“For your own safety, please remain seated throughout the voyage with your seatbelt fastened, if a seatbelt is available.” No luck, I thought grimly as I settled into my window seat, surrounded on three sides by dozens of literal bystanders. “To ensure the enjoyance [sic] of each passenger, please keep the voice down.” Is what I believe came out of the loudspeaker next, but I could barely hear over the dull roar of conversation.
It was 8AM and I was on a ferry bound for the second of China’s Special Administrative Regions: Macau. Located just an hour away from Hong Kong by boat, Macau holds the historical distinction of being the last of Europe’s Asian colonies, with governance transferring from the Portuguese to the Chinese in 1999. However culturally, it has become much more renowned for being the world’s gambling capital.* Not particularly caring for casinos, I was visiting for the day to explore Macau’s historical district, with the great fortune of having a local student as a guide.
Qichao is currently a PhD student at the University of Macau, specializing in East Asian Studies. (Incidentally, my future course of study upon my return Stateside.) When I hesitantly divulged that I had just graduated from Stanford, he inquired as to whether I might know a few of his friends who were also new graduates. It turns out he was mutual friends with people that I not only knew but had taken an extensive number of classes and even studied abroad with. Thus, we decided to keep in touch should our paths ever cross again. And so here I was a year later, heading to a Macau to meet a friend I originally met in Portugal. The world can be an astonishingly small place. -End Interlude-
I disembarked and managed to make it through customs without too much difficulty. My main challenge was actually to meet Qichao in the crowded entrance hall and hope that he recognized me. I spotted a vaguely familiar face, and we both eyed each other warily, until I finally ventured, “Qichao?” “Oh Pearly! That is you. I was expecting you to look much more like a backpacker.” Unsure of what to expect in Macau—and honestly having sweated through all my other clothing—I had worn the only decent dress I had with me.
“Anyway, welcome to Macau. Here you are!” To my surprise, Qichao handed me a cold beer out of his backpack, and began to explain that he had a friend who was supposed to be coming to Macau but got held up by visa issues. Unable to refund her hotel rooms, she offered them up to Qichao, and they turned out to include complimentary mini-bars. And so we boarded one of the free buses bound for the casino resorts.1 It turns out I will be getting taste of glitzy Macau after all.
Next thing I know I was in an executive suite at the Galaxy Hotel, with wall-length windows overlooking the world’s largest wave pool. Upon first impression, everything about Macau’s gambling scene is super sized. For example, the nearby Venetian Macau is the largest casino in the world, with about 4.5 times gambling space of its Las Vegas counterpart. It really has to be seen to be believed. However, one small detail kept me from enjoying the scene properly: my stomach grumbled, and I confessed to Qichao that I had not yet had breakfast. “Well the minibar comes with snacks, so you can also enjoy your beer.” And so there I was, one hour into Macau, tucking into a complimentary bowl of instant noodles while drinking a Tsingtao, draped in a fluffy bathrobe for additional kicks and giggles.
Suppressing those giggles, we finally headed to the historic center of Macau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived at Largo do Senado, and I could have sworn I was in Lisbon, what with a smattering of old churches and colorful buildings surrounding the plaza covered in distinctly Portuguese maritime tiles. Absolutely stunning. We roamed through the neighborhood, including a stop at the iconic Ruins of St. Paul’s Church. However, while I do admire architecture, my preferred method of distinguishing traces of Portuguese heritage is through sampling Macanese cuisine.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of asking about my travels over the past year has had to deal with my obsession with pastéis de nata, or Portuguese egg tarts. Ever since visiting the iconic Pastéis de Belém on the outskirts of Lisbon, I have been hopelessly infatuated with these sweets.*** In fact, dare I say my number one motivation for visiting Macau was to devour egg tarts? I discovered a small stall on Rua de Palha, where I immediately purchased a couple of tarts.**** I sighed blissfully upon taking my first bite. Yes, for a brief moment, I was definitely back in Lisbon.
