Macau is also spelled “Macao”, officially known as the Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, is an autonomous territory on the southern coast of the People’s Republic of China. Macau lies on the western side of the Pearl River Delta across from Hong Kong, which is about 64 kilometers to the east, and it is also bordered by Guangdong of Mainland China to the north and the South China Sea to the east and south.
There is a total population of 469,800 in Macau of which 95% are Chinese, the remaining 5% being Portuguese and other westerners. The majority resides on the Macau Peninsular. Both Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages. Cantonese is popular among residents and most people can understand Mandarin. English is also widely used on most occasions, especially in scenic areas.
Being Asia’s well-known gambling Mecca, it is a place to find the traditional Chinese culture while enjoying the exotic Portuguese buildings. The name of the city is derived from the word Magao (A-Ma Temple), which was the shrine dedicated to Mazu, a sacred sea goddess respected by the local people. It was said that in the middle of sixteenth century when the Portuguese first set foot there, one of the officers asked a fisherman the name of the land. The man misunderstanding the officer’s meaning, answered ‘Magao’ – the name of A-Ma Temple in front them. The word became the Portuguese name for the land and for nearly 400 years.
Macau is one of the world’s richest cities, and as of 2013 its GDP per capita by purchasing power parity is higher than that of any country in the world, according to the World Bank. It became the world’s largest gambling center in 2006, with the economy heavily dependent on gambling and tourism, as well as manufacturing.
The majority resides on the Macau Peninsular where you can find a variety of both Oriental and Western cultural and historical places of interest and all sorts of old buildings that are either European baroque or traditional Chinese in style. The blend of people, culture and history has influences on every aspect of life in the city. A wander around the Peninsular will bring you into a world of antiques and fashion, traditional and modern, as well as tranquility and glitz.
Most visitors who have been there conclude that it is a location suited to both tourism and living as it is a beautiful city with clean streets, gardens and picturesque hilly landscapes. Sunshine, clear air, green lands and all sorts of delicious food all contribute to its many attractions.
Historically Macau was home to two small islands which sat just offshore of the mainland: Coloane and Taipa. With recent land reclamation efforts, however, a third island – Cotai – has managed to spring from the swamps and essentially fill in the gap which once existed between Coloane and Taipa. With the construction of Cotai, all three islands have now merged into one, leaving many to debate what exactly the real answer is.
Regardless of how many islands are actually in Macau, what’s important is that each of the three still retains their own identity and offer drastically different experiences for visitors traveling to Macau.
Coloane, the southernmost island, was historically uninhabited save for times it was used as a hideout for local pirates. Development on the island increased after the construction of the 1.3 mile (2.1 kilometer) Estrada do Istmo Causeway in 1969, but Coloane retained a laidback, rural feel; which stands in stark contrast to the fast-pace of the crowded Macau peninsula. Bisected by numerous hiking and mountain-biking trails, Coloane is also home to two of the nicest beaches in Macau: Hac Sa and Cheoc Van. After enjoying a morning jog on the beach or watching the sun rise over the ocean, head down into Coloane village for a walk among the pastel-colored Portuguese houses or to enjoy a coffee at a laidback café or bakery. Frequently referred to as a window into the “old Macau,” Coloane provides visitors a great area to stroll past dilapidated houses and find freshly caught fish hanging out to dry in the breeze.
Taipa, meanwhile, has taken the route of its more populated neighbor and exploded with residential and commercial growth. A modern city of high-rises and apartment complexes, Taipa also hosts a number of Macau’s non-gaming entertainment venues such as the Macau stadium and the Macau Jockey Club Racecourse. Nevertheless, like the neighboring city of Macau, Taipa still offers visitors a historic village pockmarked with various temples, churches and historical sites which have nothing to do with putting it all on red or black.
