Hong Kong: Macao

photo: St. Lawrence's Church, Macao

Church interior

I got up around 0615 this morning, and made it (without breakfast) to the China Ferry Pier at 0730 for the 0800 boat to Macao. For those who don't know - Macao was a Portuguese colony, just as Hong Kong was a British one. And like HK, it's returned to Chinese rule recently. Also like HK, it's got some form of special status - although things aren't quite the same as in HK, because I had to go through immigration both ways. Mind you, it was pretty cursory.

Economy class was actually quite comfortable: definitely better than a plane, approaching Canadian train comfort/space. Transit time is just over an hour.

When I arrived, I picked up a tourist map and made my plan. And that plan was to go to the southwest corner of the peninsula and walk back up. Down in the southwest corner is the A-Ma Temple, Macao's oldest place of worship. It consists of a slope with big boulders and stairs and small temples at weird angles. And lots of incense. Fairly peaceful in between tourist bus rushes. Right next to it is the Maritime Museum, which has a variety of rather nice ship models. I was disappointed to find that I'd made the journey to Macao on a catamaran, not a hydrofoil as I'd thought. But I felt a bit better when I found out that the catamaran is only negligibly slower than the hydrofoil. (My GPS clocked the catamaran running at 65-75 km/h - pretty damn fast for a water craft.) We passed a hydrofoil on the way out: those are so damn weird. When they're at speed, the hull of the boat isn't in the water at all, but a couple feet above it with only three legs extending into the water. I still think they're cool, even if they only have limited applications.

From there I walked north to the small Lilau Square. Classically Portuguese - cobbled in black and cream stone, with a small pavilion and surrounded by yellow buildings. Further north is "The Mandarin's House," a house that used to belong to a Mandarin, but in the 1940s or 50s the family subdivided it and rented it out. The Macao government has been restoring it. They claim to be done: I think they have some work to do. It was interesting to see the layout of a house from that period.

St. Lawrence's Church is a yellow-washed stand-out in the midst of Macao's blocks and blocks of apartments. The apartment blocks are lower than similar ones in HK, and the balconies are routinely completely barred - we're talking sturdy stainless steel bars. Classically European church.

I continued north, headed for Largo do Senado - almost the only foreigner, with relatively light foot traffic around me, mostly made up of school kids in uniform. And then I turned a corner into the main square, Largo do Senado. Crazy busy, packed with people, and in the middle of it a massive Christmas display. Again, underfoot is patterned black and white cobblestones, and the buildings are Portuguese Colonial. I tried to head toward either the Fort or Sao Paolo, and just as the crowds were tapering off (that should have been a clue: I was headed toward the two most popular sites other than the casinos, I should have been going with the crowds) I found a small place proclaiming its proud acquisition of a 2015 Michelin rating for best street food. So for $8HK I got a really good fried pork and green onion bun (the first thing I'd eaten all day: my stomach is a bit off).

It should be noted that Macao doesn't use the Hong Kong dollar, it uses the Pataca or MOP. However, their values are locked and any business in Macao will take HK$ at 1:1 ... with the caveat that they'll give you Patacas for change. And HK businesses won't take the Pataca. So I've ended up with five 1MOP coins in my pocket I guess I'm bringing back with me. As their grand total value is under $1CAN, I'm not going to fight to exchange them.

I eventually made it up to the Fortalezo do Monte, the old fort at the top of one of the town's higher hills. Great views, and quite a few cannons that are in better shape than I'm accustomed to. Also the Macao Museum, but I think it was closed Monday.

I spotted Sao Paolo over the walls of the fort, so I got my bearings and managed to get there. The ruins of St. Paul's Church are one of Macao's best-known sights: the big facade up a wide set of stairs draws a huge crowd. The church was built in the early 1600s, but burned to the ground in 1835 leaving behind only the front stone facade and some foundations. It's kind of cool, but I admit to being somewhat underwhelmed: the facade is fairly typical of European churches, and I've seen a lot of those. I should get in the spirit of the thing and enjoy the presence of an impressive European Cathedral facade in the middle of MACAO, but ...

photo: Sao Paolo Facade, Macao

Facade of a classically European church with a mostly Asian crowd in front

Right next to St. Paul's is the Na Tcha Temple. It's evidently a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its interesting history: but to see it ... it's a very small temple.

I made my way through the zoo of streets and tourists at the foot of the St. Paul's stairs, and applied bad navigation to end up at the small Sao Francisco park - which was not at all where I had meant to be. But I was rewarded with a particularly weird remnant of the Portuguese, a round, two storey building painted in pink with white trimmings. It looked like someone had plopped a wedding cake down in the middle of the park.

I once again set out to find the Jardim Lou Lim Ieoc ... let me give you a hint: I never got there. I did find that much of Macao near the casinos is not intended to be walked at all ... the sidewalk just ... ran out. But that forced me to look around, and I found the elevators going up the side of Guia Hill. So I got most of the way up the city's biggest hill without too much effort. At the top, you can find a small chapel and a lighthouse. The lighthouse is cute, but unfortunately closed to the public. They've spent a lot of time and effort restoring the frescoes in the chapel, but they don't seem to have been worth the effort ... On the other hand, the views from around the two buildings were outstanding.

It's particularly hard to miss the Grand Lisboa casino and hotel: it's possibly the tallest building in the city, it's gold, and it's shaped like a bunch of upright palm fronds or leaves of some sort. It's fantastically ugly and dominates the skyline. And out by the very, very long bridge, they're reclaiming more land.

I took the elevators back down and made my way through the seemingly endless blocks of casinos and watch stores and restaurants that block the boat pier from the rest of the city. The streets in that area are all arcaded, and that's probably lovely in the rain but it becomes quickly oppressive as you can't see the sky, especially in combination with the flash that's on display from the casinos and jewelry stores. It was a pleasure to arrive at the "Tourism Activities Centre," which hosts both a Wine Museum and a new Gran Prix museum (I'm happy to say I just missed the Macao Gran Prix: it was this past weekend). The Wine Museum is a bit weak, and unfortunately the tastings mentioned by my guidebook that inspired me to go to the museum are currently not available. The Gran Prix museum has a number of cars (including a Model T and an Austin Princess, neither of which can have possibly raced in a Gran Prix), and I enjoyed look at the old Lotuses. But it's a relatively small museum and I'm glad they're free at the moment ...

And so I made my grumpy way back to the pier and my catamaran back to Kowloon. If you're in HK, I'm not sure I'd recommend a visit to Macao: I found more bad than good in my time there. But I also missed out on Macanese cooking because of my stomach, and I regret that. I particularly wanted to try "African Chicken." It's a Portuguese Colony in China, and their most famous dish is "African Chicken ..." although it's apparently not terribly African anymore. Not that it matters: it's supposed to be very good (not just my guidebook telling me that: a friend of a friend waxed poetical about it).

I saw two Jeeps in Macao. This is worth mentioning because, with the exception of the several Teslas I've seen in Hong Kong, I haven't seen a single other American vehicle. The place is teaming with Japanese, German and even Italian cars. But no American - fascinating.

photo: Seen near the fort

Six matching all white pigeons perching on the side of a steeply slanted stone wall