Day Trip: Macau

by - May 03, 2014

The iconic Ruin of St. Paul’s Church, Macau
The arrival of the family allowed me to re-see Hong Kong through the eyes of a tourist for a week or so.  This served as the perfect excuse to finally get around to visiting nearby Macau, the former Portuguese territory that is an hour’s ferry ride from Victoria Harbour.  While not a tourist attraction on the same scale as Hong Kong itself (and with a population a tenth of the size), the territory is a popular and convenient day trip.  It has also established itself as one of, if not THE gambling capitals of the world - by some measures overtaking Las Vegas.  As we are not really a family of gamblers, we decided to head over in the day to see the old colonial sights - the ferries run all through the night to cater for those who want to visit the other side of Macau.  The histories of Macau and Hong Kong are linked and are reasonably similar.  The Portuguese, who were the first major European colonisers in Asia, were granted the territory as a trading base by China in 1550 - hundreds of years before the British turned up in Hong Kong.  The territory was in part granted in thanks for the Portuguese successfully cutting down on piracy in the region - a far more honourable acquisition of territory than the British Opium War route…  Macau spent many years as the Portuguese equivalent to British Hong Kong, but was soon eclipsed and by the end of the 20th century the Portuguese were happy to hand it back in a deal similar to that ceding Hong Kong back to China.

Guia Hill lighthouse
After passing through the border in Hong Kong easily (due to the complicated nature of the Chinese Specially Administrative Regions, SARs, we were actually crossing a border while remaining in China), we caught one of the fast ferries which run every 15 minutes and cost about £20 for a return ticket - pretty steep by the transport costs that I have been used to in Hong Kong.  Due to the close ties between the two SARs, the Hong Kong dollar is accepted everywhere at a 1:1 exchange rate to the Macau Pataca - a currency that we didn’t actually see all day.  Upon arrival at the Macau ferry terminal we decided to proceed on foot to climb Guia Hill, the tallest point in the territory to see the lighthouse (the first European style lighthouse in Asia) at the top.  In hindsight it would have been better to do this journey by public transport or taxi as we spent much of it walking beside a busy road, but we got there eventually and were treated to good views over the whole territory and towards mainland China which is easily visible.

The guns of Monte Fort and the Grand Lisboa Casino
From here we got the cablecar down to street level and ambled through the streets to the iconic ruin of St Paul’s Church, one of the main tourist sights in the territory - only the façade of the building remains as the rest was destroyed by fire many years ago.  The church marks the beginning of the old colonial district, which is overlooked by the large Monte Fort, once the seat of Portuguese military power in the region and now home to the Macau History Museum.  The guns of the fort still point out in all directions and amusingly appear to be trained on many of the garish new casinos - I like to think that this was done deliberately by the curator of the museum…  We had our lunch on the steps leading up to the ruins of St Pauls - a combination of Chinese and Portuguese street food, finished off with a Macau egg tart, a local delicacy.  The rest of our time was spent ambling aimlessly - first through the beautiful (if highly renovated) colonial district, past old churches and government buildings and then through one of the main areas of casinos.  While impressive, the casinos felt very dated somehow - like they were built to a very specific architectural ‘modern’ style that time has proven to not look modern at all.  The over the top features and insistence on bright colours and gold leaf made it feel like we were walking through a movie set from the 1970s.  If this is what Las Vegas is like, then I will admit that I am in no rush to get there.  We grabbed a taxi (they all accept HKD) back to the ferry terminal and having spent about five hours in Macau, made our way back to Hong Kong.  It was definitely worth the trip for me, having seen so much of Hong Kong, and it was certainly different to anything that HK has to offer.  'Different’ isn’t necessarily 'better’ however and I would suggest that the day trip is only worthwhile for people who are spending at least four full days in Hong Kong itself.
The Colonial District

The Grand Lisboa Casino

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