I just got back from a 3-day, 2-night trip to Macau, not unexpectedly, as a slightly poorer man.
Since returning, many people has asked me whether it is a trip worth taking, and also how it compares with Las Vegas. Well, here are my thoughts.
Was it worthwhile?
Macau is definitely worth visiting for a couple of days if you are around Asia or you like to try your luck. I had been to Macau once before as a young child and I can’t remember much of it, but I’ve been told that the place has changed so much that I wouldn’t have recognised anything anyway. Actually, back then there was only one casino there, Casino Lisboa, and I was too young to get in. The only thing I recall was that there were heaps of pawn shops all over the place, and there were plenty of people heading in and out with their belongings, trying to exchange some money to win back all they had lost. It was incredibly sad.
These days, there’s already a plethora of casinos in Macau, with many more still in development, though I hear some have halted building due to the global financial crisis. The most famous ones are of course the Venetian (where we stayed), the MGM Grand, the Wynn, the Sands, the Crown, and the new Grand Lisboa.
Unlike Vegas, most of the casinos are not located along one long strip. The casinos in Macau are spread out (but keep in mind that it is a very small place), with the main casinos either in the downtown area on Macau Peninsula, or along the Cotai strip (which is where the newer casinos are being built). Most hotels/casinos have free air-conditioned shuttle buses that can get you to most of the other casinos, and some of the casinos probably have enough to eat, see and do (mostly shopping) that you don’t even have to leave the complex at all during your stay.
If you do go casino hopping, make sure you check out the Grand Lisboa. The exterior has a highly unique design, with the building looking like a blooming flower from afar, but with sharp protruding edges pointing at their rival casinos. I hear that many grand Feng Shui masters were hired in its development. The lobby is also worth a stroll as it displays many near-priceless treasures. The one that stood out in my mind (apart from the many amazing sculptures) is The Star of Stanley Ho, a freaking 218.08 carat, D-colour, internally flawless diamond. It’s right there, in the front lobby, next to a GIA certificate as proof. Many gamblers make the trek just to see the diamond, hoping it will give them a bit of luck, without realising that it was most probably their hard-earned money that funded its purchase!
However, it would be a big mistake to not venture out of the casinos to take a look around. Macau is a deeply fascinating place with its unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese heritage, and there are plenty of attractions which reflect both cultures. While the casinos may be worthwhile attractions in themselves, those who like to do a bit more than just gamble should take their time to visit some of the old districts, churches and monuments that still hold a lot of history, and the old streets with houses that still have their exteriors preserved by law. It should also be noted that much of the land in Macau is man-made. We were fortunate to have a (non-blood) relative who grew up in Macau to show us around and tell us the stories behind the things we saw.
Oh, and don’t forget about the food! The food in Macau is simply divine, whether you are looking for Chinese or Portuguese delights, and there’s plenty of fresh seafood to be tried at very reasonable prices. Of course, there is also the ubiquitous Koi Kei Bakery that seems to be around every street corner selling food ‘souvenirs’, such as biscuits, cakes and egg tarts. And when it comes to Portuguese egg tarts, one cannot go to Macau without trying some. The best is at Margaret’s Cafe e Nata on Macau Peninsula, just around the block from the Grand Lisboa. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t have them!
Macau vs Vegas
Honestly, apart from the gambling, the two places are extremely different. Vegas is more of a spectacle, with the desert setting, the Grand Canyon nearby and the clusters of bright neon lights along the strip full of 5-star hotels and top class casinos. Many people do go there for the gambling, but plenty of others go there just for the experience. You didn’t need to gamble a single cent to enjoy yourself. Macau didn’t give me that feeling – the casinos were there for strictly for the gamblers and shoppers, and if you wanted to be a tourist, you needed to get out and about. But if you do happen to leave the casinos, there’s a lot more to see in Macau, with worthy attractions scattered all around the various islands.
I don’t know if this will change in the future, but compared to Vegas, there were very few shows playing in Macau. We watched Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Zaia’ at the Venetian, but that was the only show that was being heavily advertised. There was the odd Asian superstar concert being promoted but none played whilst we were there. When we were in Vegas, we watched a different show almost every night, and each session was jam packed. ‘Zaia’ at the Macau Venetian, on a Thursday night, was only half full at best. I suppose people there would rather spend their money on the tables than on shows!
Cost and service in Macau are also different. Food is generally cheaper (and better!), especially if you leave the casinos, and people don’t expect a tip. I remember in Vegas there was a dude waving in the taxis at the Bellagio (which would have come in anyway) and getting tipped handsomely for doing virtually nothing. There are no such expenses in Macau. On the other hand, the service standard in Macau is waaaaaay lower than in Vegas. Many of the service people (even in the hotels) are from mainland China and are not properly trained. In fact, they can be downright rude at times. But if you know what to expect then it won’t catch you off guard as much.
The quality of the patrons in both Vegas and Macau are varied, but it bothered me a lot more in Macau. Due to its proximity to the rest of Asia, many people come to the casinos for day trips and don’t stay at the hotels. People bitten by the gambling bug. The majority of people you’ll see are probably from mainland China, and some of them don’t like to follow the rules. The thing that bothered me the most was the constant smoking in non-smoking areas. We had to change hotel rooms a couple of times because of the overbearing cigarette smell in the non-smoking rooms. The non-smoking elevators are also almost always smoke-filled. There’s also clearly a massive phlegm problem there. Unfortunately, the beautiful canals at the Venetian are constantly spat in, and 2 out of 3 people have a penchant for generating phlegm in public places where they aren’t allowed to spit it out (like in buses and coaches). Also don’t be surprised to be woken up by loud chatter in the hotel corridors at weird hours of the night or to see people wandering around in their underwear. We were and we did. It’s a shame because Macau is really an extremely classy place.
Transport in Macau can also be frustrating. Even though it’s a very small place, it can take ages to go from one place to another because of the way the roads are designed. I think it’s a deliberate ploy to maximise revenue for taxi drivers. There’s a lot of U-turns and one-ways and roads and bridges that go round and round in circles. Walking may actually be a quicker (and cheaper) option sometimes.
Lastly, I don’t know if the global financial crisis has had a significant impact, but when I was there, the casinos in Macau were not particularly crowded, day or night. It was not until the Friday (when I left) that the crowds started picking up. I wonder if Vegas has been suffering the same fate.