02 August, 2008


and now to spoil the mood. in keeping with my craze of adding more stamps to our passports, Jill and i decided to leave the relative haven of Hong Kong for a day trip across the Pearl River delta. i had been warned not to go, but that stamp was just itching to be had, the guidebook had made our destination look wonderful, and even the mode of transport to get there would be fun. so what if Macau was known to be a seedy vice den? we weren't going to the casinos.

the famed, if not drab, Casino Lisboa anchors a whole strip full of such seedy joints, which bear resemblance to their Las Vegas counterparts only in gaudiness.  apparently several of the Vegas magnates have opened rather plush hotels in Macau since we were there, but back in July 2005 this was as good as it got.  and i wasn't even allowed in--because i was wearing shorts!  below, our transit to the former Portuguese colony came in the form of this Boeing 929 jetfoil boat; yes, it really is made by the aeroplane people, and yes, it really is powered by a jet engine.

though we had wanted to take a helicopter, we opted for a jetfoil  boat because it was considerably cheaper, and while in some ways i still wish we had shelled out some extra bucks for a scenic flight, i wasn't disappointed by the boat.  when they were finally able to crank up the jet engine as we reached the edge of Victoria Harbor, the giant ferry rose up on its foils and cut so smoothly through the still choppy waters we might as well have been flying.  it was a beautiful sunny day and that whole stretch of the South China Sea was bustling with craft of all kinds going to and fro everywhere.  it was awesome to see how fast we passed other jetfoils coming back from Macao, and the whole journey took only 45 minutes one way to cover more than 40 ocean miles.

the only problem with all this, as it turned out, was our tickets.  to save a few Hong Kong dollars and to ensure that we'd be back to Kowloon the same day, we had bought and booked seats for our return journey at the same time we booked them for the outbound leg.  which would have been fine, if we had ended up needing a whole day to see Macau, as we had thought we reasonably might.  so it was a little distressing when we discovered that we still had six hours to kill before our trip back when we had seen everything--literally, everything--that we were interested in seeing on that hot, dirty peninsula.

some of the few worthwhile sights of Macau, clockwise from top left: the centerpiece fountain of the Largo do Senado (Senate Square) plays in the sun in front of the arcaded front of one of the Portuguese colonial buildings; Jill stands in front of the facade of the church of São Paulo, the last remainder of that edifice; the tiled sign set in the wall of a corner building demarcates the beginning of the Largo de São Domingos, or St Dominic's Square; a line of pedicabs in front of the Casino Lisboa; and Jill in front of the Igreja São Domingos, the interior of which forms the backdrop for this collection of pictures.  below, the hilltop lighthouse at the Guia Fortress rises above the whole Macanese enclave.

there are some good sights to see.  the two churches, of São Domingos and São Paulo, are rather impressive, the former set on a pleasant square that is surrounded by colonial buildings and floored with black and white cobblestones arranged in gentle waves, and the latter set on a plaza that is surrounded pretty much by obnoxious Chinese tourists.  Fortaleza Guia, or the Guia Fortress, sitting atop a central hill is almost worth the phenomenally sweaty trek to the top, if not for the smog-ridden view then at least for the cannon riding opportunities (see below).  built in 1638 atop Macau's highest point, the fort was joined by an upstart young lighthouse in 1865 that still functions with a light visible for over 20 miles in clear conditions, which i take to mean under 20 yards in normal conditions.

the view from the Guia Fortress looking approximately southwest-ish, and below, the occasional special view at the Guia Fortress, where the ghost of an ancient warrior rides his surdy cannon into battle... or something.

a word here about guidebooks.  i suppose it's the job of pretty much any such work to make its subject seem appealing, and the types of folks who are apt to write such books are bound to be lovers of travel.  however, i can't help feeling that the folks who wrote the book we used on this trip were either a little punch drunk on, or at least blinded somewhat by that love.  having been reliving this excursion through writing this post, i have felt a little softened toward Macau due to the pictures of the good bits.  but really, i don't think i could ever recommend Macau as a destination to anyone, as much as i love seeing new places and as much as i wanted to like this one in spite of the warning i had received about it.  i could happily live in Singapore or Hong Kong, but i'd be severely aggravated at having to spend just another hour in Macau.  incidentally, we used a Rough Guide to Hong Kong and Macau, while we had a Fodor's book that covered all the other countries we visited on the Southeast Asia trip.  it's not that the Rough Guide is bad, indeed, we started off the Japan trip with another of those, but its authors were a little effusive about some of the features we found most dubious in Macau; in any case, we used the Lonely Planet books for our Taiwan travel and have pretty much got used to them on our trips since, so that's what we usually recommend.

anyway, i'm not expecting anyone to try to make me live in Macau, but then again, i wasn't expecting my first foray there to be so awful, so who knows. we tried to salvage the trip by searching for the highly recommended junk boats that take you on a ride around Macau and under the bridge that connects it to the other two islands of the colony, Taipa and Coloane. unfortunately, we couldn't find any such dock as was mentioned in our book, and nobody seemed to know what we were talking about, so we called the whole thing a big bust and headed back to the jetfoil terminal to see if there was any way to get out of there on a much earlier boat than the one we were booked on. oddly, in a perversion that may have actually made our trip for us, the demand to get to Macau by jetfoil was a lot higher than demand to leave the awful place, so we got onto the next boat with no problems at all. and after just five hours in town we settled back into our plush seats for the comfy, quick ride back to civilized, blessed Hong Kong.