04 April 2017

Macau, China 2014

Before visiting, Macau to me represented two alien images: the world's most notorious, dangerous gambling centre, and the opium-addled underworld of evil Dr. Fu Manchu, the Sax Rohmer mysteries I devoured as a teenager with breathless chills. Basically, Macau must be a cesspool of iniquity; can I get rid of my stereotype?

We left Zhongshan in the morning to drive south. I find the bus shelters along the way very attractive. Our leader Lisa reviewed our trip with her map and stars. She also gave some interesting alphabet and pronunciation lessons. The prevalent Chinese colours signify: Red – happiness; Yellow – prosperity; Green – longevity. Love the sing-songy "Ni hao" (hi; hello; greetings).
Lisa reviews the trip

It wasn't easy to follow a local story about the Girl and the Pearl – star-crossed lovers; wicked troublemaker; girl dies/drowns/what?! – but we stopped briefly in seaside Zhuhai where a statue of the girl rising from the sea commemorates the story, well-known here. Again, a popular spot for Asian tourists. A sole man was begging by the tourist buses, looking homeless and furtively alert for police.
There she is
There he is
From Zhuhai we followed the wide Zhujiang (Pearl) River estuary to the coast of the South China Sea, along a pleasingly landscaped boulevard. Definitely a warmer, more tropical (humid!) feel to the air now. A five-minute ferry ride took us to Macau, but not until after waiting in the usual queues plus an immigration check. Macau is one of the self-governing territories in China's "one country two systems" policy. Macaoans (and also those in Hong Kong) are quick to make the distinction that they are not mainland "This is not China!" one of them said. And it's still very much a gambling mecca.

Our first stop was the oldest temple in Macau, built in 1488, called A-Ma, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. A little beauty, the Taoist temple pre-dates the Portuguese who were the first Europeans in Asia, very early 1500s.

Wow, we experienced our first crush here — the site is small scale, too small for the ever-growing crowds. It has a very narrow entrance way to these architectural gems. So many Chinese pilgrims ... they are burning incense and bowing and performing little ceremonies with a basin of water and leaves. It's actually a series of temples, each higher (narrow, steep stairs) than the one before. Truly beautiful but the crowding became unnerving by the time we left. Local guide Cheryl charged away not watching for our stragglers.

After lunch to see some UNESCO sites in the old centre of town. The original Portuguese fort has been restored with views over all of Macau (said to be the most densely populated place on earth). Thankfully there were multiple escalators to ascend the heights! There's a museum within I'd have loved to see but ... not on the itinerary. Down below again, we saw the ruins of (Jesuit) St Paul's, the first cathedral built in Asia, begun in 1602. Only the ghostly facade remains, outlined against the sky.

Then we traversed a busy, narrow "walking street" to a small main square by St Dominic's church. Street food and samples at every other stall. More crowds of course, but this was more like the ambiance of many cities we had visited.

Little did we know just then, that was our taste of the "real" Macau. Away we went ... away from the central core ... over a bridge to our hotel Sheraton Macao Hotel Cotai Central for one night. Cotai Island is being developed as the Las Vegas of Asia (international casino corporations), so I admit instant prejudicial dislike at the notion. We could see, in the growing twilight, that our hotel and the Venetian across the street are luxury monsters in a construction wasteland. No doubt all kinds of slums and neighbourhoods had been cleared for Cotai's new moniker "The City of Dreams."
Gamblers' shuttle bus

This hotel was "the biggest Sheraton in the world" with 3,880 rooms (yep). Overwhelmingly huge. With the obligatory casino and its own shopping mall. Finding the the right lobby of several, and the right bank of elevators consumed inordinate amounts of time. From here on I gave up using the camera for the exhausting glitz and miles of high-end brand-name shops; it could just as well have been the Dubai Mall or Heathrow duty-free traps (eye roll).

There was literally nowhere to go outside the hotel, no local neighbourhoods to explore, or even a corner convenience store. We were on our own for dinner and did not want a formal meal. The two hotels; this was it. Someone recommended a food court at the Venetian. Finding the food court first entailed finding the crossover skywalk, then guessing our way through an often deserted (eery) maze of jawdropping decor and the occasional employee whose directions were incomprehensible.

When we found it, seemed like hours later, the food court was surprisingly full of people. Where did they all come from in this wilderness? Oh, right ... the thousands of combined hotel rooms. Are they weary tourists like us? Surely the dedicated feverish gamblers don't leave their machines, or maybe they are dining (celebrating?) in one of the luxury haute cuisine restaurants. A FatBurger was our uninspired choice. Wondering how many times we would get lost on the return trip. But we did discover an outdoor performance with explosions of coloured lights, pumping music, and good cheer.

Old history, new wasteland, contrast on the ground, illusions realigned. It's 95% about the $$.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

No comments: