Macao: The danger of a single story

Photo of Macao: The danger of a single story by TheCorporateWanderer

A car, a bus, a plane, a train, a boat. Some of my journeys does feel like a refresher course on the various modes of transportation, but then again these are also those journeys that make me appreciate the destination a bit more than the journey itself. In all fairness, an overnight flight and a morning ferry were all it took for me to get to Macao. For those who want to stop reading now because I used the word Macao and have decided to infer that this is going to be a gambling related story, I warn you about the dangers of a single story just as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned me about it when I was planning this trip to Macao.

Going from India, most other countries can seem underwhelming, not because we are a bunch of judgemental patriots but the sheer variation in topology and people within India can get a tad bit too overwhelming even for an Indian. We love our complexities and if a country is merely a dot in the world map, then that can seem unchallenging and an easy task for any Indian. So with such preconceived notions, I began planning for Macao. Or rather not planning. I read a couple of blogs and itineraries and I jumped to the conclusion that it was a fairly easy country to execute an impromptu plan. Most travels teach me something and this one taught me never to underestimate the size of a country or what a country can offer before experiencing it first hand.

We (me and my girlfriends) entered Macao through the Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal. There were shuttle buses (with wifi) waiting for us to take us to our hotels and the whole landing-in-a-new-country-and-not-knowing-what-to-do related issues associated with it was nonexistent. I guess they want gamblers to spend their energy on gambling rather than spending it on figuring out their country. Most hotels can be found on the Cotai Strip, a replica of the Vegas strip. The hotels itself are connected to malls and casinos and one can spend very well spend their time in Macao without ever getting out into the sunlight. The outcome of that was that whole strip felt like one big mall. After checking into our hotel, we decided to walk around the Cotai Strip through this labyrinth of malls and casinos. After being awed by the intense manmade-ness of the skyline and getting a sense of deja-vu from my visit to Vegas, we ended up wandering aimlessly around for a while before we decided to step out to soak in a bit of sunlight. Soon we realized we were lost in the Venetian and then found ourselves in Parisian and then found ourselves back at Venetian when the intention was to just find an exit that would take us to the outside world, Venetian and Parisian being predominantly casinos with malls and hotels attached to it. Since these casinos are not just malls but a combination of shops, hotels, casinos, and pedestrian paths and bridges, the whole place looked like a city turned inside out or rather outside in and we felt quite inception-lised when we tried to get out of it.

Photo of Macau by TheCorporateWanderer

After spending an hour getting lost in the labyrinth of unaffordable stores, we finally managed to escape the maze and step into Macanese sunlight. Stepping into the streets of Macao was the first time on that trip that I had felt that I had stepped into a new country. A very recent Portuguese colony, Macao has not yet shaken the Portuguese influence out of itself. I guess no country can really fully shake out the influence of their colonizers and the Taipa village which is just north of the Cotai strip was a good example of that. With its narrow lanes, cobbled streets, quaint cafes, Portuguese wine bars, and men, it almost gave me a sense of what Portugal might look like. After wandering around in Taipa, we soon found ourselves seated in a wine bar called Tuga and Lola. Surrounded by Portuguese wine, cherry, sangria, and good people, the conversations flowed as the Macanese sun set behind us. For a couple of hours, we were transported to another country and even a different era. Stepping back into the alleys of Taipa with sangria flowing through our veins, we had left behind the blink and bang of casino life. To keep the momentum going, we headed to a pub called Old tavern and after a couple of drinks and making a fool of ourselves, we walked back to the Venetian. A quick dinner later we decided to explore the casinos.

Three lost women, wandering around between roulette and poker tables, amused at the kind of money at stake and not able to figure out what to do with the menial amount we had got with us in the hope of playing the slots. We knew that slots were possibly the only thing we could "gamble" at, so we went and sat in front of the coolest looking slot machine. After losing some amount of money to the digital slots, we realized we were never really going to figure out how to play those damn machines. So in an attempt to at least learn the basics, we approached the croupier who just pretended to, or maybe, in reality, did not understand a word we tried to communicate with him. After that failed attempt at slot machines, we decided we to call it a day and try again the next day.

