Macau is one of the Continents most tourist friendly places

If you want just one word to describe Macau, it is wondrous. After having visited a number of cities in Asia I can safely conclude that Macau is one of the Continent’s most tourist-friendly places. Macau is compact and most of the historical sites and other places of interest are within walking distance of each other. The local people comprising 95% Chinese, 3% Macanese (mixed Portuguese with Chinese or African blood) and the rest Portuguese — all who exude much warmth characteristic of Latin laid-back style and fun-loving temperament. In terms of safety and cleanliness it perhaps ranks just a rung below Singapore where discipline is, efficiently and effectively, state-imposed.
Most foreign visitors enter Macau using Hong Kong as the gateway via an hour long ferry journey (which provides round the clock service) from the Macau Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Central or China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. Alternatively a smaller number fly straight into Macau International Airport. I, however, took the route least traveled. I came in through China’s Zhuhai City after spending a week in Jiangmen City. My three hour-journey from Jiangmen to Zhuhai’s suburb of Gongbei which lies at the door steps of Macau, took me past Zhongshan and Zhuhai districts, which have been enjoying an unprecedented economic boom since the late 1980s.
Gongbei’s main bus terminal, housed in a modern complex, is a mere 150 meters from the Zhuhai-Macau customs-immigration complex separated on the Chinese side by a park. The skyline of Gongbei is now dotted with glass and concrete structures which have mushroomed in recent years. Immigration and customs clearance at both stations was a breeze except that one needs just a little bit more patience standing in front of the yellow line to face the temperature scanner to check for feverish travelers as part of SARS control.
Exiting from the Macau terminal building, I eagerly looked for the Barrier Gate which once served as the Macau entry-exit point. It has been relocated to a park nearby. Memories of my first visit to Macau in late 1977 welled in my mind. In those dark days in China entry to the Middle Kingdom was very much restricted. Like most visitors to Macau those days I peered curiously beyond the pastel-colored portico gate into China. All I saw then was a vast expanse of country-side greenery dotted with vegetable farms. The only people moving between the two territories were Chinese farmers who would be supporting over one of their malnourished shoulders a hardy wooden pole with wicker baskets slung on both ends containing vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. They looked morose and melancholic as China was then still chaotic and anarchic. The Gang of Four had recently been arrested (in October 1976) and Deng Xiao-ping China’s greatest 20th century stabilizing force had not yet ascended to power until a few months later in 1978.
The first thing I did upon stepping out of the terminal building was to ask two young Macau policemen of Chinese origin directions to my place of abode for the next four days. Speaking in Cantonese, the lingua franca of Macau, I ask them to show me the way to Ocean Gardens. To my surprise they could not understand Ocean Gardens in English although it is the place of residence of expatriates and affluent foreigners and locals as it lies prominently at the Taipa end of the 2.5-kilometer Macau-Taipa Bridge. The Ocean Gardens development comprises some 30 over blocks of high-rise luxury condominiums with a regal-looking clubhouse and an office tower sited on a hill overlooking into the city of Macau. They however asked me for its Cantonese name (Hoi Yeong Fah Yeen) or its Portuguese name (Jardins do Oceano).
I soon realized that all the street signs and most of the sign boards are in Chinese script and Portuguese. Hence the next few days I frequently encountered words such as Jardim, Rua, Avenida, Museu, Templo, Igreja, Estrada and Forteleza and soon got to understand what they meant.
Brief Geographical & Historical Facts
Apart from the Peninsula, the Macau Special Administrative Region comprises the islands of Taipa and Coloane in the south. When the Portuguese first occupied Macau, Taipa then consisted of two islands. Eventually, massive silting of the Pearl River (Zhujiang) resulted in one island. Due to the construction of a causeway linking Taipa to Coloane and reclamation of the land along the causeway, Taipa has recently merged with its southern neighbor and the strip of causeway land has become a new region known as Cotai.
At the time of my visit (December 2003) massive construction work was taking place in Cotai. By the year 2005 a 1500-all-suite hotel with casino floors, exhibition and convention center, conference halls, theaters, restaurants, arenas and shopping arcades will be operational. This is the grand show-piece of The Venetian Macau, whose owner, Chairman-cum-CEO Sheldon G Adelson proclaimed Cotai as The Strip (Las Vegas’ most prestigious address) of Macau. In all The Venetian Macau owns eight parcels of land in Cotai of which the 1500-room hotel complex stands on just one. There is a great potential for the casino as there is nearby the newly opened Lotus Bridge which links Cotai to Zhuhai via the Chinese island of Heng Qin.
