Macau is the perfect crossroad where East meets West. Noted gastroenterologist Dr. Jun Ruiz shares his wonderful experience in a city where the fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cultures has resulted in a heritage that is four centuries old.
Macau (also spelled as Macao) was a Portuguese colony leased from China for over four hundred years, and they built a vibrant city with all the European elements in architecture, the arts, religion, and traditions. This resulted in a beautiful and unique city that reflects the integration of two distinct cultures, the Chinese and Portuguese, complementing each other. Only in Macau will you also seethe mix of the contrasting old-world European and Chinese traditions existing alongside the modern and lavish hotel and casino atmosphere.
Macau is located on the western bank of the Pearl River estuary in Guangdong Province of the People’s Republic of China. It is nestled 64 km to the west of one of the most popular Asian tourist destinations – Hongkong. Macau is a relatively small and compact city of 31 square km, and with a population of 651,000. Macau is comprised of the Macao Peninsula, Taipa, and Coloane. The peninsula is the economic and political center of this territory. The newly developed district of Cotai, which is built on reclaimed land, is now the site of several international luxury hotel resorts.
The Portuguese arrived and eventually settled in this place that was previously known as “A Ma Gao” (a place for Ma, the goddess of seafarers) in 1557. The Portuguese adopted the Chinese name, that was later modified to Macao or Macau. In over four centuries, the Portuguese built a city with a remarkable architecture that blended European and Chinese styles in its charming and well-preserved buildings. It became a trading shipping port center between China and Europe, and as well as to India and Japan.
In 1999, Macau was returned to China and marked the last vestige of European colonialism in Asia. It is now a Special Administrative Region of China. Like its more popular neighbor Hongkong, it exercises a high degree of autonomy under the principle of “One country, two systems”. Macau is becoming a very popular world class tourist destination because of its reputation as a home to spectacular hotel resorts, casinos, and as a major gaming center. But there is more to Macau than its reputation of “The Las Vegas of Asia”.
When I was planning for a short regional vacation outside the Philippines last year, I wanted to go for a totally different adventure in a new place to appreciate both its culture and tourist attractions. I excluded cities that I already visited before like Hongkong, Singapore, Tokyo, and Bangkok from the list, and finally decided to go with Macau. I chose this destination because I can visit the place in two to three days. Another plus factor for Filipinos is that you do not need a visa if you hold a Philippine passport when traveling to Macau. This has become a popular destination for Filipinos in the last 10 years, as more than 287,000 tourists from the Philippines visited Macau in 2016. I am not certain what the proportion of this figure were actually tourists or were overseas contract workers in Macau.
One can visit Macau by flying directly to this destination, or as part of an extension trip from Hongkong. Among the popular packages is a day trip from Hongkong, though I do not believe that this is enough time to get a good sampling of this fascinating city. There are direct flights from Manila to Macau, though almost all are in the afternoon or evening. I took a direct flight from Manila and I arrived there early evening. I just spent the rest of the night walking around my hotel in Cotai.
The Historic Center
The following day, I was looking forward to see the heart of Macau. After getting advice from the hotel concierge, I took the bus to my destination of the day. My priority was to admire the display of the fusion and co-existence of these two distinct yet complementary cultures, and the Historic Center of Macau is the place to go. Captivated by its unique charm, I marveled at the distinctly Mediterranean architectural legacies of the city’s historic settlement with its elegant buildings, squares, churches, and street scapes. In 2005, The Historic Centre of Macau was recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage for its unique historical and cultural landscape.
This historic center comprises over 20 ancient monuments, ruins, churches, temples, and squares located in the heart of this vibrant city. All are connected by narrow streets, old mosaic paths, and piazzas. One can leisurely tour the different well-preserved colonial buildings, learn about their heritage, and discover interesting stories behind these structures.
Senado Square (Largo do Senado) is a great starting point, especially if you have limited time, as it is located centrally and by the busy main city street. A quick glance of this section reminds you of old Europe. The square is paved with a wave-patterned stone mosaic tiles that was originally of Portuguese design, extending from Senado Square to St. Paul’s. There is an elegant European-style fountain at the center, with shady trees along the nice walk. Pastel colored neo-classical buildings encompass the square, creating a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere. Senado Square is the most popular venue for public events and celebrations.
Ruins of St Paul’s
At the end of the paved street, which allows only pedestrians, stand the Ruins of St. Paul’s. This refers to the carved stone façade of the original Church of Mater Dei built in 1602-1640, which was destroyed by the fire in 1835. The grand staircase and the facade are the only remains of the first church of the Jesuits in China. St. Paul’s College was the first western-style university in the Far East, and its ruins can be seen nearby. The old church, former school, and the neighboring Mount Fortress were all Jesuit constructions, and the ruins invite comparison to the Acropolis of Athens. The Ruins is considered to be “the symbolic altar to the city.”
