Hong Kong Day 9.2 - Gambling in Macau

10 October 2009

Thursday 8th October, part 2

A taxi took us from the bar across the bridge to Taipa, where several colossal casinos are being built. Recently completed is The Venetian - bigger than its counterpart in Las Vegas, this is the biggest casino in the world, and the fourth largest building by floor space.

Surely there can be no more profound a symbol of the irrationality and stupidity of human beings than these enormous, opulent buildings, funded entirely by the vast amounts of money people lose when they gamble. These monuments are physical oxymorons - telling people that this is a place where they can get rich, while the very existence of such grand buildings is testament to the reality that the only thing they’re good for is extracting large amounts of money from people.

The Venetian is a literally amazing building. We were expecting Disneyland-style tackiness, but clearly absolutely no expense has been spared in making the interior lavish and yet still somehow tasteful. Entering the lobby, you are greeted by the sight of a huge palace of marble and painted ceilings stretching far into the distance.

Walking down the corridor with its huge columns, you reach the casino itself which occupies an area of the ground floor which looked to me about the size of two to three football pitches, about half slot machines and roulette machines and so on, and the other half blackjack, craps tables etc.

In the centre of all this is a bar which although not cheap was fairly reasonably priced. We drank whisky in the hope that things would start to make some kind of sense.

Next to the bar are two curved escalators. They lead up to level 3 which is a huge shopping mall designed to look like Venice. It has canals and gondolas and bridges. It was pretty quiet up here as it was late, and the shops were shut. During the day visitors can take a trip along the canals with a singing gondolier, and marvel at the in-character street entertainers. I’m kind of glad we missed those - the place was surreal enough as it was.

Returning downstairs to the casino, we put a HK$20 note (about £2) into a slot machine and tried to work out what was going on. It didn’t make any sense to us. Lights flashed and things span. It printed out a token for HK$5 and that was it. We put that into a different machine which turned out to make exactly as much sense.

Having failed to see the attraction of the slot machines, we looked at the tables. Bored croupiers sat silently as they shifted cards and chips, and most of the punters were just as silent, looking at the green surface in front of them through cold dead eyes.

What a depressing sight. For all the variety of machines and games involved, there’s no skill involved here, so whatever you’re playing you’re just continually forking over cash and, presumably, occasionally getting some of it back. Maybe we were in fact lucky that our toe-dip with the slot machines didn’t give us any reward. I expect all the gamblers here had some initial luck once upon a time, and now they’re trapped, like drug addicts, forever hoping for the same rush as that first hit.

At the back of the casino, in a bar called the Bellini Lounge, games of a different nature were taking place, and far more interesting. On one side, men taking a break from the roulette tables, and on the other, women looking to take them for everything they had, or at least everything they had left. Each side manipulating the other, each side believing they’re the winner, but once again the house is the only winner in this hall of losers.

The gold diggers sat in a group around a table at the back, drunkenly dancing, waiting for victims. To my fairly sober eyes they were completely terrifying, some of them rather masculine, others made-up and surgically enhanced as if to remove all trace of humanity.

Pop music played too loud, too fast and badly mixed provided an uneasy soundtrack to the human zoo. At the bar, a drunk, 30-something buck-toothed man chatted to two women. Further along the bar, sitting with a man who was probably his father, was a chap in a T-shirt with something of a Noel Fielding look about him. He couldn’t take his eyes off the drunk and his two unwilling female companions. Jealousy, perhaps? Or was he, like us, merely a spectator?

The band returned to the stage to play some more cover songs. Was this a good or a bad gig for them? Is this what they aspired to be, musical wallpaper, passionlessly regurgitating Brick in the Wall and Stairway to Heaven?

Noel Fielding had disappeared, and the drunk’s lady companions had somehow resisted his charms, so the drunk was now sat alone at the bar. He waved at the gold-digger in the low cut black top and tight white shorts, and she immediately descended upon him as if he were a delicious field mouse.

The barman served up a cocktail and a shot each, and the drunken man then fumbled for a while as he struggled to find enough money to pay his bill. The vulture could see that a few drinks was all she could extract from this one, and so she rejoined her fellow fem-bots. Perhaps in an effort to convince her that what he lacked in money he made up for in charm, he ran to the front as the band started Smells Like Teen Spirit.