Land reclamation began a few hundred years ago during Portuguese era. The present land area of Macau has more than double the small enclave ceded by China in 1557 in return for helping the Ming Emperor to repel pirates lurking in the waters along the South China coast. Macau at that time was occupied by Cantonese and Fujian speaking fishermen. Portuguese galleons had been making visits from 1513 after Alfonso de Albuquerque captured Goa in 1510 from the Muslim ruler of Bijapur and overthrew the Malacca Sultanate in 1511. East Timor was next invaded in 1520. Although it was the earliest foreign settlement in China it was the last to be returned to Chinese sovereignty on 20th December 1999, thus finally placating the Chinese’ pride after centuries of suffering indignity and humiliation in the hands of the Europeans and the still much detested Japanese.
and Reclamation Projects & Landmarks
Visitors would see conspicuous signs of land reclamation over at the southern tip of the Macau Peninsula. The Praia Grande Bay has in recent years been impounded to form two man-made lakes, the Sai (Western in Cantonese) Van Lake and the Nam (Southern) Van Lake. Part of recently reclaimed land will form the 6.5-hectare construction site for yet another new casino, Wynn Resorts. The hotel-cum-casino is close to the venerable and iconic Lisboa Hotel which houses Lisboa Casino currently the largest casino in Macau. At night the glittering multi-colored lights from the hotel’s external façade which resembles a multi-tiered wedding cake is a sight to behold.
This casino together with 10 other casinos are owned by STDM (Sociedade de Turismo Diversoes de Macau) whose 40-year old monopoly came to an end in 2002. The majority owner of STDM is Macau’s most prominent and colorful personality, Stanley Ho. Also built on earlier reclaimed land nearby is the snub-nose 38-storey Bank of China Building which while ready in 1991 remained the tallest building standing 163 meters (535 feet). Jutting out into the sea on newly reclaimed land is the 20-meter bronze statue of Kun Iam the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. Some Macau people are critical of the statue as they claimed that she looked more like the Madonna. It was designed by a Portuguese lady artist, Cristina Rocha Leira although its 48-bronze plates were crafted in Nanjing. The statue was inaugurated in 2002 by the President of Portugal Jorge Sampaio. The giant lotus flower pedestal houses the Ecumenical Center which provides information on China’s major religions.
On the plot of reclaimed land between the two lakes stands the 338-meter (1109 feet) Macau Tower, a communications and broadcasting station completed in 2001. It has a revolving restaurant and observation deck at the top as well as entertainment, shopping, conference and convention hall and restaurant facilities. The owner of this new landmark is Stanley Ho. Close by along the narrow strip of reclaimed land linking Barra, the most south-western and oldest settlement of Macau is the 20-meter Gate of Understanding. It takes the form of three interlocking marble fingers pointing into the sky from a circular platform; it symbolizes the Spirit of Macau.
Massive reclamation works had also changed the landscape of the Outer Harbor. The Macau Ferry Terminal & Heliport the first visitor landing point of most Macau-bound travelers was built on reclaimed land. The Reservoir next to it is enclosed by part of the Terminal structure as well as the adjacent Macau Grand Prix Stand. Macau’s Palace Floating Casino next door is also sited on the same plot of reclaimed land and so is another landmark Lotus Flower in Full Bloom, a 3-meter high gold-plated lotus flower monument standing on a concrete platform within a plaza. It was dedicated by the State Council of China to symbolize the everlasting prosperity of Macau. The plaza leads to the Tourism Activities Center which houses the Grand Prix and Wine Museums. Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix, casinos and grey hound racing have been very much the by-word of Macau. The new 4-kilometer Friendship Bridge traverses the Outer Harbor thus providing a link from the northern most part of Macau at Sun Yat Sen Park (separated by the Canal Dos Patos from Zhuhai) and Barrier Gate via Avenida Norte do Hipodromo and Avenida da Ponte da Amizade to the center part of northern Taipa close to the Macau International Airport which was built on a man-made island connected by two bridges to western Taipa.