Satisfied with having thoroughly explored the district, we headed back to the resorts to seek respite from the sweltering heat. Qichao revealed that he happened to be a VIP member at the Venetian and so we wentered its VIP Lounge. Once again, I indulged in the kind of outlandish opulence only found around casinos. (For instance, the VIP bathrooms offers various Dior perfumes to help guests freshen up.) Sipping on a complimentary cappuccino while relaxing on a chaise and hardly believing my luck, Qichao and I discussed our travels and reflected on the surreal serendipity that brought us to this moment. It bears repeating that the world truly is an astonishingly small place.
Thoroughly rested, we set off to explore the massive casino grounds. Deciding it would not be a proper visit to Macau without trying my luck at gambling, I sat down in front of a slot machine. I reluctantly inserted 10 HKD (~$1.29 US) and held my breathe as I pressed the button to turn the tiles.2 My balance immediately went to zero. Intense dislike for gambling successfully reinstated, I stood up abruptly and insisted we continue our explorations. We roamed through the impressive desert oasis that was the pool area, accidentally took the posh elevator to the VVIP gambling lounges, and strolled through the Venetian’s shopping arcade, complete with a canal staffed by (Filipino) gondoliers who all immediately identifying me as a foreign tourist and serenaded me in Italian as I sheepishly shuffled past. By this point, the sun had set and we also enjoyed the surreal night view of these casinos all lit up. Even for someone like me who was still bemoaning my minuscule gambling losses, it was hard not to be awed by how grand it all appeared. Las Vegas, eat your heart out.
Having worked up an appetite, we wandered and stumbled upon a street filled with quaint restaurants. We strode past kitchens where distinctly Portuguese faces—all lined with years of experience— conversed intensely with their Cantonese sous-chefs. Qichao led me into one place amusingly titled Restaurante Dumbo, and we ordered a set meal of Macanese cuisine. Out came comforting bowls of vegetable soup, followed by heaping plates of bacalhau (cod fish) fritters, crisply frid rice, and rich beef stew. Each dish once again resembling something easily identifiable in Portugal yet served with a unique Macanese twist. Lavish resort suites aside, this is precisely what I came to Macau to experience. It was the perfect end to a throughly surprising day. Shortly after, Qichao escorted me back to the Venetian so I could catch the bus to the port and board my ferry back to Hong Kong. We bid each other good-bye and wondered not if, but exactly when and where we might meet next. For it is a small world after all!
17 June 2015
*Various American travel articles will often refer to Macau as the “Vegas of the East.” However, Macau actually has the largest gambling revenue in the world, over 7x the size of Las Vegas according to this (slighty dated) source. Simply put, Vegas ain’t got nothing on Macau.
**Although those who know me will scarcely believe this, I am genuinely pretty shy when traveling. I vastly prefer keeping to myself in order to quietly observe and take a few photos. Talking to other travelers in a hostel lounge is one thing but doing so while out on the streets is another. Given my nearly nonexistent level of Portuguese, it still surprises me that I stepped in during this instance at all.
***Pastel (plural: pastéis) de nata directly translates to custard or cream tart, but they are often referred to in English as Portuguese egg tarts. The bakery in Belém is so renowned for their own version that that they are no longer called custard tarts but Belem tarts (pastéis de Belém.) I am wholly convinced that they are the best pastries in the world, bar none.
****To my delight, it turns out that this particular stand had also been featured in the Korean remake of my all-time favorite Japanese drama, Hana Yori Dango. Macau just keeps getting better by the second. (And yes, I do have rather eclectic tastes.)
****I suppose VIP status at casinos must come with the territory of being a student here. In fact the University of Macau even offers a degree in gambling. Apparently becoming a casino dealer is a popular occupation given stables wages and benefits.
1: There are loads of free buses provided by casinos that go most anywhere of interest in Macau, including the different ferry terminals and the historical downtown district.
2: Similar to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own currency, the pataca. However day trippers from Hong Kong need not worry, the Hong Kong Dollar is widely accepted, most especially at the casinos.
Its exchange rate is fixed to the HKD at a ratio of 1.03:1. Thus, perhaps only those with the heartiest of gambling appetites may wish to withdraw patacas.