More than casinos
Published: Apr 12, 2012 05:43 PM Updated: Apr 13, 2012 10:37 PM

Ruins of St. Paul's Photo: Xiu Liuliu/GT


Macao tourism offers rich history, adventure, sparkling nightlife.


Visitors to Macao may marvel at how just one island in China can comprise such a vast array of sights and activities. Tourists can visit a 16th-century Chinese temple that is regularly filled with believers, eat dinner in a 17th-century castle, catch a live concert at a church that dates back to the 18th century, then spend a night on the town amid hundreds of skyscrapers filled with casinos and resorts.

From traditional culture to modern life, from uniquely Chinese buildings to Western architecture, Macao has it all. It's no wonder that local people joke that they are neither Chinese nor Western, but rather half Chinese and half Portuguese.


Sailing away

I busied myself during the four-hour plane ride from Beijing to Macao by reading up on what to do in the island city. Due to a late arrival, I chose to spend the few hours of the evening that remained wandering the environs of my hotel, the Venetian Resort, which is also a landmark and must-see venue.

As I stepped off the plane, the familiar smell of the sea breeze rushed against my face. It was soft and warm, much warmer than the cold spring in Beijing that I'd left behind. The Macao International Airport itself feels like an island, as the runway is connected to the terminals via two long causeways that go right across the water. Having traveled to numerous cities around the world, I was truly impressed by how close this airport was to the city center. After a mere 10 minutes on a bus, I was standing before the Venetian Resort.

Macao consists of the Macao Peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane, which have been connected by a landfill called the Cotai Strip, where my hotel was. The peninsula is famous for its old city and is filled with historical sites, but the Cotai Strip, with its luxury hotels like City of Dreams and a dizzying number of casinos, is bursting with the pleasures of the modern era.

For those of you who are wondering how a hotel can be on the list of must-see attractions alongside the world-famous Ruins of St. Paul's and Senado Square, one step inside this resort will silence all doubts. It is as if the Italian city of Venice was moved inside this small resort in eastern Macao, complete with the Grand Canal and shops lining the water. With a blue "sky" and white "clouds" on the ceiling high above, you will find yourself standing in the streets of the renowned water town.

As I walked along, surrounded by European buildings and gondolas and boatmen singing Italian arias, I, like other travelers who have never been to Venice, hoped to experience a taste of this magical city. I decided that the perfect way to begin my Venetian experience was to ride in a gondola, and I was not disappointed.

Gliding past the beautiful buildings, I was transported by the mood and atmosphere of my water-level perch. The gondolier sang out the lyrics of "Santa Lucia," which is sung by her counterparts in Venice, with such authenticity that a pair of tourists from Italy couldn't help but sing along. Even though it was late in the evening outside, the interior of the resort was as bright as a sunny afternoon, and I lost all sense of time as I listened to the beautiful singing.

In the center square one can find a lovely café, a perfect place to enjoy a cappuccino and a bit of people watching. I, however, decided to forgo such a luxury in favor of getting a good rest for the following day's journey.


The view from the deck of the Macao Tower

The view from the deck of the Macao Tower Photo: Xiu Liuliu/GT


Past meets present

The story of Macao as an international city may begin with the island's best-known temple, the A-Ma Temple. This sacred place, built in 1488, is dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen. It is located on the Macao Peninsula and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

According to my guide, the name Macao is thought to have come from the name of the temple. It is said that when the first Portuguese sailors landed on the coast in front of this landmark and asked where they were, the natives responded with the name of the temple, Ma Ke in Cantonese. Then the Portuguese named the city "Macao," similar to the pronunciation.

While the temple is not very big, it attracts many visitors and worshippers. The whole temple is built against a hill, and the main hall is on the second floor, from which you can view the place where the Portuguese first landed. As I contemplated how they'd brought culture and customs with them to this Eastern port, I saw acts of worship that are distinctly Chinese, like old women kowtowing and praying. People bought incense to burn for their families, just as the early fishing communities did centuries ago, praying to the goddess Mazu. 

On the bus to the Macao Peninsula, where I would see the Ruins of St. Paul's, or Dasanba Paifang in Putonghua, the guide told me that the Portuguese left many things to Macao and its people, such as religion, architecture and an open-minded lifestyle.

"It is odd to see traditional Chinese style and modern Western style side by side in other cities. But here in Macao it works. We are open to both. These buildings have Western architecture on the outside, but inside they have a Chinese style," she said.