Photo of Taipa, Macao by TheCorporateWanderer

The next day we had planned a trip to the south of Macao. The Macanese tourism board, in order to improve the experience for the tourists, had these self walking tour maps on their website ( I had printed out a couple of them and spoilt for options yet trying to optimize on time, we picked a walking tour around Coloane. So armed with these printouts, we boarded a public bus from Cotai strip to Coloane. To our surprise, the public buses also had wifi on them and as is the case with wifi, we did not realize the time passing and soon we found ourselves getting off the bus at a rather silent and an old fishing village of sorts. Our first stop was the very first Lord Stow's outlet. Lord Stow's was a legendary bakery which was known for its Portuguese egg tarts and other local desserts and breakfast bread. After picking up a couple of egg tarts and a Serradura (which is Portuguese for sawdust), we walked across to sit around stony picnic tables and benches next to the bay and devoured our loot from the bakery. I must say that the egg tart was a bit too eggy for me but the Serradura, which was a cream and biscuit pudding, was probably the best thing I had in Macao. After filling our stomachs, we walked off the extra calories by roaming around Coloane. A very very sleepy yet quaint little town with churches and piers dating back to the Portuguese colonial era was reminiscent of the times when it was a very happening trading port for the Portuguese. Legend has it that it also used to be a base for pirates after that up until the 20th century. After roaming around in the sweltering heat of Coloane, we then decided to go on to Seac Van Pai park to check out some pandas. Sadly, the pandas were fast asleep after what I would imagine being a very heavy lunch. It was my first encounter with pandas and though I am not a wildlife enthusiast and know really little about these animals, I was hoping that the panda was actually white and black and not the dirty cream and black like the ones that were in front of me.

Photo of Coloane Village, Macao by TheCorporateWanderer

There are a few walking trails in this park and around Macao, but due to paucity of time, we decided to make our way to Senado square. Now unlike Coloane, this was a very happening city center of Macao with shops ranging from restaurants to supermarkets to high-end luxury brands. The sun and humidity were killing us as we made our way from the square to the ruins of St Paul but thankfully the iced fruit juice we found along the way helped cool us down. Ruins of St Paul, which is usually the postcard image of Macao, was a disappointment. Well, that would be an understatement, but let me not harp on this point. After grabbing a quick lunch from around there, we then made our way to scale the Macao tower. Not being able to communicate with the locals was definitely a challenge and this ended with us on a bus that went in the opposite direction of the tower. After some bit of disorientation and aimless walking around, we made our way to climb the Macao tower. Having been out in the sun the whole day, the tower was a welcoming change. With its air-conditioned observation deck and empty benches facing the view, we spend a good amount of time looking at Macao from up above at different angles and amusing ourselves by checking out the people who were jumping off the tower in the name of bungee jumping.

By now it is fair to say that Macao was not just about casinos and malls, but a lot more than that. With the lingering presence of the Portuguese colonial era and a more recent infusion of Chinese culture, Macao was beginning to get a special place in our hearts. After taking a cab from the tower to Taipa village, we re-walked down those narrow alleys and cobbled streets in search of cheap souvenirs. Taipa village was definitely a good example of the perfect blend between the Portuguese and Chinese cultures. With its main street filled neon signs indicating pork buns and back alleys filled with quaint cafes, it was clear that the two worlds had come together and found comfort here in this village which was probably the only "village" with a two-storied Starbucks outlet. After all the wandering around, we decided to go back and hit the casino scene one more time. By now, we had done our research and still had no clue on how to play the slots. Thankfully, this time around we figured out the game of craps. Three dices rolled around in a giant cylinder and all we had to do was bet on the expected outcome. Though this reminded me of my nightmare days that were filled with probability related math exam questions, off whom I am still not very fond, the three of us had fun with the only game that we could play in the whole casino. Unable to handle the pressure of placing a bet and waiting for the dice to roll and slowly settle down, we decided to call it a day before we lost too much money.

Photo of Senado Square, Macao by TheCorporateWanderer

That night, we walked around the extremely well-lit streets of Cotai strip, taking in all that bling, enjoying the night lights that outlined the casinos and the dancing fountains that moated the casinos before calling it a night. It was like a final goodbye to a place that pleasantly surprised us. What pleased me more was that as we waited to board our ferry back to Hong Kong, an intern with the tourism board accosted me to answer a survey on Macao. Obviously, the survey itself did not please me, but the fact that he refused to select my age bracket as above 19 years was satisfying and a good last memory of Macao with which I said goodbye to the "Vegas of the East".