Hong Kong & Macau: Welcome to Chinatown Two cities; so close yet so different

In some ways, Hong Kong and Macau were just as I had always imagined them to be. Hong Kong with its skyscrapers with dirty facades and air cons, streets with neon signs and masses of people moving in all directions, and office buildings lighting up the sky and the harbor area at night. Macau, on the other hand, with its huge casinos but also very Chinese neighborhoods – small apartments, Chinese restaurants, street vendors, and shops – very far from the glitzy world of the casinos. But of course there’s much more to these cities and it was very interesting to explore those two very different places. In Macau you can also find a lot of remnants from the time it was a Portuguese colony (it has only been transferred to China as recently as 1999), something I had no idea of, and that gives the city a very special character and makes it all the more intriguing.

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A cook looking out the kitchen window in Macau’s Taipa village

Hong Kong

We arrived in Hong Kong with some delay. In Vancouver, as soon as we had boarded the plane, two Chinese guys started fighting (over who got the window seat maybe?) and they had to be escorted out of the plane by the police and the airline had to remove their luggage. Yay, we’re going to China.

Hong Kong has this great subway system, the MTR (Mass Transport Railway – “Mass” being the right word here). It’s fast and super efficient, there are trains every few minutes and you can get to virtually anywhere in the city through the numerous and well marked exits at every station. That’s how we sped around the city, always emerging in a different place, looking around puzzled having lost all sense of direction underground, but always surrounded by hundreds of people, pushing us forward in whatever direction.

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A Symphony of Lights, seen from Victoria Harbour

There’s a nightly light show, A Symphony of Lights, at Victoria Harbour, that involves over 40 buildings on both sides of the harbor. It’s really cool to watch. Actually, the show tells a story but the narration is only in Chinese so we concentrated more on the lights and on getting good pictures than on the story.

Victoria Peak we left for next time – we wanted to go up but there was a huge line and we weren’t in the mood for a long wait. But even though we missed that big sight, I think we got a good feel for the city and, thanks to the metro, saw many different parts of it. It’s an interesting place but definitely not a city I’d like to live in.

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Macau

Macau is just an hour by ferry from Hong Kong. There are several companies departing from different terminals, or, if you have some spare cash, you can also take a helicopter. We arrived at the terminal and bought a ticket for the next ferry, not knowing that going through the customs would take quite long (lots of people and some papers to fill out nobody looked at in the end). So after clearing customs we had to run to catch the ferry and barely made in onto the boat before they closed the door and took off. The boat is fast but the ride is not very smooth and it’s crazy cold and loud inside. Best things to bring: a jacket, some good music, and pills against motion sickness.

There isn’t yet a subway in Macau (it’s still under construction) but there’s a considerable amount of buses and bus companies for such a small city. The drivers drive like crazy (they don’t really like to stop to drop off and pick up passengers, I think) but the buses are cheap and can get you to any place in Macau.

Contrary to what we had expected, food is generally cheaper here than in Hong Kong. Talking about food, to be honest, we both weren’t very fond of the food in Macau and Hong Kong… Maybe we’re too picky or not adventurous enough, but I really like to know what I eat and I don’t want to eat just any part of an animal. Seriously, “intestine” doesn’t even sound delicious.

Macau does have excellent bakeries however (though most are of one and the same chain), where you can try all kinds of cookies. But be careful: some cookies taste of fish which is very confusing if you expect something sweet. And they also make super delicious Pasteis de Nata, Portuguese egg tarts. One of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Macau. 😉

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The city is great for strolling around, especially on the western part of the peninsula. You can get wonderfully lost in dimly lit back alleys and narrow streets, find yourself on a Portugese style square and, a few steps further, in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood complete with Chinese bikes, laundry hanging from fenced in balconies and shops selling all kinds of dried animal parts.

This of course is something that shocked me quite a lot. There are snakes in glasses, dried fish, shark fins and fish blatter, and antlers decorated with ribbons in frames. What that stuff is used for? No idea. Medicine perhaps, or food, or for good luck. But in my opinion, these things should not be traded, or bought, and I wonder if some of these “goods” aren’t from endangered animals and/or illegal. I found lots of reports online about illegal animal trade in China, especially in the Guangzhou region close to Macau, but none about Macau itself. But even if it’s legal, it doesn’t make it good. And apparently in Macau, you can eat virtually anything you like.

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Dried fish for sale

Taipa

On Taipa Island there’s Taipa village, a small but lovely quarter of old houses, some restored, some not yet. There are lots of Portuguese restaurants, as well as the omnipresent bakeries and the durian ice cream shops. It’s durian season – you can clearly smell it. Ff you have never smelled durian: you don’t really want to. It’s probably the worst smelling fruit and in many Southeast Asian countries it’s not allowed to bring durian on buses or taxis.

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On Taipa are also the biggest casinos, such as the Venetian, where you have a Venetian canal complete with gondolas, bridges, and Venetian houses (housing shops and a food court, what else), and blue sky dotted with cute little clouds. If you don’t have the money for the casino (or if you just prefer not to lose it there), you can at least go shopping and eating in fake Venice. Two cities for the price of one, what a bargain! Oh, and close by there’s an Eiffel tower as well.

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