Finally, Cotai, the reclaimed strip of Earth responsible for joining these two islands, is exploding with the growth which has earned Macau the title of the “Las Vegas of Asia.” Impossibly glitzy and posh as can be, some of the world’s finest casinos can now be found on this former patch of muddy swampland. While familiar names such as Wynn Casino dominate the Cotai Strip, the most famous of them all is undoubtedly the Venetian Macao which currently holds the title as the world’s largest casino.
Some tourist spots in Macau…
Ruins of the Church of St. Paul
One of the most recognizable, dramatic, and popular icons of the city of Macau are the Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. Originally constructed in 1580 by Jesuit priests, the church was twice ravaged by fire in 1595 and 1601. Not to be deterred by the loss, construction resumed in 1602 and ultimately grew into what would be the largest Christian church on the entire Asian continent. As fate would have it, however, disaster met the church once again in 1835 when fire ripped through the soaring cathedral for the third and final time.
While viewing the façade from beneath the ruin is reason enough to pay a visit to St Paul’s, many visitors opt to ascend the steel staircase which runs behind the soaring structure. Already perched on a hill overlooking the city, steel staircase allows visitors to peer out the windows of the second-tier for a framed view of the city of Macau which is unlike any other. Be sure to bring a coin to toss into the second-tier window from the staircase— a classic Macanese tradition for bringing good fortune.
Kun Iam Temple
Considered to be one of Macau’s finest Buddhist temples, Kun Iam Temple is larger and far less crowded than A-Ma Temple, its historic counterpart located closer to the center of town. Though the current buildings date to a restoration performed in 1627, the original temple dates back to the 1400s and is one of only two temples in the city to pre-date the arrival of the Portuguese in Macau.
Dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kun Iam features three main worship halls, one of which is adorned with statues of Sakmayuni and is frequently drenched in a hazy cloud of burning incense. A second hall known as “The Hall of the Three Precious Buddhas” houses three bronze Buddhas and a bell which has hung in this hall for over 300 years. Inside the final hall, separated from the others by a well-manicured courtyard, a statue of Kun Iam is adorned in embroidered silks and a crown which is dutifully changed every year. Surrounding the statue of Kun Iam are 18 Buddhas who serve as her constant companions and contribute to the splendor of what is inarguably the most popular hall in the temple.
A-Ma Temple (Ma Kok Miu)
The oldest temple in Macau and the largest of those dedicated to A-Ma, the A-Ma temple is a secluded respite from the ultra-crowded streets of one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Tucked into the stone mountainside, multiple prayer halls, courtyards and pavilions all interconnect through a series of manicured, meandering walkways. Inside many of the halls the potent aroma of incense emanates from spiraled coils dangling from the ceiling like wiry, oversized beehives. In the upper courtyard temple-goers are treated to a sweeping view of the Macau Peninsula as well as the traditional Chinese architecture of the historic temple. Like many other sites in downtown Macau, the A-Ma Temple is listed as one of the buildings in the UNESCO recognized Historic Center of Macau.
The Macau Tower dominates Macau’s skyline and offers sweeping views of the peninsula for over 1 million visitors per year. Constructed by billionaire casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-Sun, it’s said that on a trip to New Zealand Hung-Sun was so inspired by Auckland’s Sky Tower he began formulating plans for a similar structure to be built at home in Macau. Hung-Sun quickly turned his dreams into reality as construction began on the Macau Tower in 1998 with the opening ceremony taking place only three years later on December 19, 2001—the second anniversary of Macau’s handover from Portuguese rule.
The tower is a shining complex which houses various shops, restaurants and even a movie theater. Visitors without a fear of heights can rapidly ascend the high-speed, glass-fronted lifts to the observation deck on the 58th floor. Views from the 735 foot (224 meter) perch can stretch for 33 miles (53.1 kilometers) with neighboring Hong Kong visible on the clearest of days, and glass-bottomed panels provide visitors with the illusion of walking on thin air. For the ultra-adventurous, head three stories higher to the 61st floor to take part in either the SkyWalk X or AJ Hackett SkyJump, the same death-defying promontory from which New Zealand daredevil AJ Hackett once set the record for world’s tallest bungy jump.