Hong Kong Day 9.1 - Ambling in Macau

10 October 2009

Thursday 8th October, part 1

A trip across the sea today to Macau, a former Portuguese colony returned to China in 1999 and now run as a SAR (Special Administrative Region) in a similar way to Hong Kong.

The ferry took about an hour and was very smooth, apart from a rather bumpy boarding. I got the impression that the harbour in Hong Kong wasn’t particularly well designed as it seemed to magnify the waves, making getting on the ferry difficult. It wasn’t long until we reached our destination and could see the massive casinos through the haze. This part of the world always seems to be hazy - the views in London are much clearer in comparison. Apparently it’s because of the pollution pumped out by the mainland Chinese factories.

Will’s aunt treated us to a stay in the 4-star Rio Hotel. It could not be more different to our cheap hostel - it was huge. The bathroom was bigger than our entire hostel room and had a lovely walk-in shower, as well as a bath. The only complaint I might make was that the bath was a little small, but hey, at least there was a bath. Also available in the hotel were a swimming pool, gym and a dodgy-looking 24-hour sauna. And with Macau being China’s up-and-coming answer to Las Vegas, there were casinos on three floors.

Casinos are huge business in Macau, and they’re set to become bigger. As the only part of China with legal gambling, this small SAR now gets more annual visitors than Hong Kong - most of them from the mainland. All around, the dirty residential blocks of old are interspersed with new casinos with increasingly impressive and somewhat ridiculous architecture. Not far from our hotel was the Grand Lisboa, a huge pineapple-shaped tower that stood in marked contrast to the delapidated block of flats on just the other side of the road.

The old town though maintains much of its historical character - much more so than Hong Kong. There is a ruined cathedral and a fortress, and an impressive mosaic pavement featuring designs of sea creatures.

We stopped off for lunch at a restaurant and had a huge meal of sea bass, chicken curry, clams, baked fish and a kind of cheesey porky rice. It was a nice contrast to the kinds of meals we’ve had on the rest of the holiday. It was a treat to have a tomato and some non-briochey bread, as these seem to be rare in Hong Kong.

We explored the old town and wandered around a park which was a Protestant cemetry. Old Chinese men were sitting around, chatting and playing card games. They eyed us with some suspicion and made us feel quite out of place.

We tried in vain to find a bar. There simply aren’t many around in Macau for some reason, so we returned to the hotel for a bit of a swim in the 25th-floor pool before going to the bar there.

For dinner we went to Restaurant Litoral, recommended in one of our guide books. It was a fabulous meal and extremely good value for money. We had curry beef cakes, garlic prawns and African chicken. The only slight disappointments for me were the charcoal black pork (which wasn’t just burnt pork as I feared from the name, but it was a bit chewy), and the Macanese stew, which was really just a pot of stock. Although the stock was delicious, it was entirely comprised of inedible bits of chicken bone, skin and gristle. The only solid part you could eat was the cabbage, although to be fair the stock made the cabbage deliciously meaty.

We took a taxi to seemingly the only street in Macau that had any bars. The red half-moon hung in the sky behind the distant smog. We had a few drinks in preparation for the madness to follow - none of us had even been in a casino before, and we were about to go to the largest casino in the world.