The last month has been the one of the best and quickest 4 weeks I’ve ever had. The sights and sounds of the wonderful, bonkers, exciting, peaceful place that is Macau will last a lifetime, and already I cant wait to go back. There is very little about Macau that fitted with my expectations, and I am more than happy to say that all were exceeded.
The three regions of Macau are distinct and different, each with its own unique character.
The North, Macau Island, is the city. Densely populated , crowded and noisy, with honking traffic jams and bustling markets round just about
every corner, yet ready to surprise you with an architectural ruin, a huge open park and playground or a peaceful church or temple when you least expect it. To the south of the island on the peninsula is were you will find the big prestigious hotels, clubs and shops, a playground for the wealthy, or of course those who may have just had a big win at one of the many casinos….
Cross one of the three impressive bridges and you will find yourself in Taipa, the ‘town’ part of Macau, and the part of the island where I spent the most time. The housing again is high rise, but not as densely packed as Macau Island so the feeling of space is more tangeable and the proliferation of play parks, green spaces and exercise parks amongst the urban landscape is both refreshing and slightly exhausting, particularly if you are walking with a 5 year old who insists on trying out all of them. As you head further south new Taipa gives way to old town with its Mediterranean style houses and shopping squares. It is a wonderful place to walk around and I have spent many a happy hour browsing the mix of local and tourist shops. This is also where I discovered the absolute delight of the Macanese warm egg tart, a famous delicacy of the Island and one I think I may have become slightly addicted to.
The Cotai strip is an area of ever growing land reclaimed from the sea, which is home the massive new casino developments, including the one where Hubs is currently working, and many apartment blocks most of which are under construction. Whilst the scale of the building is grand, there are many restrictions on the land which mean that a certain amount of space must be left over to park land and open space so, for the moment at least, it will not fall foul of the dense capacity on the Main Island.
Passing through Cotai and heading south you will pass world class sporting venues, reservoirs and vast parks (one of which has a mini zoo) on the way to Coloane, the quietest and most unspoilt part of Macau. Owing to it’s colonial heritage walking along the southern coast of Coloane is slightly disorientating as it looks and feels like an old Portuguese fishing village. No high rise here, but brightly painted façades and mosaicked terraces which lead to piazza cafes serving a bizarre and wonderful array of what I believe is rightly called ‘fusion cuisine’, an eclectic mix of Cantonese, European and Russian food can all be found within a stones throw, more often than not on the same menu. They also sell egg tarts, but we should probably skip over that.
Coloane is home is also home to the Islands beaches both of which are well adapted to the needs of both tourists and locals with the options of fine dining resting happily along side the many barbecue pits and beach side cafes and shops. And if the waves prove to be a little too large for you and the current a little too strong, there are nearby pools and parks to frolic in.
So that’s the geography dealt with, now its time for the nitty gritty
The people of Macau are generally very nice indeed, we were lucky enough to meet quite a few locals (one of the advantages of having a 5 year old who is not afraid to make introductions), and they all seemed most contented with their lot in life, there were very few complaints . They are very well aware of their privileged position as a ‘special administrative region’ of China which allows them certain freedoms in their lifestyle that they would not have if they lived on the mainland, and that is very rarely taken for granted.
Whilst the casino and gaming industry undoubtedly dominate both the landscape and economy, the heritage and traditions of the island have been carefully conserved. Unlike when Las Vegas was built in the Nevada desert, the culture and people were already here so there is a richness and depth to your surroundings that surpass the bright lights. The casinos are obliged to contribute to the infrastructure of the Island so it has facilities and transport that are quite splendid and extremely well maintained, and whilst certain buses may be a little rickety and others packed to around 5 times capacity, they are clean, cheap and very regular. And if you really want to avoid the meagre bus fare there is a network of free casino shuttles running back and forward all through the day and night on many of the major routes. Healthcare, education and policing are also very high priorities and the Island boasts 2 universities and numerous international and indigenous schools, and there are 4 hospitals and many private clinics. The police seem to be around every corner, but their presence never felt oppressive, but rather reassuring, they were on hand to assist in all matters and we were often pointed in the right direction by a local officer who took pity on what quite clearly must have been our ‘I’m a visitor here and may be a tiny bit lost’ demeanour. Whilst on our travels we saw no evidence of crime, no fighting or brawling in the streets, no aggressive behaviour of any kind, unless you count anyone who happens to be behind the wheel of a car, and in a place where so much alcohol is consumed that is indeed unusual. If you have ever been in virtually any European town or city centre on a weekend you will probably know what I mean. But when the punishment for any incidents related to public drunkenness can be up to 3 years in prison, perhaps it is not so surprising after all.
I am unsure if I would ever have the required level of bravado to drive in Macau as the traffic puts both Paris and Rome to shame, and crossing the road should be viewed as an extreme sport. I’m sure there are some rules but it may take me quite a while to figure out what they are. If you ride one of the numerous scooters buzzing around it would seem that not only a helmet, but nerves of steel are a pre-requisite. Taxis are numerous cheap and fast, and seem to have right of way at every junction and they are even allowed to reverse back around roundabouts if they happen to miss the exit. Well strictly speaking I’m not entirely convinced they are actually allowed to, but it seemed quite common practice. Saying that, despite the number of times we heard squealing brakes and cursing drivers I am happy to report that we never actually witnessed any collisions.
As visitors we were very warmly welcomed and felt very much at home. Of course they are used to visitors here, the projected numbers for this year alone top 25 million, but although the sight of all nationalities are usual here, there was something about Moo that caught the attention.
It was a little unnerving at first as almost everywhere we went she was the subject of utter fascination. While waiting for the bus she was regularly surrounded by admirers who wanted to touch her hair and stroke her face, I wasn’t entirely sure why, but it happened wherever we went. By week 3 she had lost all reserve and was happily posing for pictures with strangers and signing autographs, well not quite autographs, but it really wouldn’t have surprised me. My little lady will be featured in many a holiday snap besides our own.
A lovely young girl who worked at one of the local cafes took Moo to her heart immediately and we were soon on the receiving end of first class service and gifts of chocolate and milkshakes for the celebrity daughter, when Moo wrote a small thank-you note the level of appreciation doubled and we became the star customers. Eventually she put us out of our misery and explained to us why Moo was being so roundly adored. It seems that the combination of long dark hair and very pale skin is highly prized and most unusual, I’m sure the fact the Moo is a smiley, chatty wee soul most of the time did nothing but enhance people’s enthusiasm. When we told Susan we were soon to be leaving she was close to tears, and insisted on pictures all round so she would remember her ‘little sister’. When the day of our departure dawned there was an exchange of gifts and tears were flowing. It was weirdly emotional, and one of the many quirky things I loved about Macau.
There is still so much more on the island that I haven’t seen and many places I have not yet visited , as a tourist I’m sure there are many sides to life in Macau that I have no concept of, but I will be very happy to return there and have some more misadventures.
And maybe eat a few more egg tarts.