Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Macau: sardines and casinos

We came to Macau for a day. I wish we hadn’t. I wish we had come for longer.

A 55 minute fast ferry ride away from Hong Kong, Macau has a very different character and feel. And so it should. For one thing, it predates Hong Kong by almost 300 years. Parts of Macau date back to the 16th century when it started as a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese heritage is very evident today; not only in the remaining older buildings, but also in the extensive traditional cobble street paving, the Portuguese signage around town, and the number of good Portuguese restaurants.

But, for most visitors to Macau, the Portuguese connection is simply a sidebar. They are here to gamble at the CASINOS! Until 2002, all the casinos were controlled by Stanley Ho. Yes, that’s the same Mr. Ho who built the little building at the western end of Georgia Street overlooking Lost Lagoon. Since he lost his monopoly, many of the big players from Las Vegas have moved in. The Sands has developed a mammoth gold box, which is highly visible as soon as you arrive by ferry. Wynn has also built one of the more than 20 casinos in town. At the centre a new Grand Lisboa is being constructed; a gold glass building shaped to resemble goodness knows what.. It looks like it was designed by Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, and neither liked what the other was doing! While it could become a landmark of sorts once it is completed, at the moment, it looks like a half dressed lady who’s getting made up for the night.

People who know Macau say it has been transformed in the last 10 years, from ‘a sleepy, dirty, impoverished backwater, with nothing to recommend it except legalized gambling and cheap dim sum’ into a modern city. There are new casinos and thousands of new apartments to accommodate the gamblers and the workers. It appears that billions have been spent on new infrastructure around the city. A major airport has been built completed and there are new bridges to Mainland China.

Along the harbour, two new lakes have been created with some very impressive fountains, similar to those I wanted Aoki to install along Georgia Street in front of the Bayshsore! There is also a new "Fisherman's Wharf', which can best be described as a bit of Disney World's EPCOT centre that was left over, and installed in Macau.

We stayed at the Royal Hotel. Once again, when we arrived we thought they had confused with some very important guests. For $70 US we were embalmed in marble and crystal on the top floor of a very elegant hotel. We had every possible amenity, including free internet, and wonderful bed linens. Although the hotel was slightly removed from the action, the guide book noted it was attractive for this reason. We agreed since we were here to sightsee and eat, not gamble or hang around a neon strip.

We had a great time. We explored with no real destination in mind. We constantly found marvelous vistas, including this early evening view of the roads and bridges heading over to Mainland China. With the assistance of two local residents, who had studied music and religion in America, we eventually found Litoral, which our guide book claimed to be the best Portuguese/Macanese restaurant on the peninsula. It was a good meal, especially the grilled sardines and seafood rice, which reminded us of our holiday in Portugal in 1997. But the highlight of the dinner was meeting Priscilla and John Eng-Wong, a visiting scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island, who were on their own culinary tour of Asia. When they heard that we were planning to take the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, they quickly assembled a new itinerary for us, including another overnight train ride to Xien, then a flight to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, and a train back to Hong Kong. By flying within China, they said we would save a lot of money, and this itinerary would offer a better way to get a good feel for China.

At this point, we are altering our itinerary daily, especially since the BBC is reporting unseasonably high temperatures for Delhi. It was 42 the other day, and it’s getting hotter. Sally’s knees don’t like it when the air temperature is higher than her blood temperature.

But for now, we have a plan. We’re taking the 25 hour, 25 minute train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing, where we plan to stay at least three days. We will investigate taking another train to Xien, and then fly back towards Hong Kong where we’ll stay for a couple more days.. Then we’re off to India, with Michael and Julie Seelig’s itinerary in hand, to see how much heat we can handle at the hottest time of the year. Once we have seen the Taj Mahal, if it’s too hot, we’ll go to Dubai, where Sally can cool down in the shopping centres while I seek out replicas of Vancouver’s apartment towers.. Then we’ll meet the girls in Greece, where we are booked in at John and Jan Pierce’s New Villa on Kefalonia.

But now we must find the train station.

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