An hour’s ride on a high-speed ferry (there’s a departure every 15 minutes) across the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong gets to you Macau, Hong Kong’s “Sister SAR.” Macau’s history is similar to Hong Kong’s, except with Portugal as the foreign power instead of Britain.
Macau has considerably less land, and fewer people, than Hong Kong, but it packs them in: at 51,000 people per square mile, it’s the most densely-populated country in the world. It’s called a “country” because, although it’s technically been part of China since 1999, it has it’s own government, currency, and border control policies under the same “One country, two systems” policy that Hong Kong is subject to. The end of Portuguese administration and greater ties to mainland China have precipitated a tourism and gambling boom: gaming revenue in Macau overtook Las Vegas’ in 2007 and hasn’t slowed down since.
As a visitor, the first thought that comes to mind to describe Macau is: two-faced. On one hand there’s the casino area: a boxy, tacky new district built on reclaimed land filled with jewelry shops (real gold, I’m sure…), massage parlors (wink wink, nudge nudge), and some of the dive-iest gambling dens anywhere (and I don’t mean “dive” in a hipster sort of way). The new Vegas-style casinos, like the Wynn Macau, are entirely inwardly-focused, designed to make you feel like you’re anywhere except Macau. The area even features a strong contender for the title of world’s ugliest building, the Grand Lisboa Hotel & Casino. All said, the casino district has about as much charm as a parking ramp. Vegas is certainly no utopia, but it’s a lot more pleasant than a visitors’ first impression of Macau.
But, on the other hand, there’s the Historic Center of Macau, the one that existed long before 1999, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a cozy and atmospheric place with winding streets and colonial Portuguese architecture. We spent a very nice afternoon walking the dramatically-tiled streets, seeing the old churches, drinking coffee, and visiting the Macau Museum, which does a great job of describing Macau’s dual Portuguese/Chinese heritage. Hong Kong has only a small handful of buildings older than, say, 50 years; Macau is a much better example of European colonization into China and some of the vaguely incongruous, but fascinating, sights it produced.
Our stroll through the historic center was nice, but if you’re looking to fly across the ocean to see that kind of thing I’d probably recommend going to Portugal itself. I had an interesting day in Macau, but it’s unlikely I’ll go back to there myself. I would, however, recommend a short day trip to Macau to someone who likes colonial architecture and is looking to get out of Hong Kong for a while. Just remember to take a taxi back & forth from the ferry terminal to the old town; the walk between them is dreary and left me with a tainted opinion of Macau.
Historic Center & Museu de Macau:
All our Macau pics are available on Flickr.