Trip to Macau -
A former Portuguese colony filled with casinos, the taste of bolinos and delicious pastel de nata, the ruins of St. Paul's, Largo do Lilau and Senado square, Fortaleza do Monte, view from 338 meters in the mast of a tower...then a flight to an island where we found beaches like Vung Bau and Sao beach, fish sauce factories, pepper farms and drove a motorbike on horrible roads. This is a trip report from a city break in Macau, China and followed by beach time on the island Phu Quoc, Vietnam in November 2014. This was a 12 day trip and we had short stops in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. This first part of the trip report will focus on the stay in Macau. Please check out this trip report for the Phu Quoc stay.
A short summary
On the following pages you will find:
Planning the trip
The trip begins
We arrived jetlagged in the afternoon of 7 November at Hong Kong airport and we just followed the signs to take the ferry to Macau. It turns out that they have a great setup for this at the airport. Instead of going through immigration to Hong Kong you just buy a ferry ticket to Macau and show your baggage tags and then they organized it so that your luggage is sent directly to Macau on the boat! The fast boat that took us from Hong Kong airport to Macau took about 45 minutes and we used the company TurboJet and it is a large boat with comfortable seating. There is even a “business class” if you are willing to pay extra for it. A regular ticket is 250 Hong Kong Dollar (about 32 USD) while business class is 400 Hong Kong Dollar.
Arriving in Macau
We figured that we could just take a taxi to our hotel (Hotel Royal Macau) as it was located quite close to the ferry terminal but that turned out to be easier said than done as there was a loooong queue for taxis outside the ferry terminal. There was no movement at all as very few taxis stopped by so we decided to improvise and looked at the map outside the terminal to find a bus alternative. After a few minutes we jumped on a bus that would (hopefully) take us near the hotel but it was tiny and already crowded. For some reason it seems like public transportation in Macau is an issue – we had problems getting a taxi in general throughout our stay in Macau and even when standing at a taxi stand the taxis that had a sign saying that they were free, would not stop to pick us up. And busses seemed to be crowded in general. It turned out that our hotel had a shuttle service so it might be a good idea to reserve a pick up and avoid a frustrating wait upon arrival.
But back to our initial bus adventure to get to Hotel Royal in Macau. We had to fight to get into the small bus with our huge Samsonite suitcases but the bus driver just looked at us when Nikki tried to pay with a 100 Pataca bill fresh out of the ATM as the bus fare was only 3 Pataca for the both of us. It turned out that you should have the exact amount to pay for the bus fare - so keep this in mind if you want to take the bus in Macau. Thankfully a kind soul helped us out by paying the bus tickets for us and then helped us figure out when and where to get off. The traffic on the Friday night we arrived was really bad – the bus could hardly get anywhere and I’m not sure it was because the city was partially closed off due to the upcoming Macau Grand Prix or if this was just regular Friday night traffic jam but it took us about 1 hour to get to the hotel and that is horrendous as the hotel is just a two kilometer walk (1.2 miles) away from the ferry terminal. We did get off the bus not too far from the hotel and thanks to Google Maps on the iPhone I was able to find the hotel – what did we do before this kind of technology came along? ;-) In Macau we decided to stay at Hotel Royal located near the historic city center. Hotels in Macau are quite expensive but if you have the money you can stay at fancy and renowned Vegas brand hotels like MGM, Wynn, The Venetian etc. You can read a review of Hotel Royal on this page.
Macau is separated into two sections – the historic Macau (Macau Peninsula) and the island of Cotai and they are linked with three bridges. Most of the people and activity seems to be on Macau Peninsula but a lot of the new development is on Cotai - this is e.g. where you find The Venetian hotel which is the largest hotel in the world at the moment. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and the Portuguese traders came there as early as the 1550s. In 1999 Macau was transferred to China and is now a special administrative region (similar to Hong Kong).
Let's start to explore Macau!
