10 things to do in Macau — other than gambling

- Millet M. Mananquil () - January 13, 2008 - 12:00am

Many people still think of Macau as the Disneyland for big-time gamblers and playboy tycoons. Surely, gambling king Stanley Ho, who transformed this former Portuguese colony into a world-class tourist destination, wouldn’t mind that at all.

I had this impression myself when I first visited Macau in the 1980s and had a glimpse of only gleaming five-star hotels and brightly-lit casinos with sexy girls and merry music. What a glittering refuge from reality. But no big deal for a non-gambler like me who would rather splurge precious dollars on a Barry Manilow show in Las Vegas than on some silly bandit-machine.

Some four years ago, I began liking Macau when I discovered that this place actually had a soul all its own just waiting to be discovered. I saw places that gave me cheap thrills, as well as lifted my spirits. I vowed to go back someday and rediscover these thrills.

Recently, during a holiday break in Hong Kong, I boarded a fast Turbojet from Hong Kong to Macau and discovered 10 things to do in Macau — other than gambling:

1. Shopping. Discover inexpensive locally-made clothes, T-shirts, jeans and sportswear in the markets around the historic Senado Square. Walk further down past the restored 19th-century shophouses in the former red-light district for some vintage curios. There is a popular flea market near the ruins of St. Paul’s, as well as a night market beside Cinema Alegria on weekends. As if I couldn’t get enough of Zara in Manila, I even went shopping at Zara at the awesome Venetian Macau Hotel.

2. Museum-hopping. For a non-boring view of Macau’s four centuries and its multi-cultural history, the Museum of Macau is a good eye-opener. Certainly not boring is the Grand Prix and Wine Museums where you get a fast view of Formula 3 racing cars, including that of our ill-fated champ Dodjie Laurel. Get happy with wine-sampling too. Kids will enjoy the Maritime Museum that looks like a ship moored near the harbor.

3. Art-watching. Macau’s Museum of Art houses the collections of China Coast paintings by George Chinnery, Auguste Borget and other 19th-century artists, plus calligraphy and ceramic exhibits. Macau’s local artists sell their works at local galleries and temporary exhibits near the Senado Square. My faves are the banyan tree-shaded green-and-white buildings at Taipa Praia, once the location of big Macanese homes. Watch for the ever-changing exhibits of paintings, photos and posters at the Exhibition Gallery.

 4. Temple/church hopping and praying. Yes, praying, because we need comfort and strength from trials that we face daily. Everybody’s favorite is St. Paul’s, which is no longer a church but just a facade which is the now-famous emblem of Macau. The facade is all that remains of the first church of the Jesuits in China, designed by an Italian Jesuit with the help of Japanese Christian workers in the 17th century. I also love the quaint little St. Francis Xavier Chapel which holds a relic bone of the saint. Amid its European-style square are little sidewalk restos where I took an inexpensive but delicious lunch, with the cook letting me choose the ingredients right there. The most picture-pretty temple in Macau is the A-Ma Temple, dedicated to the Taoist Goddess of A-Ma and the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. There are countless other places of worship in this city where, just like the casinos, praying is a 24-hour thing.

5. Eating. Lutong Macau goes beyond the Portuguese bacalhau (codfish) cooked in a hundred ways, and the chourico (sausages) and the famous pasteis de nata (egg tarts). You can also find excellent Chnese, Indian, Malay, African, Italian, French, Brazilian, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Singaporean, Indonesian and Mozambican cuisine here, from cheap little restos to five-star hotels. For true local flavors, perhaps it is best to ask the natives where to eat, just like I did.

6. Sports watching and playing. There’s the Macau Open Golf Tournament (May), Grand Prix (November), Macau International Marathon (December) to watch or join. Or year-round action in greyhound racing, swimming, karting, windsurfing, canoeing, sky jumping, bowling, skating, horse riding, cycling, trekking… whew!

7. Garden-watching. Macau is a good place to stop and smell the roses. There’s the romantic garden of Camoes Grotto, with ancient pagoda trees and winding paths. Here, men walk not with their dogs but with their pet birds in fancy cages and people do their morning exercise rituals. The Casa Garden lines a row of neoclassical mansions once occupied by British traders. Check out the art and sculpture gallery here. You can view the Flora Garden from a cable car, and the garden also has a zoo and aviary. Modern sculptural pieces blend with religious statues in Jardim das Artes (Arts Garden).

8. Taking a coffee or tea break. Whether you’re a Starbucks fan or a traditional Chinese tea drinker, Macau is for you. Macau has good coffee shops around Travessa de S. Domingos and Rua Pedro Jose Lobo and Rua de Nagasaki, according to our guide book. We enjoyed one hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with the famous Portuguese egg tart, of course.

9. Taking a stroll through history. Truth is, Macau is one big museum where historic markers and vintage buildings abound. Stick to the squares for a whiff of history. Take a walk around Senado Square with its wavy-patterned tiles and you go back into the 19th century. Try the Lilau Square (lilau means mountain spring) with its southern Europe character, where it is said, “One who drinks from Lilau never forgets Macau.” At the Saint Augustine Square, one sees the Dom Pedro V Theatre (circa 1860) with its neo-classical facade, and the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library (circa 1894).

10. Hotel and casino hopping. Okay, there’s no escaping these casinos, some so amusingly gaudy and looking, almost like theme parks. My favorite is the awesome Venetian Macau, perhaps the biggest hotel in the world. It is so big that you would need very sturdy feet or, better still, a mini-car to survey its humongous halls and malls. Surprisingly, food in the restos within the casino was sooo affordable. For cheap thrills, I watched the free, non-stop entertainment shows in the casino lounge (as long as you order even one drink). Okay, I confess, I tried a slot machine and won HK$100 and stopped pronto! Shuttle bus service between Venetian Macau and the Star World Hotel (where I stayed) was free, so transport was no problem. At the Star World Hotel (as in many Macau hotels), you can feel the warmth of Filipino hospitality. Yes, Macau loves Filipinos!

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Cebu Pacific flies thrice weekly to Macau. Air Macau-Philippine Airlines flies daily from Clark to Macau. For the most affordable Macau vacation packages, contact Macau Government Tourist Office — Philippines GM Narz Lim or marketing manager Jet Cabuslay atthe 11th floor, Valero Tower, Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati, with telephone 812-2595. Or call Bob Zozobrado, president and GM of IdeaZ, the PR arm of MGTO, at 522-5274.)

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