The “Vegas of the East,” as Macau is so capitalistically called, is a hard concept to imagine in a nation bombarded by communist rhetoric and under the stifling grip of a dictatorial regime. Believe it, though, because this Special Administrative Region of the PRC and one-time Portuguese colony is roaring like a fire, with a gambling income that has already eclipsed its American counterpart and enough opulence to fill the most over-the-top Bond movie (the city was actually featured in 2013’s Skyfall).
For most foreign travelers entering Macau, gambling is not likely to be high on the list, especially considering many tables run HK$1,000 (US$128) minimum bets, but there are a few places to throw down on some cheap Texas Hold ‘Em. And while Gonzo Journalism may have never made it to this casino town, Macau still offers its own troop of poets, artists and writers around its colonial southern end. In fact, the rest of the city is the Historic Centre of Macau and, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety, is laid with cobbled streets pinned down with colorful, baroque Portuguese churches, old Chinese temples, green areas and pockets of local artists and museums.
The first Portuguese ships to arrive in Macau – and indeed some of the first European ships to reach China – were commanded by the Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares, who landed in what was then Guangdong Province in 1513. By 1557, the Portuguese had obtained a 500 tael-per-year lease on the area after the Ming government finally gave in to permanent settlements in light of the Portuguese elimination of a longtime pirate scourge. The tiny commune of rudimentary stone houses grew to become Portugal’s center of Asian trade (including trade with China, Japan, and Southeast Asia) by 1680 when the first Portuguese governor was appointed.
Macau stagnated after Britain’s Opium Wars with China established the British colony in Hong Kong. Around 100 years later, Macau faced upheaval as the 1966 riots broke out and the Cultural Revolution seeped into the territory. This so-called “12-3 incident” left six locals dead and more than 200 injured. The Portuguese government formally issued an apology early the next year.
It was around this time, however, that development of the city began to take some big steps forward, as modern gambling magnate Stanley Ho won the rights to the Macau gambling monopoly in 1962. Ho soon brought unprecedented business to the town, rocketing its 26,000 annual tourists of the early 1960s to an astronomical 8.5 million in 1999. By 1974 the Portuguese dictatorship had been overthrown, and with the country’s new anti-colonialist stance and the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, Macau was handed back to China as a Special Administrative Region at the end of 1999, with the city enjoying a similarly high level of autonomy as Hong Kong for 50 years.
Though Cantonese and Portuguese are still the two official languages, it’s rare to find a Portuguese speaker in Macau today. Don’t expect much English either; that is, unless you plan to stay at one of the upscale casinos or hotels. If you’ve got a comfortable amount of Mandarin in your back pocket you should do just fine.
Macau uses the Macanese pataca, represented here by the “MOP$” symbol. Check www.xe.com for the most up-to-date rates.
Whether you salivate like dog at the sight of casinos and all that money being thrown around, or you furrow your brow in utter disgust at their gaudiness and visual vulgarity, a trip to Macau is simply not complete without at least bearing witness to the spectacle of its casinos.
There are two main areas of casinos: Macau Island and the Cotai Strip. Macau Island is where most ferries arrive, certainly because there are more casinos, including the area’s oldest. The majority of the city and its cultural areas are also on Macau Island.
The Cotai Strip is located on a section of recovered land that joins what used to be the two islands of Taipa and Coloane. It is currently being developed as the so-called “Las Vegas Strip of the East.” It already includes the largest and second largest casinos in the world, the Venetian Macao and the Sands Cotai Central (both owned by the Sands group). In development are the MGM China and another Wynn casino (there are also branches of these two casinos on Macau Island).
Minimum bets for mass gaming at Macau casinos averaged HK$1,622 (US$209) in June 2013, according to the Deutsche Bank. The Cotai Strip is more expensive than
Macau Island. There are cheaper options around, but if you plan to do any gambling in Macau you’d better be ready to throw down some cash.
On Macau Island
The big casinos on Macau Island are the Sands, the Wynn, the MGM, the Casino Lisboa and the Grand Lisboa. If you want some lower betting spots, you’ll need to look for the older casinos, most of which have lower minimum bets. At the Fortuna Casino, Waldo, and Casa Real you can find HK$50 buy-ins for black jack, while the Babylon Casino runs HK$30 minimums on roulette and the Emperor Palace Casino sees roulette go down to HK$20. HK$50 on baccarat can be found at quite a few places around town as well.
At new casinos like Sands, the first of the Vegas-style casinos, it can be hard to find a blackjack table for anything less than a HK$200 minimum. Sands has one of the biggest casinos on Macau Island, but others like Wynn are more celebrated for their full resort feel. The Wynn’s atrium includes the Tree of Prosperity, a gaudy, self-indulgant tree with 98,000 24-karat gold leaves that rises out of the floor every seven minutes, basking in a barrage of lights. Out front they have the Wynn Performance Lake, where water fountains dance to music.
Baccarat is the name of the game in Macau. 90% of the city’s gambling revenue comes from baccarat since most of the casinos don’t have poker tables. Wynn and MGM are some of the few major casinos with poker tables. Limit and No Limit Texas Hold’em games can be found in these two casinos, and sometimes Omaha if you’re lucky. Casino Lisboa – which looks like something straight out of Terry Gilliam’s film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – was Stanley Ho’s first flagship casino. The dark lighting and cramped space of its interior is a reminder of Macau’s early, dingier casinos.
When international players came in and put an emphasis on aesthetics, Ho opened the Grand Lisboa across the street from the original Lisboa. Impossible to miss, the 260 m- (853 ft)-tall tower is shaped like a lotus leaf (although it looks kind of like a pineapple from close up) with its round lobby at the base of the leaf.
By the ferry terminal out east you can find the Oceanus, Ho’s attempt to cater to lower and mid-range gamblers with its loads of HK$100 and HK$200 tables.
On the Cotai Strip
The Venetian Macau takes center stage here. With 550,000 sq km (135 million acres) of gaming space, it is the largest casino in the world and one of the top ten largest buildings in the world by floor space, with enough room for nearly 2,000 slot machines and all kinds of games. It mimics the style of the Vegas Venetian, like a Disneyland version of Venice.
Across the street and just a bit smaller is the Sands Cotai Central. About one-third of Sands Cotai’s tables are in the premium market level, meaning HK$2,000 or higher minimum bets. The casino is also the home of an ostentatious100,000 pound (45,359 kg), 37 m- (120 ft)-long chandelier.
Next door to the Venetian is the young and hip City of Dreams, which includes the Hard Rock Hotel resort. The main casino in City of Dreams is decorated to the hilt with flashy lights and modern art, and the Hard Rock casino is decorated with gorgeous female waitresses and dealers.
City of Dreams’s show The House of Dancing Water employs water fountains, props and dancers to create an elaborate Asian-themed show about the “seven emotions” of Confucianism... since Confucianism and gambling decadence fit so perfectly together. The Bubble Show (HK$50), happening every 30 minutes from 11:00 until 20:00, is a family-friendly 3D show about a dragon legend.