Sightseeing in the rain - the historic city
We decided to press on on our speed sightseeing of Macau and we just followed the tourist signs that are placed in various locations in the historic city center and used a map that we got at the tourist info office at the ferry terminal. If you want to check out the route we walked you can look at our Google map of Macau. It seems like there is a long history for making baked goods like cookies in Macau and we were thrilled to find Koi Kei bakery by accident – later on we found that Koi Kei bakery is located on basically every street corner so I’m not sure we found the original one. The bakery sells various kinds of cookies and most visitors seemed to walk out of the shop with large boxes of cookies. I thought that this place has been around for centuries but based on their homepage the first shop was established in 1997. But yes, I have to admit that we also walked out of the shop with cookies as well.
The historic city center is not that big so we could easily walk to the various historic sites and we even managed to buy a couple of umbrellas after a while to try to keep us sort of dry as it was drizzling all morning. We walked past the Moorish barracks and stopped by Largo do Lilau (Lilau square). This square had a spring that the Portuguese used and the saying is “Anyone who drinks from the water of the Lilau - will never forget Macau”. In this area the roads are narrow, paved with cobble stones and the street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese so it feels in a way like walking around in Lisbon...well, apart from the street signs in Chinese. We also stopped by the Mandarin House before walking past the church of St. Lawrence. This church is one of the oldest churches in Macau and was built by the Jesuits in the 16th century. We continued to walk and only a few meters down the street we passed by Don Pedro V’s theater and St. Augustine church. The church dates back to 1591 and seems to be the main scene of Easter processions in Macau – after seeing this in Madrid, I can only imagine what this is like in the tiny streets in the historic city center of Macau. Dom Pedro V theater was the first western style theater in China and it seats about 300. We just peaked in briefly as the rest was closed off for an event.
Walking along the streets of Macau was funny as we came across some unusual things that we don’t see at home. How about a dog toilet? Yes, there was like a cat litter box in the street that was meant for dogs and it even featured a sign for it. And how about parking meters for scooters? We eventually made it to the busy Senado Square or Largo do Senado with the cobble stone pattern that resembles Rossio in Lisbon (see Lisbon trip report here). We walked around in the area a bit, checked out a market nearby and had some lunch. The streets leading up to the ruins of St. Paul’s were extremely busy with people left, right and center and it was impossible to walk in your own pace – you just had to glide along with the rest of the crowds. All of sudden we could see the façade of St Paul’s on the top of a hill and sadly enough it is only the one wall that is left after a fire in 1835. Back in the days it must have seemed like a modern Acropolis as it is located on a hill right next to a fortress. We tried to find a lunch place in the Senado Square area but it was surprising to see that there were few restaurants around – or maybe we did not look deep enough into the side alleys. In the end we found a recommendation for Tou Tou Koi and had a simple lunch there with stir fry beef, crispy pork belly and fish cakes – it was funny to see the receipt as everything was in Chinese so it was tricky to verify the information – we paid 400 MOP for lunch and tea ;-)
After lunch we needed dessert of course and another of the heritages from Portugal seems to be Pastel de nata – the tasty egg tart. We walked over to Margaret's Cafe e Nata and when we came over there we saw a long line of people. We tried to figure out where the line started but soon one of the café employees came over to us to ask if we had paid. It turned out that there was first one line for ordering and paying and then another line for picking them up - it was not possible to have one of us keep waiting in one queue whilst the other paid and got the receipt. We had to wait for about 30 minutes but it was worth the wait. We got egg tarts straight from the oven and they were still piping hot. We had some very good pastis de belem in Lisbon but the ones at Margaret's Cafe e Nata seemed even better as they were fresh out of the oven!.
We walked back to the ruins of St. Paul's to also check out the back and front of the façade and the crypt and there were lots of people taking selfies in front of the façade as this is the symbol of Macau. We also stopped by the small temple Na Tcha temple and a bit of the old city walls. We also walked over to the Fortaleza do Monte or Mount Fortress. On the way there I think we took a wrong turn as we had to walk up countless stairs – only to find out that we could have taken the escalator all the way to the top to Macau Museum. It seems like we have a tendency to do this so I’m not sure that we would ever win the Amazing Race – at least we got some exercise out of it. The view from the fortress is great and it was strange to see some of the cannons pointing right at some of the money making buildings in Macau today – e.g. the Grand Lisboa. We did not check out the Macau museum as it did not seem that interesting at first glance. The view would have been even better if the weather had been a bit better - on this afternoon it was not even possible to see Macau Tower.
