Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Macau--Small in size, big on charms (Part 3)

Wandering around Macau, I was in awe of the generous acres of space, especially around the waterfront. I was overwhelmed by an inner urge to roam, to run, to to yodel, to be free. Macau may be a tiny enclave, but she is the perfect antidote to people from Hongkong and Guangdong seeking respite from urban claustrophobia. I haven't been to Portugal, so I cannot quite pinpoint who were responsible for the city layout, but kudos to the planners for creating such a unique dash of space in an urban setting!

Apart from being politely accosted by ladies of the night near Avenida de Joao IV, there was absolutely no trace of the sin city image Macau has been unfairly tagged with. Instead, Macau has an undeniable charm for everyone, from history buffs to avid gamblers. While there is still much to be done--witness all the empty apartments in Taipa (not to mention the absence of Texas Holdem in a self-proclaimed gambling haven)--the Portuguese are justifiably proud of Macau. As one official puts it,"In Macau, we have the chance to write a nice ending to what once was a grand empire." And he wasn't just referring to the egg tarts.

53 Wide Open Spaces
Macau is a city of wide open spaces...

55 Wide Boulevards
...and bold boulevards.

56 Morning Breakfast
A cup of tea, a few slices of bread and a table of friends...start your day the Macau way!

57 A beautiful Claustrophic morning
A beautifully claustrophobic sight greeted me from the window of my apartment. To be frank, the building I was staying in didn't look to have passed fire safety inspection and I already made out my escape route just in case.

59 Bus stop in Taipa
Lady in red waiting at bus-stand in red, presumably for the bus in red.

58 Dog Toilet
The Paris mayor would do well to follow Macau's example and implement public toilets for dogs.

68 The grand dame
Casino Lisboa, looking a tad tired and run-down, is relinquishing its role as the premier Macau casino to swankier American ones.

69 Rows of trishaws
Trishaws around the Guia Hill.

83 Lusofonia Games
There is the Commonwealth Games for the English, and there is the Lusofonia Games...for the Portuguese.

77 Sentinel over the city
The fortress of Guia stands sentinel over the city.

Macau--Small in size, big on charms (Part 2)

Getting a room in the swanky hotels was out of my shoestring budget. I knew (through http://www.augusters.de) accomodation was affordable in the old city districts--only obstacle was in locating the exact place. Navigating narrow winding streets, I finally came upon a rather dingy apartment that had a signboard spelt "Augusturs Lodge--Floor 3J".

It wasn't that straightforward to locate Floor 3J, whatever that was, as there were a few staircases leading to different "Floor 3". On one such foray, I was greeted by a grumpy old granny who, together with the apartment on offer, could have walked straight out from a Wong Kar Wai 60s film set. I made out through her thick cantonese accents that she had quoted me HK$20 (S$4)-- nirvana to the miser in me. She grew edgy as I fished out 2 HK tenners, and jabbed 2 fingers into my face while mouthing "leong baht leong baht!". I said no, firmly believing that Augusturs Lodge would have a better offer, and left, leaving behind a fuming old lady who must have thought me mathematically and financially challenged.

I finally made the correct staircase (leading to Floor 3J), and came upon the steps of the elusive Augusturs Lodge. A Filipino girl was sitting behind a counter in an apartment that finally looked more like a tourist lodge. Her friendliness and English tongue made me feel right at home, even more so when, upon signing the guest book, I noticed many Singaporeans had previously left their trail in it. Quoted HK$50 for a private room, this was truly a steal.

24 Building
Augusturs International (Floor 3J), a big hit with Singaporeans who know how to sniff out gems from the Net.

23 Augusters hostel
This room, with 2 double-deckers, a fan, TV and a table, gave many a traveller respite for the night. The view was not great, facing the back of yet another dingy apartment block, but what more could you ask for with HK$50?

With my accommodation worries out of the way, I started planning to spend the rest of the night hitting casinos and UNESCO sites in equal measures.

I consider myself a Texas Holdem fanatic. At least I could fold my hands properly, hiding my disgust with the nonchalance of a hand flick -- just like a pro. Desperately wanting to get some poker action, I first approached Waldo, then Sands, asking if there were any "Texas Holdem" tables. One time, I was given the quizzed look, the other time, a firm "There is no Texas Holdem in Macau...yet." sufficed.

Still, I managed a peek into Sands. Call me uninformed, (euphemism for "suaku"), but I had never seen the business of gambling on such a large scale before. I was bowled over by the number of jackpot machines lined up, stretching as far as the eye could see. Every machine held the complete attention of a frayed soul hunched over it. The table section was no more impressive, of which Blackjack was the predominant game. The Chinese take their gambling seriously. Those seated at the tables rarely spoke to each other. They wore studied countenances and cursed politely when the need arose. The more boisterous tables had European and American tourists who were there simply to soak up the atmosphere.

I too, badly wanted to try my luck at the tables. Unfortunately, the cheapest table, at HK$100 per hand, priced me out of any fun. Choosing the next best thing, I grabbed a complimentary milo and cup noodles which came my way, proceeded to enjoyed a good free supper, and went off in search of my elusive poker action.