The Ruins of St. Paul's are proof of my guide's insight. Dasanba in fact is no more than the fa?ade of an old cathedral, which is now buttressed with concrete and steel to preserve the aesthetic integrity of the building's face. The Cathedral of St. Paul, a 17th-century Portuguese church dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle, was destroyed in 1835 by a fire and only the front side remains today. Despite this damage, the fa?ade is still very magnificent, sitting on a small hill with 66 stone steps leading up to it.

Unlike other cathedrals in the West, the carvings on the fa?ade include Chinese characters. On the third-floor level, one can read Chinese aphorisms. One will also notice oriental-themed reliefs, such as a woman stepping on a seven-headed dragon, described in Chinese as "Holy Mother steps on the heads of the dragon."

A steel staircase allows travelers to climb up to the top of the structure from the rear, but be sure you have enough time to stand in the long queue. If you do climb it, bring some change with you, as it is a custom to throw coins through the highest window of the ruins from the stairs.

For the best view of the city, head to the 338-meter-high Macao Tower, owned by Macao casino billionaire Stanley Ho Hung-Sun. It is said that he was so impressed by the Sky Tower in Auckland that he built a similar summit in Macao. Thanks to Ho, visitors can stand at the top of the tower to take in a panoramic view of the island and its landmarks, including Ho's Lisboa Casino.

The observation deck has a glass floor, giving the feeling of sitting on top of the world. Such a splendid height would be a waste if it were solely for sightseeing. Daredevils can delight in the activities offered at the tower: skywalking and bungee jumping.

While I had skywalked before, I'd never done it at such a height, 233 meters. Taking a deep breath, I made my way across the outer rim of the tower, keeping my eyes on the horizon and never looking down at my feet. It was a thrilling and unforgettable experience for me. If you are braver than I am, you can try bungee jumping there. It is said to be the second-highest commercial jump in the world.


A gondola at the Venetian Resort

A gondola at the Venetian Resort Photo: Xiu Liuliu/GT


A roll of the dice

One thing that people all over the world seem to enjoy, regardless of culture, is gambling. In Macao, there are casinos everywhere, and most hotels and resorts have them inside. It is interesting that casinos in Macao are not called duchang, which is the standard term for casinos, but yulechang, meaning entertainment centers. It seems that people there want to obscure the main focus of gambling, preferring the more benign "entertainment," though most travelers, like me, saw past the semantic trick.

Before going to Macao, I had never been to a casino before. From a young age, I was taught that gambling can very seriously affect people's lives when taken too far. But there, few can resist the temptation or curiosity for something that is seen as forbidden fruit. After all, the casino lies on the path up to the hotel rooms.

As the Chinese saying goes, a small amount of gambling is entertaining, but excessive gambling is harmful. I decided to have a go at the slots, which I figured would be a nice choice for someone who wasn't interested in getting deep into thrills like this. The cost of playing was very small, and I knew to quit when I was ahead. I ended up winning enough to treat myself to a good breakfast.


The gate of the A-Ma Temple

The gate of the A-Ma Temple Photo: Xiu Liuliu/GT

Useful tips:

Transportation: Make full use of free hotel shuttle buses. In Macao, you don't need to pay a single cent on transportation. Every hotel and resort has free shuttle buses that go to hot sites and airport, and you don't even need to have a room with them to hop aboard!

Money: In Macao, Chinese renminbi is an acceptable currency, but you can save a little on exchange rates if you use Hong Kong dollars, which is equal to the local currency, the pataca. If you want to arrive with pataca in hand, be sure to inform your mainland bank one day in advance before you exchange your RMB. 

Lodging: If you want to try your hand at the casinos, then book a room in a hotel on the Cotai Strip. There, you will have many choices including the Venetian Resort. A new, massive hotel and resort center, Sands Cotai Central, will open for business this month. Hotels often offer discounts if you book online.

Eats: Just like Hong Kong, dishes in Macao are so yummy that even a street stand selling noodles and meatballs can fill up your stomach. Must-try snacks include curry fish balls, famous Portuguese egg tarts and pork chop buns.

Wares: Gift shops are seen everywhere in Macao. Koi Kei Bakery is the most famous for sweet tooths and its stores can be found throughout the city. Almond cakes and various types of jerky are a great choice for family and friends.

Sights: You can also visit Monte Forte, Senado Square and Fisherman's Wharf.