The sun is just burning off the clouds as the Star Ferry rumbles away from the dock at Kowloon, headed towards Hong Kong Island where the skyscrapers of Central are framed by the jungle-clad heights of Victoria Peak. For the ticket price, a paltry R3,40 one-way, it’s easily the best-value sightseeing on the planet.
It’s not my first time in Hong Kong, but each time I visit the ‘fragrant harbour’ brings a smile to my face. For it is unlike any other major city in Asia. In its spotless MTR system and gleaming skyscrapers it has all the efficiency of Singapore. Yet wander the side-alleys of Tsim Sha Tsui or Sheung Wan and you’ll discover dim sum bars and colourful wet markets and temples infused with incense.
There’s a soul to Hong Kong that’s missing in so many other Asian cities, and it’s why I’ve returned again and again. My first visit a decade ago was for a simple taste of the city: to wander the markets of Mong Kok and discover the temples of Central, to take the funicular up Victoria Peak and admire a cityscape that seemed pulled straight out of science fiction. Little wonder director Christopher Nolan chose to shoot his Batman installment ‘The Dark Knight’ in the city.
My next time led me further afield, discovering the golden sands of Repulse Bay and the enormous seated Buddha of Lantau Island. On a third visit I laced up my trail shoes to discover the city’s wonderful walking trails, and sailed amidst the houseboats of Aberdeen.
And I’d have happily spent this day in Hong Kong, discovering new corners of the city, but I had a boat to catch. And the stern attendants of the Turbojet ferries wait for no man.
An hour later and our hydrofoil eased slowly into the ferry terminal at Macao.
Like Hong Kong, Macao is a Special Administrative Region of China. And while Hong Kong has its banking sector, this tiny corner of the Pearl River Delta earns its keep with its lucrative gambling industry. But more on that later.
When I’m travelling I like to feel the lay of the land, so I headed straight for the summit of nearby Guia Hill. Home to the oldest lighthouse in China, the surrounding fortress and chapel tell a fascinating story of Portuguese settlement and the founding of Macao, but it’s perhaps most interesting as a vantage point high above the crowded city.
From here Mainland China lies just two kilometers away, and the two faces of Macao are plain to see. To the south, past the needle-sharp Macao Tower, I can just make out the high-rise hotels in the district of Cotai. The palatial hotels here have defined Macao as the Las Vegas of Asia, but I leave the bright lights for the evening and look west instead.
Below me sprawls the historic centre of Macao. Inscribed as World Heritage Site in 2005, the bustling markets, backstreet dim sum shops and cobbled lanes are a world away from the roulette wheels and dancing fountains of Cotai.
I choose to start exploring where it all began, at the A-Ma temple. This homage to the goddess of seafarers predates the founding of the city, and remains the oldest surviving building in Macao. Its simple wooden lines are in stark contrast to the splendid Moorish Barracks up the road. Built in 1874, they were once home to a regiment of Indian soldiers drafted in from Portugal’s colony in Goa. For a less grandiose reminder of Portugal’s influence in the city, simply look up at any street corner: to this day street signs are inscribed in Portuguese and Cantonese.
Along with trade, the Portuguese also brought Catholicism, and the city boasts a handful of remarkable churches.
Perhaps the most impressive is St. Dominic’s which, when nailed together out of wooden slats in 1587, was the first Christian church built on Chinese soil. While its origins are humble, today it is a sumptuous Baroque-inspired work that towers above the charming St. Dominic’s Square. Don’t miss out on a visit to the excellent, if slightly hidden, small museum to the right of the church.
For Macao is filled with hidden attractions. I almost walk straight past the simple entrance to the Mandarin’s House, a striking example of traditional Chinese architecture. Once home to the famous Chinese philosopher Zheng Guanying – no, I hadn’t heard of him either, by my local guide was a huge fan – the vaulted wooden ceilings and quiet courtyards are a wonderful respite from the busy streets beyond. There’s even free Wi-Fi if you want to Instagram it.
