This former Portuguese colony has been called “Las Vegas of the East.” Now a special administrative region of China, Macau offers something not found legally in the rest of the country: gambling. In 2011, more than 28 million tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and further a field visited the 11 square mile peninsula to try their luck. I recently had an opportunity to see Macau. But what would a teetotaling vegetarian yoga teacher find to do in this peninsular den of vice? Turns out, plenty. From free to expensive, Macau has a surprising number of wholesome activities.
Admire Portuguese architecture
The Portuguese spent almost 500 years in Macau, and it shows. In the old, non-casino parts of the city, examples of the Chinese-Portuguese mash-up lurk around every corner. Tight alleys full of Chinese medicine and snack shops open onto brightly-colored colonial buildings. Catholic churches stand beside Buddhist temples. I loved wandering the streets and seeing what building I’d stumble upon next. If you want a look inside the old buildings, visitors can visit the Taipa Houses Museum. The restored houses are full of furniture, information on Portuguese culture, and Catholic paraphernalia, providing a glimpse of how the wealthy Portuguese lived circa 1930.
Visit the Pawnshop Museum
The pawn business has deep roots in Macau. In fact, gambling and pawn go hand in hand. Tak Seng On, the Virtue and Success Pawnshop, first opened in 1917. It’s now preserved as a museum so visitors can see how pawning was done in the old days. There’s not a lot to see, but it’s worth 20 minutes to walk through the building. Of note are the privacy screen which customers could stand behind so that passers-by would not know they were pawning their valuables, and the storage tower in the back of the shop. Every pawnshop had a tower with small, barred windows. These were built to minimize the effects of humidity on stored items. According to a local, Macau’s rich ladies would pawn their furs in springtime, then reclaim them in the fall. This was cheaper than having to care for their furs during Macau’s humid summers.
Explore your career opportunities at Mount Fortress
The Macau Museum packs many fascinating exhibits into a 17th century fortress built by Jesuits. Visitors learn about Chinese opera, puppetry, the drunken dragon dance tradition, and many other topics. But my favorite was the interactive exhibit where visitors press buttons to learn about some of the lost professions of Macau. At the top of my list was “viper seller.” After looking at all the exhibits, you can go upstairs and admire the views from atop the fortress. People who lost at blackjack will appreciate the old cannons aimed at the Lisboa and other casinos. This is also a popular place to practice tai chi and other martial arts.
Run up Guia Hill
Many locals exercise on Guia Hill, the highest point in Macau. Geared up in shorts and running shoes, they jog and walk, sometimes stopping to exercise on apparatuses that resemble children’s playground equipment. If you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with city views, a close-up look at a fort, a charming old church, and a display of huge metal typhoon warning signals. When the dangerous winds strike Macau, hardy workers hoist these signals, which range from one to ten to indicate severity, from a post atop Guia Hill. If you don’t want to walk up the hill, an extremely short cable car ride will get you there.
Get your fortune told
The word “Macau” comes from the phrase “A-Ma Gau,” or bay of A-Ma, a Taoist goddess. In the early 16th century, her seafaring devotees built a temple to honor her and hopefully protect them. This is still a very lively temple, patronized by both the prayerful and the touristic. It consists of several prayer pavilions, outdoor areas and a small religious trinket shop. Asthmatics should beware of the giant hanging incense coils. In one pavilion, you can have your fortune told. You kneel in front of the altar and gently shake a container of sticks until a single stick works its way out. You trade the stick in for a slip of paper, which is analyzed by a fortune teller. It helps if you speak Cantonese or have a bilingual friend.
Even non-gamblers have to admit that casino complexes have awesome swimming pools. Macau’s casino pools range from the attractive but modest to over-the-top. Perhaps the most notable belongs to the Galaxy Macau, a 550,000 square meter casino resort complex. Atop its biggest casino – which is the size of three football fields – is the world’s largest rooftop wave pool, along with 350 tons of white sand beach. Wave height varies throughout the day, but peaks at 1.5 meters. Guests can borrow surfboards when the waves get big. There’s also a cute kiddie pool for the little ones.
Get scrubbed at a spa
If you like to splurge on spa services, Macau is happy to oblige. Most of the hotels have their own spas, or you can visit a massage parlor. At the high end, the elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel offers a long list of spa treatments. For example, the two-hour Macanese Dragon Experience includes a cinnamon, green tea, and salt foot bath, a body scrub, soaking in a hot tub, and a Chinese lymphatic massage using hands and heated meditation balls. At the other end of the scale are storefronts that offer inexpensive foot massage and reflexology and stay open late.
Sample Macanese delicacies
Macanese food blends the cuisines of Portugal and China. But ingredients also come from Portugal’s other colonies, such as Mozambique and Goa. Seafood and something called African chicken are very popular. But we vegetarians can also sample some Macau favorites. Portuguese egg tarts are a leading dessert, especially those from Lord Stow’s Bakery. I liked the almond cookies which are baked by streetside vendors and sold hot or packaged. They’re small and kind of crumbly. The ones I brought home on the plane are definitely worse for wear, so eat up while you’re in Macau.
See the glove
What glove? The glove. Michael Jackson wore the rhinestone-encrusted white glove in his 1983 video for “Billie Jean,” and now it resides in Macau. You can see it for free in the MJ Gallery at the Ponte 16 Resort. Why Macau? Why not? When I inquired whether the buyer was a really huge Michael Jackson fan or someone trying to strike it rich, a local told me both my theories were true. The glove went to an investor and fan. I hope he’s a big fan, because the gallery was not exactly packed. Still, it’s a fun place for MJ fans or people like me who enjoy offbeat museums. Also on display are MJ action figures, album covers, and a mask from the “Thriller” video. Get ready for the nonstop blaring of hit MJ singles.
Jump off a very tall tower
The 338-meter (that’s 1109 feet) Macau Tower looks out over the Pearl River Delta. I was there on a disappointingly hazy day, but even then the views were impressive. You take an elevator up, up, up, then walk around an observation deck. If looking down from such a height fails to thrill, visitors can participate in several extreme sport options, including bungee jumping. My friend said the falling was awful at first, but the rebound was smooth and painless. When she opened her eyes she really enjoyed the view. I opted for lunch in the sedately revolving restaurant. The buffet is massive, with many vegetarian options and lots of delicious desserts.
Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes about health, fitness, travel, and the arts. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia: A Travel Guide.