He appeared to be trying to get on stage, but made do with jumping around and making rockin’ hand gestures at the singer. Returning to his temporary friend at the witches’ table, neither she nor they were interested any more, and he disappeared behind the curtain back into the casino, to try his luck with some different machines.

With his disappearance, the cycle began anew. The Noel Fielding lookalike had returned, and was speaking to the airship Hindenbra, at a safe distance from her gravity-defying bust. His father hung around awkwardly in the background. Nearby stood the drunk’s first two companions, so maybe tonight could still be Noel’s lucky night after all. Meanwhile, a bald man was chatting up the vulture, just one more loser trying his luck against the odds.

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.

Hong Kong Day 8 - A Night at the Races

8 October 2009

Wednesday 7th October

We left the hostel in the early afternoon for a fast food breakfast/lunch of Takoyaki - fried balls of various seafood served with toppings of your choice. Mine was similar to soy sauce which had something of a Marmite taste to it. Good job I like Marmite.

A lot of museums are free on Wednesdays so we opted for the Museum of Art near the harbour. Plenty of ancient pottery and paintings, a pleasant enough way to spend half an hour or so before we started to get bored.

At a restaurant for dinner we had authentic versions of the type of Chinese food we’re used to back in the UK. Sweet and sour tasted no different to usual, but crispy duck pancakes were made using just the skin - the duck meat went into a separate dish which you then wrapped in a lettuce leaf.

Then a trip to the races. Betting on horses with the Hong Kong Jockey Club is the only legal form of gambling in Hong Kong, and the crowds were massive and mixed - plenty of serious-looking locals here studying the racing pages of their newspapers, plenty of noisy tourists drinking beer, plenty of slick-haired besuited twats.

Nick won about 70p on a bet on the favourite to place (i.e. come in the top 3), and me & Rachel bet on the silliest-named horse “Megabucks” to place at about 5 to 1, and he came quite near the back.

It was interesting to experience but we didn’t fancy staying around for long, so we went back to the hostel and picked up some snacks along the way. I’ve grown quite fond of the waffle ball things that are available on many a street corner. Nick was rather less fond of the pig’s ear that he tried - all gristle. Glad I gave that one a miss.

Hong Kong Day 7 - Buddhaland

7 October 2009

Tuesday 6th October

An enormous cockroach appeared in the bathroom as I was getting out of the shower. It was about four inches long and I dispatched it with my shoe. It could be worse I suppose - at least it’s the only one we’ve seen all week. We’ve seen quite a lot of dragonflies out and about but there don’t seem to be any scary insects or spiders lurking around Hong Kong.

It was lunchtime when we left the hostel and it felt like the hottest day yet, quite a dry heat instead of the humid warmth we’ve begun to get used to. The cafes were packed but we found a table in one very basic establishment, and I had yet another ramen, with random bits of chicken in it this time. It wasn’t particularly exciting.

We then headed to Lantau, one of the outlying islands, to see the 34-metre Big Buddha at Po Lin Monastery at Ngong Ping. It’s apparently the largest bronze outdoor seated Buddha in the world, which seems quite a specific claim to fame. There must therefore be quite a few bigger Buddhas out there, although this one is impressively huge.

You can reach Ngong Ping either by rickety, unreliable cable car, or by bus, as we did. You’ll probably feel sick either way - the bus travels along winding roads for about 50 minutes, struggling up the steep hills.

At the monastery itself, you can buy a combined ticket that gets you a vegetarian meal and entry to the museum under the Buddha. It was 3.30pm when we arrived and they were only doing food until 4.30, so we went straight for the meal even though we weren’t that hungry. I was even less hungry when the food came -bland and unappetising. I felt that it needed quite a lot of salt or soy sauce. Or, to make it more like the other meals we’ve had out here, perhaps the internal organs of an obscure animal would have given it that little extra something.

There is plenty of building work taking place and plenty of tourists at the monastery, so it’s not very peaceful. Incense smoke is everywhere. A big hill with a long stairway takes you up to the Buddha, and you have to zigzag your way up past all the people posing for photos. The museum is full of Buddhist artworks and one tiny, well-guarded crystal, which they reckon is some kind of relic.

Back down at ground level, leaving the monastery itself we entered Ngong Ping village, which is straight out of Disneyland by the looks of it. It is truly hideous and features a “Chopstick Gallery”, a “Walking with Buddha” exhibition and a Starbucks.