Time to hit the jackpot
The hotel has several restaurants and as we like Italian we decided to stop by Don Alfonso 1890. I’m glad we decided to look at the menu first as the prices were quite steep. We come from Norway and we are used to prices of food and services being high but it was a surprise to see the prices of some of the items. How about an eggplant with mozzarella starter costing 200 MOP (25 USD) or spaghetti carbonara costing the same. Or a casserole of fish for two as a main meal costing 1400 MOP (175 USD) – and there was also an extra 10 % service charge on everything. We decided to go for Round the clock restaurant as it was getting late and we just needed a fast dinner. We had bolinos again (I love these fish balls) and then I had a rich stew of sweet sausages, pork and chicken meat which is known as tacho (110 MOP ca 14 USD). The service in the place was not very good and even though the place was basically empty we had to look for the staff to even pay the bill. And another strange thing is that when we first got the menu there was no mention of alcohol at all but when they brought out the wine list they actually had a good selection - it was e.g. possible to order a Quinta des Pancas from Portugal from 1997.
Getting home after the visit to the casino was not that easy. Again there was a long line to get a taxi outside Grand Lisboa and crossing the street to the old Lisboa hotel made it a bit easier at least. It seems like it was a bit tricky to take a straight route back to the hotel as Macau was preparing for the annual Grand Prix race. But taking a taxi was quite reasonable price – a taxi ride from our hotel to Macau tower (about 3-4 km) cost about 30 Pataca (about 4 USD).
Time for a grand view of Macau - Macau Tower
The climb started pretty easy as we were inside the tower and the guides informed us about the various safety measures, the different carabiners and also the device that was attached to the wires when going up/down – a climbing device (a climb ascender) that would stop the fall if we dropped from the ladder. We used ladders all the way up and we were always connected to a cable or with a carabiner. As we were inside the tower it was quite hot and we took breaks on the way up and got some water from the guides – but we were also told to not drink too much as there is no toilet at the top of course. We were also informed that they did have rope in case we got injured and they had to lower us down to safety. I think that looked scarier than actually using the ladders to go back down.
When we reached about 300 meters it was time to step out of the tower and start climbing outside and that was a lot different. The first section had a pretty regular ladder and seemed not that tricky to climb up and the platform that we reached had plenty of room. But the final ladder was a 20 meter ladder (65 ft) and the steps were quite narrow and it was tricky to get a good grip with both hands and with both feet on the same step. But one way or another I did get to the top but I had to stay focused and just carry out the climb without looking down. When I reached the top there was a tiny platform that could take about 4-5 people and with no railings. I have to admit that I was scared to death even if I was secured and found it hard to enjoy the view. Nikki also made it and had the same reaction as me to the height. It did not help much when our guide came along and started talking about the movement of the tower in the wind and it was quite noticable that the tower was swaying in the wind. But we did get to take some amazing photos at the top and the view is incredible. Apparently this is one of the few towers (or the only one?) where you can actually pay do a legeal mast climb and I can understand why. I have posted a video on YouTube that can give you an impression of the climb itself - just check out my reaction when I reached the top.
The climb down was also a bit of a challenge as the ladder was narrow. But once we got inside the tower again we descended pretty fast and we picked up a serious sweat as the inside of the tower was like an oven. All in all the entire climb took 3 hours and it was an amazing experience. I guess it is important to face ones fears from time to time and step out of the comfort zone and this really pushed the limits for us. But it was breathtaking to see the view as we got higher and higher. When coming out of the tower we visited the Macau food festival outside but we could not help to look back at the tower from time to time to say “Did we really just stand at the very top of that?” The climb is not cheap – it will cost you about 1900 MOP (240 USD) per person – but it is an experience of a lifetime.
When we decided to go back to the city the taxi line had gotten really long so we decided to just start walking and catch a taxi on the way. This proved to be quite tricky and in the end we came to MGM casino and hotel and tried the taxi stand there. But it was weird to see that even if we were several people standing in line for a taxi, vacant taxis would just pass up by and I’m not sure I see the point of not picking up paying customers.
Last night in Macau
Time to move on – to Vietnam