Adjacent to the Ruins of St. Paul’s is Mount Fortress. This fortress was built in 1617 by the Jesuits as their headquarters. This bestowed effective military defense against invaders, like the Dutch in 1622. This fortress was equipped with cannons, military barracks, and an arsenal. The fortress covers an area of 8000 square meters.
Today, Mount Fortress houses the Macao Museum, showing exhibits of the life of Macau and its people over the past four hundred years. The influence of the two cultures on the character and history of Macau is very evident. Go the top where you find beautiful gardens, and you will be rewarded with beautiful panoramic views over the city and its skyline.
The other interesting structures in the historic center include the most famous and oldest Taoist temple in Macau, A-Ma Temple, the Baroque designed St. Dominic’s Church, and the Guia Fortress. Situated farther afield on the highest land point of the peninsula, Guia Fortress includes the chapel and the Guia Lighthouse. You will need to ride a cable car to reach the first modern lighthouse on the Chinese coast.From the top, see the best views in town.
Textile and garment manufacturing is among the top industries of Macau. You can sample these products by checking on the several stores and vendors around Senado Square that sell inexpensively priced clothes, accessories, and other souvenirs of all types. You can try some of Macau’s culinary delights, like the Portuguese egg tart, pork chop buns, and other street food, while you are strolling in this area.
As I still had the evening free after enjoying the historic center, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to end my day tour of Macau at its highest point. I took the bus and proceeded to the Macau Convention and Entertainment Center. It dominates the city skyline at 338 meters in height, since it opened in December 2001. The observation deck of the Macau Tower offers magnificent panoramic views all over the city. The sight of Macau at night is simply dazzling. There is a revolving restaurant, cinemas, and an outdoor plaza in the tower.
If you are looking for extreme adventure and adrenaline, this is the place to go. You can go for Skywalk where you walk outside and around the outer rim of the tower without any handrail. If you are brave, plunge to the highest bungy jump (Skyjump) in the world from 233 meters in adrenalin-pumping five-second free-fall. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The Glitz of the Cotai District
On my second day, it was time to hit the chain of glittering resort hotels. Cotai is the result of a major land reclamation that joined the two islands of Coloane and Taipa. This new center of entertainment and casinos is the called the Cotai Strip –the counterpart of the Las Vegas Strip where you also see a strip of luxurious hotel-casinos one after another. Several Vegas-based casino and hotels have built similar resorts here. If you want to go hotel-hopping and enjoy the nightlife, you should book your accommodations during your stay in this area. Be ready to be entertained and be dazzled by the glitz and bright lights of Cotai.
The Venetian Macau is among the most popular casinos and resorts in Macau. Modeled after its sister casino resort The Venetian Las Vegas, it is the biggest casino in the world. The interior is as impressively luxurious as its exterior. There are 330 stores that offer high-end luxury brands. There are man-made lovely canals, like the grand canals of Venice. To get a taste of Venice, ride the beautifully crafted Venetian gondolas as you are serenaded by the gondoliers.
Just close by is the newly-opened and equally luxurious The Parisian Macao. The top attraction is the replica of the Eiffel Tower, which is 162 m high and has 2 observation decks. The tower dazzles at night in its colorful light shows accompanied by lively music.
Even if gambling is not for you, there are remarkable attractions that include the breathtaking and grandiose “House of Dancing Water” show at the City of Dreams that features acrobats, gymnasts, divers, and dancers. The Golden Reel is the world’s first and highest figure-8 Ferris wheel suspended between the twin towers of Studio City. For superhero fans, enjoy the 4-D Batman Dark Flight simulation ride soaring over Gotham City at Studio City.
You can meet Disney characters at Holiday Inn. Be amazed at the 3-m tall Fortune Diamond that descends into a roulette-design fountain as it symbolizes prosperity at the hotel lobby of Galaxy Macau. Also at Galaxy, admire the immense collection of multi-colored Wishing Crystals that confer blessings to visitors. For other nightlife activities, you will find a lot of bars, pubs, and dance clubs in the casinos and in the peninsula.
If you have extra time in Macau, you can visit Taipa where you can also witness the mix of the East meets West heritage in its architecture, colonial houses, churches, Chinese temples, narrow alleys, and squares of this preserved traditional village. You can easily get a free shuttle from your hotel in Cotai.
My time in Macau was certainly a breath of fresh air, where I discovered this unique melting pot of the East and West cultures and gave me an opportunity to re-live my Vegas experience. This is truly a vacation I can recommend to friends and family.
“If you are brave, plunge to the highest bungy jump (Skyjump) in the world from 233 meters in adrenalin-pumping five-second freefall. Definitely not for the faint-hearted”
May 2018 Health and Lifestyle