I went into Wynn next. I found no poker action there, but was seriously stunned when a pair of the most exquisite eyes looked back at me as I spoke "Excuse me, do you have any ......". The pretty girl may not have an inkling of what I was asking about, but it didn't matter. A million questions were racing through my mind. "Are you free for supper tonight?" "Have anybody told you you looked vaguely like Cecilia Cheung, only prettier?" "I am a movie director, and I would like to cast you in my blockbuster. Let's discuss somewhere more private." I chose, not instinctively, but wisely, to say, "Thanks", flashed a goofy smile and slithered away.

27 The ubiquitous Big M
The ubiquitous McDonald, found in every city in the world, so why not Macau?

29 Fruitseller by night
Fruitseller by night

26 Banco Nacional Ultramarino
The city planners have done a tremendous job in keeping the old while ushering in the new, resulting in a unique blend of old and new architecture in casual co-existence.

31 you can run but you can't hide
Macau is embracing herself with the onslaught of visitors. Rapid changes are inevitable, whether the old world romantics like it or not.

33 7-11 walkway
Built around Mount Fortress, the old city with its narrow streets and steep slopes, is mildly reminiscent of HK's Lan Kwai Fong district.

44 Behind St Paul's
The Ruins of St Paul is to Macau what A Farmosa is to Malacca is to what Merlion is to Singapore.....not!

47 Lamplit Macau
In the mood for love? Grab a lover, steal a kiss, right under this colonial lamppost.

48 Courtesy Campaign
The Macau government obviously deems it necessary to coax more polite greetings out of Macauese. They aren't actually particularly rude. In fact, they seem to smile more readily than their HK counterparts (which isn't saying much).

Macau--Small in size, big on charms (Part 1)

Macau, the former Portuguese enclave tucked in the western corner of the Pearl River delta, has always been languishing in the shadows cast by her much more illustrious delta neighbour HK. Macau was returned to China in 1999 with as little fanfare as HK's 1997 return was momentously celebrated. For many, Macau was the Sin City of the East, its "anything goes" anarchism attracting all sorts of lowlifes reeking of desperation and cigarette smell. HK movies, of course, played up this seedy stereotype by sending their screen criminals to Macau whenever the plot called for some arms or drugs smuggling to be done. That's the story of Macau, a story no one outside of the gambling fraternity really cared.

But Macau is determined to shed its unseemly image. With the entire region booming, prosperity and buzz has crept into this once-sleepy territory. Foreign investments are repositioning Macau as a MICE (Meeting, Incentive, Conference and Exhibition) centre of international clout, while at the same time, Macau is being rebranded as a family oriented entertainment centre not unlike Las Vegas. Singapore should take heed, for results have been nothing short of phenomenal. Revenues have since outstripped that of Las Vegas Strip, making Macau the premier gambling centre of the world. 20 million visitors flood the territory of half a million every year. UNESCO, tellingly, granted the World Heritage Site status to Macau in 2005. A new chapter is being written, no longer with the blood of slain gangsters, but with the glittering gold of tourist dollars.

Which is the true face of Macau? The only way to find out was to pay a little visit to its fair shores. So when presented with the chance, albeit a very snap decision devoid of any logistical planning, I grabbed at it.

My logistical worries turned out to be unfounded. Snap trips in northern Europe leave you stranded in cold nameless towns. Snap trips in Macau leave you a comfortable cushion seat on one of the many ferries plying between Macau and HK, such were the frequencies of the ferries that they run round the clock all year round, for a mere HK$200!

Arriving at the ferry terminal on a balmy evening, my first concerns, as were in any foreign lands, were to locate a free map of the city, access the suitability of waiting lounges as makeshift hotels, and to check out availability of food. All concerns were ambly addressed. Tourist friendly indeed!

51 Macau Harbour at Night2
My first sights of the city as the ferry steams into harbour-- the neon lights from the casinos lending the harbour a shimmering and strangely comforting feel.

It's very easy to find your way around on foot. The waterfront perimeter, from the harbour in the east, all the way to the west, spans no more than 5 km. All self-respecting casinos, including Wynn and Sands, are located in this prime property. Wide boulevards (avinedas), all with Portuguese names, line the city. One such boulevard, Avenida de Amizade, links up the ferry terminal to the town centre.

01 Fisherman on the casino shores
Walking along Avenida de Amizade, I caught the silhouette of a nocturnal angler against the backdrop of Macau "The Floating Casino" Palace. I was to find the entire perimeter of the waterfront filled with anglers, young and old, but predominantly men, lying stealthily in wait for their catch. The Zhuhai must be teeming with fish, either that, or the local TV channels aren't terribly exciting.

07 Colosseum is a hit among tourists
The Macau Colosseum, a monument built in worship of the tourist dollar.

13 Lisboa and Wynn squaring up
Before Vegas casinos appeared on the scene, old school casinos of smoky parlours and tough-looking pit bosses ruled the land. Here, the facade of Wynn squares off rather arrogantly against Casino Lisboa, the grand dame of the "nostalgic" era.

19 wynn4
Wynn marks every passing hour with a resplendent display of water and fire works, and changes the face of the Macau gaming industry with a Vegas-style entertainment centre.