Macau, Taipa and Coloane, China – March 2015

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Taipa, China

From Macau’s casino chaos and smog to Portuguese architecture overlaid with Chinese color, Portuguese food (egg tarts 🙂 ) and the far more peaceful and appealing enclaves of Taipa and Coloane…

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I am pretty much game for being drop-shipped and semi-abandoned in many places in the world to fend for myself whilst Geoff works but never, ever, EVER drop me alone in the middle of 120,000 noisy, excitable mainland Chinese tourists in the largest casino resort in the world.

Whatever lies beyond the gates of hell cannot conceivably be worse than fighting your way through the riotous, chaotic, smoky (allegedly non-smoking) casino floor of The Venetian Macau en route to our room. Geoff was here on business for a few days at a conference and I actually contemplated the pros (numerous) and cons (not so many) of holing up in our rather nice suite (with a view over the mini-golf course which the check-in clerk was enthusiastic to share with us on arrival) and hide until the conference was over and we could fly straight back to Singapore.

During our stay here I witnessed bus after bus load of tour groups streaming in for the day – weaving in long dragon lines behind their guide and mowing down anyone who inadvertently crossed their path. Such was their desperate rush to get to the casino floor they clearly had little or no awareness of the bodies and bags flying in all directions in their wake…

The Venetian Macau is the sister hotel to the Las Vegas Venetian which we also stayed in many years ago. The rooms are reasonably luxurious which was a bonus as the decision to stay put and order in room service for 3 days was far more tempting than wandering out into the 24 hour a day rabble and the general coughing, hacking, sneezing, throat clearing and hawking endemic to this part of the world :-(.

Bearing in mind that The Venetian is one of the most expensive hotels in Macau, we might have expected a certain level of clientele to frequent it (perhaps with the exception of the bus loads of day-trippers arriving in droves to play on the slot machines). The part of the hotel dedicated to conferences run by big businesses in which Geoff was spending his days (without fresh air and natural light) might, one would have imagined, have had the most educated and refined of the guests… Nope… en route to deliver his sermon on risk management and project management best practices, 2 Chinese suits approaching him were busily and enthusiastically clearing their throats and, right in front of him, they leant over a trash can at the side of the corridor and spat vertically side-ways in unison into it… I’m surprised he didn’t pass out on the spot as he’s not well suited to bodily functions at the best of times ;-). Very sophisticated…

The Venetian is 39 stories high, cost around $2.4 billion and is the centerpiece for the seven major hotels on the Cotai Strip in Macau. Unless you are a fervent gambler I cannot think of any earthly reason as to why you would want to come here. It covers 10,500,000 square feet and is the seventh-largest building in the world by floor area. It is the largest casino in the world and the largest single structure hotel building in Asia.

The resort has 3000 suites, 1,200,000 square feet of convention space (I hoped I didn’t need to find Geoff in an emergency – you might think that our cellphones, text or messaging would work in this enormous commercial megalopolis… but… no… nothing worked… that includes the internet which was patchy and sporadic at best) …1,600,000 square feet of retail, 550,000 square feet of casino space – with 3400 slot machines and 800 gambling tables together with a 15,000 seat Cotai Arena for entertainment and sports events… blah… blah… blah… Apparently these are the advertised highlights.

It is, frankly, hell on earth. It has none of the class, style or finesse of the Vegas Venetian which are not words I would normally use in describing a casino resort (as I’m hardly a fan of the Vegas experience either), but this is just so, so, so much worse…

Night and day literally blend into one in these places… no daylight… no air… just a claustrophobic cacophony of chaos and tension – security guards on high alert waiting for something dramatic to happen to make their night (or day..who knows what time it is ? 😉 )… waiting for some disappointed gambler to react badly to losing his game or for an under 21 to try to sneak in…

It is gigantic… an entire terrifying, disorientating indoor “world”… the stuff of science-fiction movies… a world you don’t need to leave for any of your worldly needs (other than a real life). If this is the future we have to look forward to as a race when the earth is so polluted we can no longer breathe outside… or we have moved on to another planet after this one has imploded under the weight of Thailand’s discarded plastic water bottle problem… please just shoot me now… it would be the kindest thing to do :-(.

