You bet there’s more!

By LEE KAR YEAN

Mention Macau, and everyone thinks about gambling. But there is more to this former Portuguese colony than just cards, dice and bets.

Macau conjures up images of gamblers and casinos. It may be difficult to take the gaming component out of Macau but its tourism authority is trying very hard indeed to change the perception that people make a beeline to the city merely to roll the dice.

What else is there to do in Macau besides the obvious? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

One would be impressed by how modern Macau is, dispelling the perception of the uninitiated that Macau is “antiquated” in many ways. Macau is a bustling city with a unique Portuguese-Chinese culture. Although it was built by the Portuguese, the Mediterranean-European designs were given an Oriental slant in the way the buildings were constructed.

Aside from gambling, Macau offers Portuguese egg tarts, and historical (below) and modern draws.

Its churches, forts, statues, parks and monuments have given it a character of its own. The blend of the new and old historical buildings with interesting facade in this former colony of Portugal is enchanting, and the road signs and notice boards are still written in Portuguese.

Besides the 18-hole Caesars golf course, many new buildings, including some five-star international hotels, are still under construction.

“The perception that Macau is only for gambling is what we are trying to change,” Macau Government Tourist Office public relations officer Gigi Lam said.

“Most people who come to the casinos are senior citizens in their 50s and 60s. But we are now targeting those in their 20s and 30s to visit Macau for other tourism products including the historical sites, Macanese food and shopping among other things,” she said,

On the first day we arrived there, Lam took us, a group of Malaysian journalists, to the Macau Tower which offered a bird’s eye view of the famous Pearl River Delta of China’s Guangdong province even though it was a bit misty on the day we touched down. In the observatory, we felt the chill going up and down our spine as we walked on the areas with transparent floor tiles.

The feeling was akin to standing on air and looking down from the 58th floor.

At the tower, tourists may, if they are up to it, do a bunjee jump to the amusement of the lunch crowd at the tower’s revolving restaurant

Macau has many historical sites, the most famous being the iconic Saint Paul’s Cathedral which is now known as the Ruins of St Paul’s. Only the facade remains of this church which was built in the early 17th century. Not only is it a symbol of Macau’s past but it was once the largest Catholic church in Asia. It was destroyed by a fire in 1835.

There is a 66-step stairway leading up to the ruins, and the sight of tourists posing for pictures midway up the stairs is common. A visit to Macau would not be complete without one posing for a picture at this amazing remnant of a once great church. If the facade alone can be an object of much fascination, one can only imagine how much more magnificent the church would have been today had it remained intact.

Just a stone’s throw away is another historic centre — Senado Square. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the more popular pedestrian malls in the city.

The neo-classical architecture and the cobbled streets lend an air of nostalgia to this shopping district.

Here, tourists can find apparel, cosmetics, jewellery and souvenirs. Unlike London, bargaining is allowed here and a tourist can still buy two decent T-shirts with the Ruins of St Paul printed on them for 50 Macau Patacas (about RM30).

Besides churches, there are also ancient temples in Macau. The oldest religious structure is the A-Ma Temple which was built before the city was established.

If you are one for luxury boutiques, you’ll be happy to know that the Grand Canal Shoppes has 330 of them all housed at the Venetian Macao-Resort Hotel. The ceilings of the malls are painted with blue skies and clouds.

For museum lovers, the Mandarin House or Casa Do Mandarin is a must-visit. Built in 1869, it was the ancestral home to Zheng Guanying (1842-1921), who wrote the acclaimed book Words of Warning in Times of Prosperity.

Zheng was a native of Xiangshan county in Guangdong province and his family lived in Macau for generations. The building has the essential characteristics of a traditional Guangdong residence.

At the Taipa Houses Museum, imposing green Macanese houses in colonial style await visitors. They were built in 1921 and had been the residences of high-ranking civil servants.

The houses line the Taipa Praia waterfront and is a favourite spot for wedding shoots.

The rich culture and heritage of China can be glimpsed at the Handover Gifts Museum of Macau. Housing gifts peculiar to each Chinese province, it marks the city’s return to China.

Each of the special gifts was designed to showcase the respective province’s artistry. Macau, which was founded in 1557, is now a special administrative region within China. The Chinese government recognises the city’s special social and economic system for 50 years from the date of hand over, Dec 20, 1999.

If Macau looks impressive by day, the scene is even more breathtaking after sunset. The fisherman’s wharf is awash with decorative lights. The buildings here are a collection of European and Latin-styled architecture. The bright neon lights at the City of Dreams, an integrated resort featuring world famous hotels, are reminiscent of Las Vegas.

Macau’s past status as an outpost of European settlement and commerce in China and its air of isolation gives it a special historical identity.

Fishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guandong were among the first settlers in Macau when it was known as Ou Mun or “trading gate” due to its location at the mouth of the Pearl River. The Portuguese reached Ou Mun in the 1550s and changed its name to Macau.

It was the gateway to the East for Western traders mainly from Portugal, England and other parts of Europe.

With the influx of different cultures, religions and traditions, Macau has acquired an eclectic mix of East and West, old and new. If colourful history, heritage sites, colonial buildings and mouth-watering Macanese food are what you would like to reward yourself with after toiling relentlessly at work, then book a “walk back in time” to Macau.

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