compared to vegas in the west, Macau offers sinful indulgences on one hand while romancing its rich cultural trail on the other
Called the Las Vegas of the East, Macau’s reputation as a gambler’s paradise is well founded. Casinos, greyhound races, sports betting and lotteries give the well-heeled and the modest working population their dose of adrenaline rush and entertainment. Amid well-lit casinos, neon facades and art havens for hotels, the point most travellers miss is that Macau is seeped in a rich cultural past. This past draws heavily from former colonists, Portuguese and makes its presence felt in everyday Macanese life. On my second visit to the Chinese Special Administrative Region, I discovered Macau with a fresher perspective — on foot.
The heritage walk organised by the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) under the expert guidance of Alorinho Noruega is a must-do for any traveller willing to give the casinos screaming for attention, a miss for roughly four hours. We started the tour with our friendly driver Gilbert dropping us off a few metres away from the A Ma Temple.
Portuguese mosaic set in a wavy pattern, indicating the flow of a river that existed eons ago at Barra Square, is the first you notice before entering A Ma Temple. Two stone lions (now fallen into ruin) stand guard at the entrance. Legend has it that they held rolling stone balls in their mouths which devotees touched before entering the temple. Sadly, one of those has fallen prey to thieves and the other doesn’t roll anymore.
The fragrance of incense wafts through the temple, which embodies cultural inspiration from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism among others. The stone staircases and upturned roof ridges indicate the history of A Ma as the oldest building in Macau. Do read up on the history of the temple to fully appreciate its existence. Walking through narrow streets lined with cobblestones, our next destination was the Moorish Barracks that was being renovated. Scaffolding covered the beauty of this marvellous building with Mughal architectural influences.
A few steps away is Lilau Square, under the shade of a huge tree, that serves as a gathering spot for locals. Surrounded by beautiful yellow and green homes with white wooden windows, Lilau Square houses the fountain, a remnant of the natural spring that once existed here. Alorinho said if you drank from the fountain, chances are you’d return to Macau soon. No wonder I found myself there a second time.
As you walk along the narrow stretches punctuated by little shops selling street food and other knick-knacks, the beautiful wrought iron poles for road signs must not be missed. The appealing yellow-white St Lawrence Church lies in a former wealthy neighbourhood, thus speaking volumes of its prominent baroque façade and neo-classical interiors. The manicured garden around the church serves as an apt spot for seniors to practise the ancient martial art of Tai Chi. A few metres ahead is the cobblestone pavement of St Augustine’s Square that brings together other monuments like St Joseph’s Seminary and Church, Dom Pedro V Theatre, and Sir Robert Ho Tung Library. St. Joseph Church is a beautiful house of prayer, which is home to the relic of the first missionary to East Asia.
The imposing white pillars that support the western-style green Dom Pedro V Theatre are marvellous. Not fitting in a camera frame despite tedious kneeling, stretching and spraining of the neck, is proof of the theatre’s magnanimity. Inside, squeaky clean wooden flooring, white walls and a huge space welcome you. What was once the centre of social banter for the Macanese (Chinese and Portuguese) at private gatherings is now home to art exhibitions and cultural celebrations like concerts and plays.
Once you’re done admiring the beauty of these heritage structures, another one awaits after a small left turn. The Leal Senado Building — Macau’s municipal chamber — is built in a distinct European style, and houses a carved library on its first floor. Across the road is the famed Senado Square with its distinctly prominent black and white cobblestones in a wavy pattern and lined by pastel-coloured buildings on either side. The area is abuzz with people shopping or taking a walk, thus giving a traveller a sense of the culture and lifestyle of the locals. Larger-than-life decoration for Christmas or the Chinese New Year at the square is a sight to behold if you’re visiting during those times of the year.
A few steps away is the Ruins of St. Paul — remains of what used to be the Church of Mater Dei. Bustling with tourists and locals alike, the ruins serve as a meeting point and symbolically as an altar to the city. If you’re lucky, you can witness public events and cultural performances (or even a typical Chinese wedding photo shoot) on the adjacent Company of Jesus Square. From here on you can easily get lost in the bylanes of the marketplace, sampling almond cookies, egg waffles, egg tarts and treated meat. There’s so much more than just hotels and casinos in Macau. It’d be wise to take a guide along who can give you an enriching insight into the Macau of yore even as it stands on the threshold of newer, bigger, glitzier hotels collectively vying to reach astronomical heights of room inventory.