Overwhelmed in Macau

By Foot, Roving, , ,

On the intercity bus from Zhongshan to Macau, I look out the window in horror as a mob ambushes the door. They push and elbow their way on board, looking for all the world like a horde of zombies.

The scene reminds me of one of my coworker’s stories from his own adventures in China. He once saw a railway crossing barrier lower across a two-lane road. Instead of waiting in their own lane, cars on both sides jostled to the front and lined up three across.  When the barrier lifted, no one could move.  Organized lines and personal space are just not part of the culture here.

But I think this too soon, because where the bus drops Frank, Mimi, and I off at the border to Macau, there are lines. Lots of them, and long. We inch along for over an hour. At least I have a book to read, but Frank, who’s from a tiny fishing village in northern China, grows antsy.  He analyzes the speed of every queue and laments over our choice. Then, he notices that no one is in the Express line, dedicated to Macau citizens.

He urges us to cut, but I have the American mentality of respecting lines, drilled in all the way back from lining up for recess in preschool.  I argue that we’re no better than anyone waiting in front of us.

“You’re in China!  No Chinese person ever waits in line,” he reminds me, but I gesture helplessly to the thousands of Chinese citizens waiting around us.  It’s a clash of cultures.

Eventually, we cross over into Macau.  It strikes me just how unprepared we are for this visit. It’s Sunday, our day off from the factory, and we have come to China’s other Special Administrative Region on little more than a whim.

Frank mentions a free hop-on hop-off double-decker tourist bus that sounds ideal.  We even find signs in English reading “Tourist Bus” at the transportation terminal, but they lead to a dead-end and no one we ask knows what we are talking about.

It’s another case of culture shock, one that I come across several more times.  Signs are not to be trusted.

Instead, we catch a cab to the one place in Macau I had heard about: the Ruins of St. Paul’s.  The historic city center is GET-ME-OUT-OF-HERE-RIGHT-NOW crowded.  Macau is the most densely populated region in the world with almost 55,000 residents per square mile, supplemented by the massive influx of weekenders from the mainland and Hong Kong.

We push our way past shops until the granite façade of the mostly destroyed cathedral comes into view.

Macau St Pauls Cathedral Macau Street Macau Cannon Grand Lisboa

From here, we meander up to the old Fortaleza Do Monte, where we sight the Lisboa casino down the barrel of a cannon and pick up some history from the museum. I didn’t know that China technically leased the land to the Portuguese, though Portugal stopped paying.

More wandering.  When we get lost in the maze of streets, a kind old man guides us.  He leads the way at a hobble. We peek into the yellow St Dominic’s Church and have a Portuguese lunch at Boa Mesa.  I eat the surprisingly scrumptious baked codfish in cream while watching a kooky Portuguese children’s show on the television.

In Senado Square, the crowds obscure the black-and-white patterned tile street.  At least we are able to find some quiet side streets to rest our ears.

We head over to some of the casinos, the source of over 50% of Macau’s revenue, surpassing even Las Vegas.  I really, really don’t like casinos.  I don’t like opulence, I don’t like gambling, I don’t like smoking… they’re pretty much a giant combination of things that make me queasy and uncomfortable.

Macau Casino

That said, I can still acknowledge that these casinos are very pretty (in an over-the-top in-your-face spend-your-money-here kind of way).  We catch the musical fountain show before heading into the Wynn, where I spend someone’s discarded $1 HKD ticket in a slot machine. While most places accept both Hong Kong dollars and Macau patacas, the casinos only accept HKD and vendors only give change in patacas. This rigged system leaves us with extra near-useless patacas.

At the gleaming golden Grand Lisboa, we find a hall of intricate mammoth tusk carvings.  But the main attraction is watching the other tourists take selfies with every single one of the display cases.  Eventually, overwhelmed by the collection of luxury stores (I also don’t like shopping), we wait in another long line to catch one of the casino shuttles back to the border.

The awkwardness continues on the bus ride back to Zhongshan.  Before departing, the driver stands up and announces that he’ll have to stop for gas.

Sure enough, midway through the trip the bus pulls into a depot.  The driver tells us to remember the number on the bus as we disembark, then he drives away.  We stand in a huddle in the dark surrounded by hundreds of sleeping buses.  I can only imagine my confusion if I didn’t have Frank and Mimi to translate. The minutes stretch on and I wonder what would happen if the driver never comes back for us.

Fortunately, he does and we retake our seats, only to find ourselves still sitting in them when the rest of the bus empties out.  It turns out this is the last stop, and the bus doesn’t continue to where we started that morning.

Everything about the day seems a little off to me – Macau certainly isn’t what I expected.  I enjoyed the strange blend of European and Asian influences, but the crowds overwhelmed me and the casinos put me off (again, that’s my own personal problem).  It’s a fascinating place, but even though I only saw a small piece of it, I likely won’t choose it on the next day off.


  • Suggested Walking Tours
    We didn’t do any planning, so to avoid falling into the same trap check out these walking tours.
  • Top Portuguese Restaurants
    Even though Portugal handed Macau back over to China in 1999, Portuguese restaurants still speckle the city.  We happened to stumble upon Boa Mesa, but I’ve heard Miramar recommended several times.
  • Casino Guide
    Where to gamble in Macau, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Read more about my China Trip…

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