We retreated back to the bus stop and the metro to return to the hostel for a nap. Will went out to get some shopping done, and me, Rachel and Nick went out for cocktails. But first we picked up some Japanese fast food from a place called Yoshinoya. It seems silly to me that in the UK the fast food concept is only ever applied to burgers and fried chicken - this food was both very quick and very tasty.

For our cocktails we went to three different hotel bars. First was the Holiday Inn, which seemed rather posh for such an establishment - there was a Lamborghini in the car park. The cocktails were nice and strong. Then we went to the Sheraton which is near the harbour, to its Sky Lounge bar on the 18th floor, which has an excellent view of the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. I had a mojito which was pretty good, though not quite as strong as I’d have liked. Finally we went to the Peninsula hotel, to its Felix Bar on the 28th floor. The view isn’t as good as the Sheraton’s, because for some reason they have Venitian blinds over the windows. The bar was pretty small and our drinks were on a strange sloping table. Very much style over substance. Surprisingly it was the toilets that made the trip worthwhile - the urinals have a great view, and the central sink is a weird table contraption where water appears from twisted metal when the attendant pushes a button. Mad.

Hong Kong Day 6 - Peak Time

6 October 2009

Monday 5th October

I was stiff this morning after yesterday’s hiking. It hurt to stand up and sit down, so I was hoping to spend most of the day in a sitting position.

We went for some Taiwanese food, which consisted of various dishes of chicken, pork, fried rice, noodles and slices of kidney. They do seem to enjoy their offal here, and the kidneys were pretty tasty.

We had a quick look around the jade market - lots of stalls of green jewellery with no prices listed anywhere, so haggling must be the only way, though you’d have no idea if you’d just been taken for a mug. It was in a big shed which is I think the only non-air-conditioned building we’ve come across.

We went for a coffee and then headed for the tram that goes up Victoria peak at a 27 degree angle. We’d probably chosen the wrong time to go as the queues were huge. It must have taken about an hour to get to the tram. Once upon a time this was probably quite a pleasant experience but unfortunately the Tussaud’s group has taken over and turned the whole thing into a touristy theme park ride. You’d think with their experience of running actual theme parks like Alton Towers that they’d have a decent queueing system, but as the queue narrowed through a small bottleneck, an undignified scrum of elbows and shoving emerged. It’s impossible to sit together as everyone rushes for seats - indeed Rachel ended up getting a different tram entirely.

At the top, the delights of Madame Tussauds awaited tourists with more money and less sense than us. Instead, we grimaced at the tacky gift shops and Disneyland promotional stand and made our way up to the “Sky Terrace” which offered some nice views of Hong Kong at night - sadly it was totally rammed and frankly the views aren’t much different to those you can get for free elsewhere.

We declined the opportunity to have our photo taken with a giant prawn, and sat for a bit in the tourist information office in a converted old tram, looking at some leaflets and taking advantage of the free wi-fi.

There is a circular walk you can take from the peak which lasts about an hour. We did a small section - it was completely silent apart from the chirp of crickets, and a much nicer place to look at the lights of the city below. But we were getting hungry so we headed back to the tram. The queues were more orderly on the way down. It was 10pm and the queues were much shorter at the bottom too - if anyone’s planning a visit I’d recommend heading for the tram pretty late in the evening.

We returned to Mong Kok and went to a place called Cheers Restaurant which was huge and busy. You sit at a table with a hotplate in the middle and they put a big cauldron of stock on it, then you order raw meat and vegetable ingredients which you boil in the pot. Tasty, cheap and quite fun, though I wonder who would take responsibility for food poisoning if you didn’t cook your chicken properly. Beer was very cheap as well, about £1 for a large bottle - sadly it was American Budweiser but we couldn’t argue with the price. The entire meal including drinks cost about £8.

We then headed out to some bars in the Prince Edward area where the beer was much more expensive. It turned out they were karaoke bars, and the locals take their karaoke seriously. They seemed to know the words well and were singing in tune, into wireless microphones as they sat around their tables, often to the seeming disinterest of their friends. We went to the machine and queued up a load of English tracks. As we screeched, shouted and chuckled our way through Hotel California, Suspicious Minds and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, the bar emptied pretty quickly.

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