Also, many banks may assess a 1- 3 percent transaction fee on charges you incur abroad. All major hotels and better shops and restaurants accept credit cards. If you do pay with a credit card, check to make sure that “HK” appears before the dollar sign given for the total amount.

Traveler’s checks can be readily exchanged for Pataca dollars at banks, hotels and currency exchange offices.
What will the seasonal weather be like?

The weather in Macau is similar to that in Hong Kong. The climate is sub-tropical, with hot humid summers and cool dry winters.
The mild autumn months, in October and November, are the most favourable for visiting the city.
In the height of summer humidity is high and temperatures hover in the thirties Celsius. The winter months of January and February are generally wet and cold.
Monsoon winds blow in from the north between September and March, and from the south between April and August. Macau’s weather is influenced by tropical cyclones from the South Pacific Ocean during the typhoon season. A few times a year winds can reach gale force and typhoons are not unknown.

Getting Around

Visitors to Macau are frequently surprised by the orderly way that traffic moves in this small city. On average some 130,000 vehicles each day take to the narrow and winding roads in an area of under 30 square kilometres, so a well ordered traffic plan has proved beneficial. Some 80% of the roads are one-way and this ensures that outside the morning and evening peak periods there is little congestion. A plentiful supply of taxis at the airport, hotels and ferry terminals together with an excellent public bus service helps with the movement of people at all times. In Macau, traffic moves on the left hand side of the road.

At present, there are some 700 taxis in Macau and they are a convenient way of transportation in the city. Taxis in Macau are two colors, black and yellow. The black cars have a pale yellow top on each and the services of the yellow cars can be arranged through telephone booking without extra cost.

If you want to rent a car, free city maps are available from either a car rental agency or Tourism Macau, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss

If you are in Macau, you are probably here for a reason. It`s a good gamble … So the first things you will want to see are the casinos. This is the gambling mecca of the Orient, a bustling hybrid of China and Vegas, the golden jewel of Macau Tourism. The scale of Asia’s answer to Las Vegas, The Cotai Strip, is astonishing. Sitting on a strip of reclaimed land linking the islands of Coloane and Taipa, Cotai’s highway features palm trees and stone statues depicting the Chinese animals of the zodiac. But if you feel you need a `time out`, Macau offers visitors some interesting sites to see.

A peninsula of the Chinese mainland, Macau’s architectural and cultural legacy of four centuries asa Portuguese colony lives on. The tiled street names are written in both Portuguese and Chinese characters, white and blue azulejo tiles adorn courtyards and gardens, and Macanese restaurants in renovated villas serve up a spicy blend of Portuguese cooking, Chinese ingredients and African spices.

As Macau expands its tourism infrastructure, Old and New Macau are clearly divisible. The sky-reaching new city is being built on swathes of reclaimed land and features integrated Vegas-style casino resorts, the Fisherman’s Wharf theme park and Macau Tower.

The centrepiece of Old Macau is the enchanting Senado Square – a classic Portuguese plaza and gateway to the UNESCO-protected historic city. From here, several market streets lead off in each direction, notable for their traditional Chinese pharmacies, dried fish stores, bakeries and Portuguese cafes.

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the old city of Macau has eight squares and 22 historic buildings. The narrow lanes, markets and sloping cobbles combine the architectural drama of backstreet Porto and the bustling energy, cooking smells and Cantonese dialect of southern China. The ruined façade of the Sao Paulo Church can be found adjacent to the Museu de Macau and the cannons of the Monte Fort. A short walk away is the pleasant Camões Garden, named after Portugal’s favourite poet, Luís de Camões.

Macau’s complex history is neatly chronicled in the Museu de Macau. The ground floor focuses on the maritime legacies of both China and Portugal and charts the discovery of the territory, and its emergence as a strategic trading port for commodities and foodstuffs. Look out for sections detailing the history of cricket fighting (which presaged Macau’s gambling industry) and the once key firecracker industry, plus historic photos and images from the 1999 handover.

A-Ma Temple Burning incense and several layers of stone pavilions, gardens, statues and Buddhist and Taoist shrines are dedicated to A-Ma, a sea goddess after whom Macau is named: the temple is called A-Ma Gao (Place of A-Ma). A pleasant and spiritual atmosphere is frequently punctured by the ear-splitting bursts of firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits.

Fisherman’s Wharf Occupying a strip of reclaimed land on the western Outer Bay, Fisherman’s Wharf is both a family theme park and retail and dining centre, combining joy rides, casinos, restaurants and bars. Phase one (dominated by a giant replica volcano, curiously inset by a replica of Tibet’s Potala Palace) opened in 2006 near to the Macau Ferry Terminal.

The pillar-box red doorways and shuttered windows of Rua da Felicidade (Happiness Street) mark the spot where visiting sailors used to spend raucous nights in search of wine, women and song.

About Shopping

Macau can’t yet compete with Hong Kong, but it is taking giant strides, combining street stores with intriguing markets, side-street Cantonese pharmacies and funky boutiques. Upscale hotels all can boast of brand shopping malls.

Macau after dark

Macau has a rich and varied cultural life reflecting both its Chinese and Portuguese heritage; although (given Macau’s small size) most events are shared between a handful of venues. The Dom Pedro V Theatre hosts drama productions and classical and chamber music concerts, as do the Ho Lai lun Va Brito Theatre and the Clementina Leitao Ho Brito Theatre.

Seasonal orchestral concerts, particularly during Christmas and Easter, are held inside the magnificent Sao Domingos Church on Senado Square.

The major attraction in Macau is gambling and the glitz and glitter of Vegas-like casinos.  As such, much of the nightlife takes place in the hotels and casinos.  There is often live music and other forms of Las Vegas style entertainment located in any number of casinos.

But if you are interested in where else to go, you should know about two other entertainment areas.  The first is Largo de Senado, which is the town square located in downtown Macau. Largo de Senado is where the bars are ever-changing but always exciting.  This is one of the best spots for dancing the night away.  The main street for nightlife in this area is Rua S.Domingos.

The second area is Bar Street, located just off of Avenida Dr. Sun Yat-sen. This area is an up-and-comer. The area was once abandoned and is now being taken over by the young and young-at-heart who are looking for late night bars and dance clubs.

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