The once-sleepy Portuguese enclave of Macau is now bursting with activities with people looking for fun under the sun, enjoying its food and going on heritage trail, writes Loong Wai Ting

AS my taxi speeds over the causeway from Macau International Airport, the driver constantly steals a glance at his rear view window. Is he trying to check me out?

“Where are you from?” he asks in his accented English.

“Malaysia,” I answer, before flashing him a smile.

We strike up a conversation and share a couple of laughs before Mr Lee, a man in his early 40s, says, “Sometimes I admire your people, being able to speak and understand so many languages. It’s so easy to strike a conversation.”

Well, Macau is not too far behind either. Although the population is less than a million, as I am being told by my guide later, people from different backgrounds and cultures flock to this tiny peninsula, bringing with them their own languages and dialects, for many reasons — work, fun or leisure.

It got even better for the island after the introduction of Sands, a hotel and casino located in Se, in 2006, and later the 600- room MGM Macau the following year. The autonomous region of China, just like Hong Kong, has surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s top gaming spot which the Sin City, as it’s fondly known, had held over the last half century.

The tide is shifting for Macau and the once-sleepy Portuguese enclave is now bursting with activities with people looking for fun under the sun, enjoying its food and going on the heritage trail.

Take, for example, a friendly employee at the hotel where I am staying can speak at least three languages (English, Cantonese and his native language, Tagalog). And it is not surprising if you meet a local who can speak Portuguese fluently. If only I speak Portuguese too, but the only thing that I’m good at being Portuguese, figurativelyspeaking, is chowing down on the famous Pou Tart or Portuguese egg tarts.

As the taxi nears my hotel, located on the other side of the Cotai area, anxietyinducing bright lights assault my sights. The over-stimulating visual feast is what you’ll get everywhere you turn to in Macau.

Big, bright shiny neon lights smile down on almost everyone in the city that never sleeps. Huge signages with the word “casino” are just about everywhere. In fact, there’s one on the upper floor of my hotel. Someone shouts excitedly over at the baccarat table. Must be someone enjoying a winning streak.

Mind you, Macau is the only place in China that allows legal betting. A flourishing industry since the 1800s, under the then- Portugal rule, it has led to a few gambling giants such as the Casino Lisbao, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho.

But are there any non-gambling attractions here? The answer is a definite yes!s The most popular attraction among tourists is the Senado Square, where the ruins of St Paul stands.


EXPLORING MACAU

My Macanese friend Arsher tells me that he used to go to the ruins of St. Paul as a kid and “there was not a single soul around”. Today, you can’t go anywhere without stepping on the shoes of the person in front of you. It’s that crowded.

But I love to go off-course and explore alleyways, away from the crowd. And it’s my luck too when I stumble on a tiny cafe named A Porta Da Arte, owned by two friends. The no-fuss cafe is very inviting. The interior still retains its past glory.

Colourful, symmetrical tiles dot the walls and floor — all done in a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese motifs. Coffee paraphernalia and freshly roasted coffee beans are on sale too. The best part is that the cafe is hidden away from the bustling crowd and busy street, making it a good place to relax and enjoy the finer things in life.

From the cafe, I walk to the Calcada do Tronco Velho (on the other end of the Senado Square), turn right and arrive on a pretty little street known as Happiness Street or Rua da Felicidade. In the past, it was a thriving red light district. Today, the facade of the traditional Chinese buildings remain and some have been restored and turned into cafes and small shops selling local specialties.

Despite its name, Happiness Street is rather quiet on my visit. Some shopkeepers take this opportunity to clean their shops, washing and sweeping. A white-haired man is squatting by his shop as he cleans the pots and pans he uses to prepare the traditional biscuits.

As I pass by, he flashes his toothless grin at me. As it is well into the late afternoon, I decided to stop by a Cha Chan Teng (a Hong Kong-style eatery with hard, wooden chairs and short tables) and order some noodles to satisfy my grumbling tummy. I order the instant noodle with sausage and chicken fillet, a simple and yet delicious staple here, if you want something fast. But as I slurp on my noodle, I appetite crave something else. Out of the corner of my eyes, I “spy” stacks of steamed milk custard lining by the clear shelves near the window. The sweet dessert can be very filling and it reminds me of the ones that I had in Hong Kong previously.

Later, I hop on a taxi to Taipa Village, which seems untouched since its colonial days. A great place for photography enthusiasts and Instagramers. You can easily spend a day wandering the old streets and just take in the energy that the place offers. There are also plenty of colourful murals featuring scenes and food unique to Macau, just waiting for you to discover.

Here, you can also find the famous Lord Stow’s Portuguese Egg Tarts. Created by an Englishman named Andrew Stow, the fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside tarts are inspired by the Pasteis de Nata from Portugal.

You may have seen similar versions in Malaysia and Hong Kong, but Lord Stow’s egg tarts are to die for. It’s simple, with a slightly burnt appearance and, trust me, you won’t mind the long queue. Just opposite Lord Stow is the Pastelaria Fong Kei, which has been running since 1906. This old but charming shop sells traditional biscuits and Chinese pastries that are best to eat with hot tea.

So, there you are. Macau is full of charm if you know where to look. There’s the slower side to this city, the charming art deco buildings, architecture with colourful past and stories, tight alleyways and friendly locals. What’s more, it’s so easy and convenient to travel in Macau.

loongwaiting@nst.com.my


Travel file

HOW TO GET THERE

AirAsia operates direct services between Macau and Kuala Lumpur (14 flights per week), Johor Baru (seven flights), Bangkok (28 flights), Chiang Mai (seven flights), Pattaya (four flights), Jakarta (four flights) and Manila (five flights).

In addition, there are also Fly-Thru services via Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to nearly 40 destinations across Asia Pacific.

For more information, visit www.airasia.com.my.

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