Thursday, September 25, 2008

Days 29-30: Macau

Macau is a very enjoyable place for a day or two. The archipeligo is small--with a population of some 500,000--but it is insanely rich due to the casino construction boom that has no end in sight.
Gambling is so popular in Macau for several reasons. For one, as a Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR), the country gets to keep its own currency (the pataca), have its own domestic laws, etc. Beijing, as far as I know, only controls some of the politics and has the right to protect Macau with its army, but other than that, the place feels very different from China. The main difference is that while gambling is illegal in China and China's other SAR, Hong Kong, it is legal in Macau--and millions of Chinese and Hong Kongers alike visit Macau to gamble their newly earned money away. With millions of Chinese emerging from poverty, more and more are visiting Macau, so this boom feels like it's only beginning.
Macau is also a lot cleaner than China. Also, nationals of most western countries, such as the EU and U.S., don't need a visa to enter the country. When I saw the special $50 one-way Air Asia flight from KL to Macau I jumped at the opportunity, not only because of the price (which was the main determining factor), but also based on Macau's geographic location: just an hour away from Hong Kong on a ferry and right across from the mainland People's Republic of China. I almost missed the flight due to the distance of KL airport from the city center and because of the irregular bus service, but, luckily, all turned out to be okay.
In addition, Macau was only returned to China as a SAR in 1999 from the Portugese, who established the colony some 300 before the British arrived in Hong Kong. As a result, Macau has the distinction of being the first western colony in Asia. Today, the Portugese influence is everywhere: in the food, the signage (by law, all of the signs must be in Portugese and Cantonese, although only about 1% of Macanese speak fluent Portugese, according to surveys), and the culture, which feels like a mix of Chinese and European, as does the architecture. UNESCO included the Old Town of Macau in its list of world heritage sights recently.
Today, Macau has some two dozen casinos with a total revenue that is bigger than that of Las Vegas. The SAR also has the biggest casino in the world, which opened last year: the Venetian.
Perhaps the best thing about Macau, though, is that most of the things are free for the wise traveler. Free shuttle buses belonging to various casinos bus the travelers to the airport and ferry terminal--and anyone can board those buses, since tickets are only needed for the latter, and they can be acquired for free anyway. In the casinos, while playing slot machines or other games, one can always ask for food, water, and juice--it is implied that all are free, mainly as an incentive for the gambler to keep gambling his or her money. I happily took advantage of this. :)

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