World ? Asia ? Macau

Macau: Introduction

Hanging from China's gigantic underbelly on its southeastern coast, Macau covers all of 28 sq. km (11 sq. miles). About 64km (40 miles) west of Hong Kong across the Pearl River Estuary, it served as Portugal's last holdout in Asia until 1999, when it was handed back to China. Portugal's other former Asian strongholds, Goa and Malacca, had long before been claimed by neighboring powers.

With its unique mixture of Portuguese and Chinese cultures, Macau makes an interesting day trip or overnight stay if you want to get away from the bustle of Hong Kong after a business trip or strenuous traveling itinerary. Although Macau's rising reputation as a gambling mecca -- spurred by the grand openings of ever larger and grander casinos -- is a major attraction for many, there are also beaches, fortresses, churches, temples, gardens, and excellent museums to explore. What's more, although prices have risen the past few years, Macau's hotels are still cheaper than their counterparts in Hong Kong (you can bask in luxury in Macau for a fraction of what you'd pay in the former British colony); and as a duty-free port, Macau has also become something of a shopping mecca. And finally, Macanese cuisine, unique to Macau and combining ingredients from former Portuguese trading ports from around the world, is both inexpensive and delicious, especially when accompanied with Portuguese wine. If you're looking for a vacation from your vacation, I heartily recommend Macau.

That being said, Macau is no longer off the tourist radar, with 18 million tourists crossing its borders in 2005, a huge increase compared with 7.4 million in 1999. More than 90% of visitors are from mainland China (which relaxed travel restrictions in 2003), Hong Kong, and Taiwan. While casinos were always a part of Macau's draw, especially for Hong Kong Chinese, deregulation of the gaming industry in 2002 paved the way to an explosion of ritzier, more conspicuous casinos, including big-name imports from the United States like The Venetian and MGM Grand. The former Portuguese territory's transformation into Asia's Las Vegas has played nicely with Macau's vigorous policy of land reclamation, which has more than doubled its size over the last few decades and added high-rises, superhighways, housing complexes, and huge entertainment and shopping complexes like Fisherman's Wharf. Hotel properties opening over the next few years include a Sheraton, Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons, and a Shangri-La.

In short, Macau bears almost no resemblance to the laid-back town I first laid eyes on in the 1980s. A sleepy backwater just two decades ago -- when the local populace got from place to place unhurriedly by pedicab and the road from the ferry to downtown was a lonely stretch of potholes -- Macau is changing so rapidly that old-timers are right when they complain that the place isn't what it used to be -- it's more than it used to be, with land reclamation and new construction dramatically altering the city's skyline in just 20 short years, and there seems to be no end in sight. The small downtown, built in the era of pedicabs with its narrow lanes, is ill-equipped to deal with Macau's ever-increasing traffic. Indeed, city planners seem so intent on expansion, I fear that much of Macau's unique architectural legacy and charm will be lost in an ever-growing concrete jungle.

Still, there have been many positive developments. When I first came to Macau, its downtown was crumbling and neglected, and there were few attractions beyond its casinos and a couple of ruined forts and churches. In the 1990s, however, the small downtown underwent a major renovation, with the restoration of its main plaza and its Mediterranean-influenced, colonial-era buildings with their arched, shuttered windows. In 2005, Macau's historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 25 temples, churches, mansions, squares, fortresses, and other buildings and monuments now restored or undergoing restoration.

The things that drew me to Macau in the first place -- the unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture, architecture, and food -- remain an irresistible draw. It's as though two Macaus exist: the sterile new developments and glitzy casinos on reclaimed land; and the old downtown of candy-colored colonial buildings, banyan trees, narrow hilly streets, and low-key neighborhood restaurants.

The only pedicabs driven today are after the tourists' dollar, but Macau still possesses a lifestyle that is way less frenetic than that of Hong Kong. In fact, compared to the former British colony, Macau is downright Lilliputian, and, with its mixture of Portuguese and Chinese elements, feels different from Hong Kong, different from China -- different from anywhere else. Maybe it's the jumble of Chinese signs and stores mixed in with freshly painted colonial-style buildings, or the Buddhist and Taoist temples alongside Catholic churches. Maybe it's because people smile here more readily than they do in Hong Kong, seem more relaxed, and friendlier. It's an attractive mix -- Portuguese flair blended with Chinese practicality. There's something for everyone here -- beaches, churches, museums, attractions, nightlife, and, yes, casinos -- all in a setting found nowhere else in the world.

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