I'm on my way home from Vanuatu, but I've fitted in a day trip on the hovercraft from Hong Kong to Macau. By the skin of my teeth, as the tour company I booked with have forgotten to come and pick me up. I’ve had varying reports on Macau. It’s reported as nothing but casinos, tawdry. But I’ve always wanted to go and never quite managed to fit it in before.
Macau is a former Portuguese colony, occupying a small peninsula and two islands off China's southern coast, in the western Pearl River Delta. Portugal started renting the territory from Ming China as a trading post in 1557; it was transferred back to China in 1999. Macau is designated a special administrative region of China, like Hong Kong, maintaining separate governing and economic systems from those of mainland China, under the principle of "one country, two systems". Its population of about 680,000 (according to Wikipedia) and area of 12.7 square miles (8 square miles of this is reclaimed land) makes it the most densely populated region in the world.
Macau is fascinating and well worth the trip. Colonial and ultra modern combined. Firstly, it's an Asian Las Vegas, with 35 themed 'mega' casinos: volcanoes, glittering balls, tower with bungee jump; the lot. And more under construction. This is where China makes its money - the Chinese love to gamble and Macau has capitalised on this. Foreign casino companies have invested heavily since 2002. when Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho's decades-long monopoly ended. Macau then was more about traditional gambling dens.
In addition to the burgeoning Las Vegas style casino hotels, like the Venetian, there are some giant shopping malls.
The cobbled World Heritage old town is a unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese architecture. Possibly the most rewarding sights are here. The colonial areas, churches (and facades of churches), pink and white mansions, squares and city walls are spread in little clumps. Scarlet and gold Tao temples add authentic colour to the shopping streets.
Perhaps the best part of seeing Hong Kong again is the bus journey back to the airport with marvellous views of the city and skyscrapers lit up against the whole of the bay and across the new suspension bridge onto Lantau Island. The Cultural Centre has a nightly ‘Symphony of Light Show’. The illuminations on the island scrapers dazzle to the sound of martial music and a cacophony of lasers keep time. Mmmm….
Despite the inauspicious date an evening flight (later than I’d intended because of a last minute very annoying change by Cathay) from Manila to Hong Kong. I have arranged to meet friends Susanna and Irvin on their way to Australia on a month’s break. From the new airport the express train speeds me to the city in twenty minutes. It’s all very efficient but I miss the old, slightly alarming view as the plane weaved in and out of the skyscrapers and almost plunges into the sea at Kai Tak. You could see the occupants of the apartments through their windows. Sue and Irvin are waiting at the Century Harbour Hotel on Hong Kong Island and we just have time for a drink in the bar before bedtime.
Window-shopping around Western and the back of Central and all through Hollywood Road where all the Chinese antique shops are. Also into the atmospheric Man Po temple full of incense burning and gilded statues of gods. Stocking up on Flex hair conditioner! Then meet up with Sue and Irvin who have been on the tourist round trip tour of the island. The view across the harbour from The Peak across the city and the scrapers is always incredible.
We take a bus across Hong Kong Island and wander around Stanley Market crammed with prints, cheap Chinese clothes, Tiger Balm and gaudy ornaments. None of them are tempting and the meal on the terrace in Stanley Oriental restaurant is much more satisfying. We eat on the third floor terrace looking out over the lights of the bay. The local food is excellent though the Chinese waiter rather spoils it by sulking very loudly because he deems his tip (on top of 10% service charge) to be insufficient. The meal is expensive even by English standards. Back on the top of a double decker bus which crashes along knocking against all the overhanging trees and swaying ominously into roundabouts. We survive and then take a tram onto our respective hotels.
Another tram to the famous Star Ferry terminal where we catch the ferry to Kowloon. Yesterday’s weather was wet and cool (for Hong Kong); today is drier and permits spectacular island views from the boat. The new Cultural Centre is impressive on the harbour edge as is the Meccano shaped HSBC tower, but it’s a shame that the iconic fishermen’s sampans have almost totally disappeared. We wander up The Nathan Road through numerous markets and shops and Chinese department stores that aren’t much different from each other. Copy watches abound. I almost feel guilty that I haven’t bought one. Three prints and a MacDonald’s instead. Kowloon Park and another gilt and scarlet lanterned Tao temple.
Back on Hong Kong Island the streets round the ferry terminal are closed. They are crammed with women picnicking, playing cards and gossiping - the Sunday social reunion for all the Filipina maids working in Hong Kong. A final meal in a basic little Chinese restaurant where we make the mistake of accidentally ordering enough for six.
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