Comprising the Macao Peninsula, Taipa, Cotai and Coloane, the Macao territory as a whole was formerly a Portuguese colony, the last beacon of European colonial power in the east that was finally ceded to China in 1999. Similar to Hong Kong, it is China’s other Special Administrative Region that is high in population density with well-developed physical infrastructure at its centre that lights up gloriously at night. However, the pace seems slower than the free-wheeling and feisty Hong Kong, yet no less dynamic.
- Macao is a three-hour and a half flight from KLIA2 on AirAsia
- Time is the same as Malaysia, Singapore and Bali
- Population is more than 600,000, whereby most of them live on the Macao Peninsula
- A 150-kilometre bridge that connects Macao to Hong Kong and Zhuhai in China named the Hong Kong- Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is already completed
- In 2017, Macao chalked up 32.6 million tourist arrivals
The Macao economy has been strongly driven by the gaming industry as part of its services sector since the 1960s. Nowadays, the Macao government intends to further diversify its tourism offerings, including source markets, hence my participation in this trip together with other representatives from reputable Malaysian media organisations to encourage Malaysians to visit the territory. The Macao government intends to reduce its high dependence on gaming and withstand the impacts of casino fatigue. Truth be told, Macao now is definitely more than just about casinos, gambling and their consequential vices.
One particular aspect that makes Macao stand out besides the humongous casinos that punctuate its skyline compared to the other Asian cities is its Sino-Portuguese mix that is characterised by ubiquitous bilingual signs (Portuguese and Chinese), airy largos (squares), tiled pavements and walkways, cloistered Chinese temples that emanate smoke and aroma from burned incense, Catholic churches that is now strongly frequented by migrant Filipino devotees, and elegant Mediterranean-influenced architecture that jostle for attention alongside stratified properties and high rises. The Macanese who are of mixed Portuguese descent are fluent in Portuguese as their mother tongue alongside Cantonese since only 7% of Macau population speaks Portuguese. Most would also pick up a third international language like English. To learn more about how this community came about and how life was like when Macao was still under Portuguese rule, travellers are recommended to visit the House Museums on Taipa that displays information and relevant artefacts.
Macao is accessible on foot, so travellers should expect to do a great deal of walking. It is interesting to learn how close everything is in Macao, especially when we rode from Taipa to Coloane (both were formerly separate islands) in a matter of minutes via the Cotai Strip that stitches up both islands. On top of that, there are already three bridges linking the Macao peninsula to Taipa, Cotai Strip and Coloane, making transfers a breeze.
- When you are being processed at the immigration you will be given a small slip to indicate that you have entered Macao – be sure to keep that slip securely so as not to face any difficulty upon departure.
- When exploring Macao’s downtown, it would be quicker to walk rather than driving to get from one place to another because roads in downtown are mostly one way thus require traffic to go one round to get from one place to another.
- Due to its small size, Macao is generally pedestrian-friendly because there are many areas that you can simply cover on foot.
- Though Macao can be visited throughout the year, be sure to check on its current weather since it is also susceptible to mid-year typhoons, albeit rarely.
What to See
To really understand Macao, we need to experience its past to understand its present. To do so, travellers are recommended to follow the Heritage Walk starting from the Senado Square that can be accessed from the bustling and cacophonous Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro (simply known as San Ma Lo among locals). The walk leads you to Macao’s historical landmarks such as the Senado Square (Macao’s urban centre since the times when the Portuguese began ruling over the peninsula); St. Augustine’s Church (established by Spanish Augustinians in 1591); St. Joseph’s Seminary (established in 1728 to serve as the principal base for missionary work in China and Japan); St. Lawrence’s Church (one of the oldest three churches in Macao); Lilau Square, meaning means Mountain Spring, where visitors can still see the spring water sprouting (this is one of the first Portuguese residential quarters in Macao); A Ma Temple or A Ma Gao (existed way before the city of Macao came into being and where the name ‘Macao’ came from); finally culminating at the Ruins of St. Paul (completed in 1640 but destroyed by fire in 1835) where travellers can take countless selfies in front of this iconic façade, which is essentially the remains of the Church of the Mater Dei.
To experience more of Macao’s history, travellers can also consider visiting the charming St. Lazarus Parish (Bairro de San Lazaro), which is adjacent to the St. Miguel Cemetery and a 10-minute jaunt from the Ruins of St. Paul’s Church. Old Portuguese families used to live in this area, which is now preserved by the Macao government because the St. Lazarus Church is part of the World Heritage Sites list. An atmospheric walk can be had by traversing the Avenida de Coronel Mesquita heading towards St. Lazarus Church and the surroundings of St. Lazarus Parish to soak in the neighbourhood’s aged yet elegant colonial feel. St. Lazarus Parish is designated as an up-and-coming cultural quarter (it becomes more evident as it gets livelier in the afternoons and evenings) due to its palpable Sino-Portuguese vibe exuded by the area’s pattern-tiled lanes, Mediterranean-styled homes and the Vasco da Gama Garden.
Another place worth a visit is the Macao Museum of Art (MAM), the place where art lovers will be able to witness artworks produced by local and international artists that significantly contribute towards Macao’s contemporary art movement. MAM has long-standing partnership with the Forbidden City Palace Museum in Beijing, therefore the museum exhibited artworks relating to the world famous Forbidden City in 2017 entitled “Ink Wash of the Forbidden City – Paintings by Charles Chauderlot”. Chauderlot was the first foreigner permitted to enter the restricted area of the Forbidden City from 2002 to 2004 so as to depict its wonder and majesty through paintings that employs Western art techniques using Chinese ink wash and Western drawing papers.
Now is definitely the time to visit Macao for its heritage, culture and the arts.
