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We have taken two short trips over the last couple weeks, one to Macau and the other to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I’ll start by telling you about our short trip to Macau.

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China. Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999 when it was handed over to China. It’s a peninsula and an island about 65 km east of Hong Kong. It is within spitting distance of the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province in Mainland China. Macau is renowned as a gambling destination and is known as the “Las Vegas of Asia”.

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Macau is not beautiful. It’s a hodge-podge of over-the-top hotel/casino/theme park/shopping structures and otherwise non-descript architecture. Except for the historic district, I would not go there for the scenery.

You can get to Macau from HK via an easy one-hour ferry ride, with ferries running about every 15 minutes. For some inexplicable reason, the HK and Chinese governments decided to build a bridge over the Pearl River Delta to link HK to Macau, a mega-bizillion dollar project that is wrecking the environment, running bizillions over budget, running years late and is fraught with construction problems – like the artificial island built as a landing point has moved 3.5 metres … but I digress.

We did not go to Macau for the gambling. Rather, we went to explore the lovely historic section of the city. We stayed in a seaside resort south of the main city where Paul could veg by the pool while Ainsleigh and I explored.

Because Macau was a Portuguese colony dating from the 1500s, there is a lot of European architecture that has been very well preserved. It was such a surprise to find myself in a decidedly European environment in China, and an authentic one at that. I don’t know of anywhere else that is such a combination of old Europe and Asia.

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The central plaza of Largo do Senado

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It felt so Mediterranean!

We started in the central plaza of Largo do Senado and wandered off to St. Dominic’s Church where we stumbled upon a recital of eight or so double bass players. Who knew you could find so many double bass players in one place in Macau! From there we went up to the ruins of St. Paul’s, an amazing 17th-century church destroyed by fire in 1835, of which only the façade still stands. The old College of St. Paul nearby was the first western-style university in the Far East.

St. Paul's Church

The lovely St. Dominic’s Church

This is all that remains of St. Paul’s, which must have been magnificent in its day. The steps are filled with selfie-takers.

We continued on to a lovely cluster of diverse buildings including St. Joseph’s Seminary built around 1758, a magnificent colonial house-turned-library that belonged to one of the earliest prominent HK businessmen, Robert Ho Tung (1862 to 1956); St. Augustine’s Church dating from 1591, and the Dom Pedro V Theatre, a lovely 300-seater that was the first Western-style theatre on the Mainland. It was such an unusual combination of buildings all on one small, quiet intersection. At the Don Pedro Theatre we stumbled upon a piano competition. We stayed and listened to a group of kids about 11 years old playing “two contrasting pieces” (I remember that well!). It was very interesting to hear the level of these kids and to see how seriously they took it all. It was funny to come across two student cultural events in the course of one day’s wandering.

From there we walked down to the Mandarin’s House. Built around 1869, it was a housing compound for an important Chinese literary/economics/theoretician figure called Zhen Guanying and his family. It’s big – about 4000m2 with a gatehouse, courtyards, servants’ and masters’ quarters in a fusion of Guangdong and Western architecture. It housed lots of family members for decades until they all scattered in the mid-1900s. The place fell into ruin but the government stepped in about 15 years ago to restore and conserve it. I couldn’t help but wonder how a family could abandon something so beautiful and rare, but there you go.

These were both taken from the Mandarin's House. It's hard to imagine that originally you could see the sea from the window.

It’s hard to imagine from this view in the Mandarin’s House that originally you could see the sea from this window.

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A passageway at the Mandarin’s House

From there we took a long and sometimes lost trek to the Guia Fortress and Lighthouse. It was really hard to find and added a few extra kilometres to our walk. It’s situated on the highest point of Macau and was built in 1622. It’s the oldest western style lighthouse on the China Coast and is still in use.

We then made our way back to the Venetian Hotel and casino where we had to travel through four immense levels of gambling tables to get to the shuttle that took us back to the ferry where our own hotel shuttle awaited. Walking through those gaming floors was a whole experience in itself.

It was interesting to see the contrasts with Hong Kong. HK has a very short history, really only growing from a fishing village into a city around the 1850s. To see Macau’s history going back to the 1500s was impressive, and especially to see how carefully it has been preserved. HK has preserved very little of its built heritage, tearing down the old districts and buildings to make room for mile upon mile of luxury shopping malls, built primarily for Mainland visitors who are now travelling to other world destinations, but I digress again … Another difference was that cars in Macau stop for pedestrian traffic! What a concept, coming from Hong Kong where vehicles rule!

It was a lovely change of scene and very nice get-away. There’s lots to enjoy in Macau that doesn’t involve spending — or losing — any money.

Next time, I’ll post about our visit to the amazing temples of Angkor Wat.