The sky is a brilliant blue as I board the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau. The waters look rather placid as I head out to the largest gambling den in Asia, which reportedly earns more in revenue than even Las Vegas. Located across the Pearl River Estuary from Hong Kong, the ferry is an hour-long journey and I lose track of time watching birds fly past the cotton-candy clouds. Macau was never really on my agenda, but the lure of the casinos was too strong to give it a pass.
As I step out to explore the peninsula, it seems lost in a deep stupor. It may be a glamorous pulsating city by night, but now it is just a quiet fishing village that looks lost wearing the garb of an entertainment capital. As I wonder about the dual personality of Macau, an old taxi driver approaches me and offers to show me around old Macau. I agree without batting an eyelid.
A small mural, looking more like a handiwork of an earnest child, welcomes me to Macau as I explore the town’s history and myths. The Goddess of Mercy, Kun Iam, stands in the city, dressed as a Chinese bride. My guide tells me that there is a 13th century temple here dedicated to the deity. However, the temple is renowned for political ties signed between China and the USA – their first-ever treaty was signed here in the 19th century.
I visit another temple that dates to the 15th century, a shrine that gave Macau its name. Built high up on a cliff, the A-Ma temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the seafarers and fishermen, Matsu or Mazu. When the Portuguese landed here, they had no idea that it was a fishing hamlet. Local people told them the place was called ‘MaaGok’ referring to the A-Ma temple and the name remains to date. It is believed to have been derived from the Chinese “A-Ma-Gau” meaning “Bay of A-Ma”, on which the shrine is located.
It is believed to be the first-ever photographed site of Macau and is enlisted among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The temple is spacious with several pavilions and halls and The Hall of Benevolence is one of the earliest structures here. The Gate Pavilion, the Buddhist Pavilion, the Prayer Hall and the Hall of Guanyin form the rest of the shrine. Standing there I soak in the beautiful views of the sea and it is peaceful to sit here and watch the ships go by.
You do not go to Macau looking for a bit of Europe there. But then, old Macau, which was once a Portuguese colony, is rather reminiscent of the early 16th century. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Historic Centre of Macau, includes the imposing Ruins of St Paul. A college and a cathedral were built here in the 16th century and later destroyed by a fire. The imposing façade with intricate carvings is a fusion of Jesuit and Oriental art, such as the sculpture of a woman stepping on a seven-headed hydra described in Chinese as a dragon. One can climb the staircase leading to the top of façade to see more images carved on it. While many tourists still throw coins from the top for luck, several flock to the Senado Square and the Fortress located close by.
The lights are slowly coming on as my guide drives me around the old town. The city-state, as it is often referred to, is a perfect mélange of east and west, a potpourri of tourist attractions and hidden spots. It often transforms from a small fishing village of floating markets into a glitzy entertainment capital with bustling casinos. In the distant horizon is China but my visa does not permit me to go beyond the border. We head back to the city centre, which is now throbbing with nervous tourists who are wooing luck at the casino tables. I enter one of them to try my luck and to explore the other side of Macau.