50 years ago, Taipa was only a fishing village. Nowadays, Taipa is conserved as part of Macao’s heritage. Our guide during the trip, Henrietta, said that Taipa is where many of Macao’s middle and upper classes live, with neighbourhoods that feels newer and more organised. Seems like Taipa, including the Cotai Strip and Coloane to some extent, become the main beneficiaries from the development spillover since the Macao peninsula is already running out of space. Taipa, especially Taipa Village, is where travellers can still find cobble-stoned streets, piazzas and remarkable colonial architecture; the area feels more real, down-to-earth and strong in communality than the Las Vegas-like Cotai Strip.
Travellers to Taipa Village should check out the pastel-coloured and graceful Taipa House Museums comprising former homes of Portuguese high officials built in the 1920s. These House Museums now exhibit items relating to life back when the Portuguese still ruled Macao, which included the neighbouring Taipa and Coloane islands. The interior in one of those edifices also exhibits artefacts and costumes from Portugal’s regions, alluding to Macao’s past as one of Portuguese colonies.
From the museums, travellers then should continue walking towards Old Taipa Village passing by Our Lady of Carmo Church and Carmo Square while heading down the steps heading towards the Direita Carlos Eugenio Road. Once arrived at the road, turn left heading towards the bustling Cunha Street, known as the Food Street, to experience some of Macao’s delicacies like Macanese cookies and ice cream, including Portuguese cuisine, non-halal pastries and meat jerkies. For halal or vegetarian alternative, try the menu from the whimsical and homey Blissful Carrot vegetarian take-away shop, which uses fresh organic ingredients, located right after you turn left from the steps along Direita Carlos Eugenio Road.
Noticeably different than the Macao peninsula, Taipa and Cotai Strip, Coloane (Macao’s southernmost region) is much known for its greenery and serenity. “Coloane is the greenest area of Macao that is quiet, slow and vintage. It is nice to take a stroll along the walkway while having a freshly baked Portuguese Tart, especially in December to February. It used to be just a fishing village and travellers can still spot the village’s port,” explains Yap Hwee Ling, the Manager-Consumer Promotion for the MGTO Representative Office in Malaysia. The inviting atmosphere of Coloane prods travellers to walk around the area, especially around the village square, to take in the atmosphere that made up of quaint shops, restaurants and houses.
Besides serenity, another strong draw is the Macao Giant Panda Pavilion with its distinctive seashell-shaped roof and rock wall. This is where travellers get to witness Macao’s two giant pandas kept in a lush enclosure built upon undulating terrain, closely resembling their habitat. The pandas’ adorable behaviour and antics are gladdening to watch and never cease to excite children.
What to Eat
One of the best places to experience wonderfully satisfying buffet lunch in Macao is Rossio at MGM Macau. This innovative restaurant is well known for its flavourful mix of over 120 marvellous Eastern and Western fare such as the Portuguese Seafood Rice and the Macanese dish called African Chicken, including patisserie and home-made ice cream, especially ginger flavour.
All travellers to Macao must also experience dining at the halal-certified restaurant called The Golden Peacock (tel: +853 8118 9696; e-mail: email@example.com), the only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in Asia, located inside the Venetian Macao. This northern Indian restaurant is definitely a must for all Indian food lovers and epicureans alike – its tandoori chicken tikka and paneer lababdar (cottage cheese with tomato gravy and dry fenugreek powder) are to die for. The buffet lunch is MOP196 + 10% tax per person.
Speaking more about halal or Muslim-friendly dining places, Macao has started to have more facilities to cater the Muslim market. “In 2012, we only have 1 Muslim dining places, and now we have 6! It’s growing fast. On top of that, most of the big hotels are hiring chef from Malaysia (such as Sheraton Grand Hotel and The Venetian). Furthermore, back in Sept 2014, a Muslim seminar was held to educate the industry players what is Halal and the requirement for Muslims. The first improvement that we saw is Sheraton Grand Hotel at Cotai Central provides prayer amenities to Muslim guests,” states Hwee Ling.
When visiting Coloane, do not forget to buy the popular Portuguese egg custard tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery, which is “a marriage between the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata and the English custard tart”, giving this delicacy a gratifyingly rich filling. Interestingly, these egg tarts place Macao on the international culinary map not by a Portuguese but by an Englishman by the name of Andrew Stow who founded the bakery in 1989. Since his passing in 2006, the business continuously remains successful and carried on by his daughter Audrey and sister Eileen. Muslim travellers need to check with the seller or their respective guide whether lard is used in making these egg tarts.
Where to stay
Sofitel Macao at Ponte 16 is a hotel that is upscale, opulent and on-point, only a stone’s throw away to Macao’s old town. Besides being strategically located, the hotel is also a smart choice when being in Macao since it offers services that efficiently meet the demands of both business and leisure travellers. The fact that the hotel is home to the contemporarily stylish Le Chinois Cantonese Restaurant – located at the hotel’s top most floor that afford diners spectacular views of Macao skyline while they savour tantalising Cantonese dishes with French-inspired presentation – is enough reason for us to fall head over heels.
However, budget-conscious travellers can opt for the Project Ponte 16 by 5footway.inn that lies just opposite of Sofitel Macao at Ponte 16, or the Towns Well Hotel located in the heart of Senado Square. Intrepid travellers who seek remarkably local experience can always opt for Airbnb as well, which Hwee Ling considers interesting due to its unique and varied accommodation offerings that meet differing types of budget.
Gaya Travel Magazine extends its heartfelt gratitude to the Macao Government Tourism Office and ISC Innovators Sdn. Bhd. for giving it the opportunity to visit and experience Macao first-hand.
This article is included in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 11.4. Read the magazine for free HERE.