Up the hill and the dramatic Ruins of St. Paul’s offer some of the best views in the city. When it was built in the early-1600s the church was part of St. Paul’s College, the first Western-style university in Asia. Sadly, a fire in the mid-1800s destroyed it all, bar the impressive façade. Even still, it’s worth the walk for the views and what’s left of the architecture.
While the historic centre of Macao is home to dozens of sights, the compact layout of the old city makes it worth exploring on foot. Down side streets I stumble on chic-chi boutiques jammed in alongside traditional apothecaries and bakeries turning out Portuguese-style egg tarts. From St. Paul’s I wander aimlessly towards the district known as Three Lamps. There’s history aplenty here, even underfoot: the cobbled streets are paved with the ballast brought over by merchant ships over centuries past.
For Macao has always been a city of immigrants, from China and further afield, and the Three Lamps district neatly dishes up this collision of Asian cultures. On one corner a stall offers Cantonese dim sum. On the other; Burmese mohinga. Further along, a Taiwanese milk bar and Indonesian street snacks.
It’s been a long day of travelling and I’m starving, but I choose to seek out a table at Casade de Cha Long Wa: The House of the Beautiful Dragon.
Set alongside the city’s fresh produce market, the restaurant blends art gallery and teahouse into one. Family-owned for the past four decades, it dishes up a superb selection of steaming dim sum baskets and I devour the spread of steamed buns and dumplings.
It’s the type of food I always seek out in Asia, but it’s a far cry from the Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy that await well-heeled travellers in the casinos of Cotai.
As the sun dips into the afternoon I leave the historic heart behind and head across to Cotai, one of several man-made islands that have expanded Macao’s footprint. It’s an expensive business ‘reclaiming’ land, but lately there’s been no shortage of cash on hand.
Gambling is illegal in the People’s Republic of China, but warmly embraced in this Special Administrative Region. And the numbers involved aren’t small: last year Macao’s casinos pulled in $28-billion. Compare that to the $4.6-billion gambled on the Las Vegas strip and it’s little wonder all the world’s major hotel and casino brands are here for a slice of the action. The Venetian, Conrad, Sheraton Grand, MGM Grand; you’ll find them all in Cotai. Last year the opulent Wynn Palace casino resort opened after years of building and a $4.1-billion price tag.
You can happily while away your days losing at Baccarat or chancing the slot machines, but even if you’re not much of a gambler nor impressed by glitzy hotels Cotai is entirely worth a visit for one reason: The House of Dancing Water.
The world’s largest water-based theatrical production is housed in a purpose-built theatre home to a stage holding over 14-million litres of water. While the story is a simple tale of strangers uniting against evil and a hero’s search for love, it’s the blend of gasp-inducing acrobatics, comedy, theatre and watery wizardry that has made it one of the most remarkable productions on the planet.
It’s how I spend my last night in Macao, marveling at the spectacle yet charmed by the Asian folktale that underpins the acrobatics. And in that it is perhaps a fine mirror for Macao. For as much as the city relies on its bright lights and spinning roulette wheels to keep the economy turning, beneath the razzle-dazzle there’s a heart and soul to discover. Tomorrow I’ll take a ferry back to Hong Kong, and a flight back to Johannesburg. But for now, I’ll indulge in a few last hours of Macao’s magic.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Johannesburg to Hong Kong. www.cathaypacific.com/za
Ferries to Macao: High-speed ferries from Hong Kong to Macao run at 15-minute intervals between 7am and midnight. One-way fares from HK$164 (R278).
Money & Costs: You’ll need both the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD1:ZAR1.70) and the Macanese Pataca, although some shops may accept either currency (MOP1:ZAR1.65). In both destinations, expect to pay around R60 for a take-away coffee, and R240 for a main course in an average restaurant.
Visas: South African passport-holders do not require a visa to visit either Hong Kong or Macao.