It is also the worst run hotel we have ever stayed in…

They had us booked in for 2 nights when we actually had a confirmed reservation for 3… then wanted to charge the third night at rack rate ( I don’t think so!!)…

They refused to give Geoff breakfast vouchers to which he was entitled under the conference agreement… and unsurprisingly refused to give me any breakfast vouchers even though the booking was clearly made for 2 people…

Later, they delivered 1 voucher for 1 person for 1 day which Geoff donated to me as he was joining the team for breakfast anyway…

The voucher said in half a dozen different languages (but presumably not Cantonese) that the buffet was between 6.30am and 11am. However, when I arrived at 10am the restaurant was already closed and preparing for lunch 😦 …

I trotted off to the concierge (having no faith left in the check-in staff whatsoever) and she spent 15 minutes of frantic high-pitched squeaking at A.N.Other on the phone (who didn’t seem to understand the basic problem) before she escorted me across the complex to another buffet restaurant whose staff argued for another 5 minutes as they realllllly didn’t want to honor the voucher for the closed restaurant (who knows why as the $$$$$$ is all going into the same coffers at the end of the day). Eventually they relented, just a fraction before I totally lost my temper, and informed me I then had 20 minutes to gannet as much as I could before they closed too…

First world problems I know, but it wasn’t even greatly appealing by the time I settled in anyway… basically a sticky mass-feeding frenzy… pretty much like Vegas really but without the interesting colored donuts 😉 !

And then there was the weather to add to the general misery… at least Vegas has year-round beautiful blue sunny sky – even if it is pushing 110F in the summer.

We were here in Macau’s spring months – reputedly one of the best times of year for good weather… before the hot, muggy, smoggy, oppressive, summer starts.

Day 1 – forecast to be partly cloudy and sunny – I know the sun was up there because I could see it round and glowing, desperately trying to burn through an eery grey haze… if you looked closely enough you could actually see puffy white clouds and pale blue sky on the other side of the haze… never seen anything quite like it… like someone had drawn a grey gauze veil over a sunny blue-sky day… you know it’s up there but it’s not quite there…

Day 2 – forecast to be cloudy – but I know smog when I see it! The gigantic hotels opposite and the glorious view of the mini-golf course have entirely disappeared… I decided I wouldn’t be going out in whatever that haze was anytime soon as I forgot to pack my respirator :-(. By midday the sun was out again (but not at ground level). I could see the puffy clouds way up behind the grey curtain but at ground level it was thick, dark and filthy… yikes… Having little else to do I surfed (slowly 😉 ) a couple of web sites to see whether it was likely to improve… the only honest one I found did at least concede that it was “severely polluted” outside rather than inaccurately and optimistically “foggy” and would remain so for the next few days… :-(.

…2pm… the sun strained through the smog just about enough to tempt me to wander into the hot, muggy streets of nearby Taipa. I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be a long excursion into reality but I surprised myself and actually enjoyed wandering through the backstreets of the old town 😉 :-). It is an interesting mix of east meets west… courtesy of Macau’s roots as a former Portuguese colony which makes the architecture a fascinating blend of European and Chinese… The streets are paved with Portuguese style black and white tiles depicting various images… crabs.. .fish… wavy lines… all quite attractive really. It is also almost spotlessly clean and no-one spat in the streets! Things are looking up :-). Could be, of course, because littering and hawking comes with an equivalent $75 US fine ;-).

…7pm… it no longer mattered whether we could see further than the ends of our respective noses… we weren’t going to breathe in any more of the recycled smoke fumes at the overpriced Venetian restaurants so we left the Cotai Strip and headed to Old Town Macau to check out the Portuguese restaurants and the UNESCO World Heritage protected architecture around Senado Square. Still spotlessly clean but with the benefit of really good European food – it was almost like being back in the Med :-)… aside from the gaudy flashing lights of the glitzy hotels…

…10pm… back at the Venetian we got caught up in the “authentic True Venetian Carnevale experience ”. We were amazed to find 2 rather excellent Chinese singers performing opera songs on the balcony overlooking the entrance to the hotel… as Geoff pointed out… it was the first authentic experience in an entirely fake world ;-).

