May 2009


Ruins of St. Paul's Church

Ruins of St. Paul's Church

Macau has a rich history. One hour’s ferry ride west of Hong Kong, it’s a blend of Portuguese and Chinese culture. Under Lisbon’s rule for more than four centuries, it’s dotted with colonial-era buildings and churches, a fort or two, and bilingual blue-tiled street signs with Portuguese names that pay homage to its past, although the number of Lusophones still here is negligible. There are temples, traditional shops and ways of life that merit exploring.

Yeah, maybe we’ll do that one of these days. But right now, let’s go gambling.

About 30 million people came here last year, and it wasn’t mainly for that quaint Portuguese ruined church on the hill. It was to enter the ticky-tacky temples of games of chance that tower over the place, and which generate more gambling revenue than Las Vegas.

The Venetian, Macau

The Venetian, Macau

The most renowned is The Venetian, the sister hotel to the Vegas resort of the same name.  According to Wikipedia, this 40-story behemoth is, at 10,500,000 sq. ft. (980,000 m2), the largest single structure hotel building in Asia and the fourth-largest building in the world by area.

I believe it. We went to check it out after work one day and, well, these pictures can tell more than I can. Although, sadly, you can’t take pictures in the casinos themselves. Anyway, the whole thing is about as faux as faux gets. And if Las Vegas signals the fall into decadence of Western culture, I suppose The Venetian is a big old mile marker of the East’s own voyage down that particular road.

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Welcome to this blog, which I’ve decided to start keeping to keep track of the various things I see on my various travels, which have been very frequent these days. Not that I’m complaining. Jumping on a plane headed to some hitherto unknown region of the world is about my favorite thing ever, well, maybe after chocolate-covered raisins. But it’s a close race. Anyway, I’ve been back in Berlin for a full 11 days. Time to hit the road again.

Even though, I’m not 100% sure I’ve gotten completely over the stress/aggravation from the India assignment, but no matter, duty calls and today I’ve been engaged in the time-honored and, at this point, slightly repetitive exercise of packing the old suitcase.

I know I forgot something...

I know I forgot something...

The ritual becomes easier the more you do it…be sure to throw the three chargers in there somewhere; dispense with the jeans, which don’t really work in Asia’s torrid climes; keep the outer pockets of the suitcase empty, since some baggage handler (I assume) once stole some dirty socks out of them; and then, pull at least two items you’ve already packed out of the thing. Discipline!

Today’s destination, after what will surely be a cramped day and a half on three different flights in economy class, is Macau. Once the jewel in the Portuguese crown, today’s it’s the Vegas of the Orient. Colonized by Lisbon in the 16th century, it is now one of China’s Special Administrative Regions, the other being Hong Kong.

Apparently Macau’s industries include electronics, textiles and toys … but really, it’s all about the slots. The gambling industry is huge there, and three years ago, revenues from it surpassed those in Las Vegas. The crème de la crème of this development is the Venetian Macau, a 10,500,000-square-foot behemouth modeled on The Venetian in Las Vegas. It’s apparently the largest single structure hotel building in Asia and the second-largest building in the world.

The Opulence! The Kitsch! -- maybe some of both

The Opulence! The Kitsch! -- maybe some of both

Haven’t seen it yet, but there are reportedly canals and singing gondoliers and miles and miles of hallways, casinos and surely the best entertainment this side of Saigon.

Beyond the roulette wheels and craps tables, there is supposed to be another side of Macau. Under the shiny Vegasesque sheen is the old Portuguese Macau, with the fortresses, churches and the cuisine of  its former colonial masters. But we’ll see how this more genteel world of the past has fared in the face of hordes of mainland Chinese looking for a jackpot, a hotel buffet and some Wayne Newton-style entertainment.

In the face of the current economic crisis, Macau’s tourist numbers must be down. I’m fine with that, since this city of a little over 500,000 saw more than 30 million visitors last year. That’s a lot of track suits.