Day 3 – I decided to carry out a different kind of photographic experiment for once so I photographed the view from our room of the weather outside:

9am – the gigantic hotels opposite on the Cotai Strip have been swallowed up again;
10am – thick, dark smog;
11am – the forecast was saying currently “partly cloudy” …outside there was, if I’m being generous, slightly lighter smog… I could just about see the bottom floors of the hotels opposite and the mini-golf course in all of its splendor;
12pm – the sun is shining way, way up… I saw a glimmer of it… I could just about see the top of the hotels opposite… still not desperate to wander out into it though… ;-);
2pm – forecast “sunny”… I couldn’t see it even way up in the sky and the hotels opposite were slowly disappearing again :-(;
3pm – spoke too soon… the sun came out… if you look really hard at the photo you can see the outline of the clouds and some pale blue at the top of the photo… under the gauzy layer of atmospheric grime;
3.30pm – spoke too soon again!… ghastly AGAIN!… gave up and went back to hide under the duvet ;-).

If anyone is any doubt by now that the future of our planet is totally and utterly doomed unless China does something about its pollution problems, then they aren’t really absorbing this… :-(. N.B. it might look like a freezing cold day in winter in the arctic north but it’s actually hot and humid outside…

How do people live in this? I really want to go home now…

Day 4 – forecast sun – and it WAS vaguely visible :-). Geoff managed to squeeze in a few hours away from work before the flight home so we hot footed it around the hot spots (such as they are in Macau). Away from the grungier parts of town we did locate some areas of peace with a European feel overlaid with the more colorful parts of Chinese life and architecture. Warming to Old Town Macau, a few hours checking out the backstreets around St Lazarus Church, St Paul’s Ruins and Senado Square was diverting, as there was plenty of street life and activity to observe. Still, no time to lose (having to make up for time lost to the smog) we scooted down to the fishing village of Coloane (of Lord Stowe’s Portuguese Egg Tart fame). Naturally, we had to visit the original home of the top purveyor of egg tart in Macau as I’d been sampling the competitions egg tarts for days and it was time to do the ultimate taste test ;-). Lord Stowe won :-).

The fishing village of Coloane would undoubtedly have been our favorite part of the environs of Macau if we had had more than an hour to run around it and absorb the most interesting parts of  back street life and the stilted fishermen’s houses. Not quite as immaculately clean as Old Town Macau (probably because the warning signs about the fines for littering and hawking were more sporadic here) it was at least thoroughly authentic. It appears that some of the residents do seem to need a fairly constant reminder not to spit in public :-(. As soon as we stepped out of the cab in Coloane I knew we would like it for its attractive architecture, narrow winding lanes, beautiful back street houses and potted plant gardens and the attractive square in front of St Francis Xavier Church… all of which was a pleasant relief from the plastic nightmare of The Venetian ;-).

I have no doubt that the countryside of China has its stunningly beautiful parts. What I do doubt, however, is that either of us will be rushing to add any of it to the top of the Gardner travel “bucket list” anytime soon. I think this is probably a great shame because China is a fabulously colorful culture, a photographer’s dream and a fascinating world – an entire cultural universe away from our gilded lives in the west… which is the perfect reason to want to go and experience it…

However, neither of us stopped coughing (and certainly neither of us saw real blue sky or the sun in all its un-muted glory) until we got back to Singapore. Whilst I sincerely hope the awful air quality and pollution hasn’t drifted too far from the big cities to impact the countryside too (certainly our experience of China is only limited to Hong Kong and Macau), I suspect I may be hoping in vain…

I wonder whether we can sign up for tickets on the next space ship out to our future planet yet?…

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