Sunday, November 29, 2009

Honeymoon: More of Macau's Opulence

The Venetian Hotel complex is one of the most famous landmarks in Las Vegas. Its counterpart in Macau is perhaps less well known, but after recent developments is now larger and more impressive. It is now the largest hotel in Asia and the fourth largest building in the world by area, with floor space covering 980 square kilometres.

You don't get a real feeling for its scope until you start walking around inside. Every inch is covered in marble or renaissance artwork, and it's very easy to feel a little disoriented. It's like walking into the enormous palace of a middle-eastern oil baron.

Or so I would imagine.

There are multiple bus stations that serve the complex, and 250 elevators inside. Weaving in and around the hotel is an artificial canal with gondola rides.

Some of the interior seems like it came straight from a story book. What would really be impressive though, is if the Venetian were a public library instead of a casino.

There are 3400 slot machines in the Venetian. In South Australia, the most profitable machines can make AU$100,000 profit per year for the owners. So when you do the math, you get an idea of the kind of money that's going through this place.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that food should be cheaper with so much gambling revenue floating around. But food for the common folk in Macau is around the same price as Hong Kong, but generally not as good. It's all edible, but there just seemed to be a lack of creativity and passion in the dishes. I normally get excited by buffets, but this one was a bit of a non-event. Boiled sausages are not really a dish in their own right.

If anybody can read Chinese, I'd be interested to know what 'staves' are. This sign was near a stairwell.

In between wandering the casino halls, we did try to get out and see more of regular Macau. The suburbs are nice enough and the public buses are fairly easy to use. Interestingly, they use an honour system of payment, where you get on the bus and drop the bus fare into a large box. The bus driver is never watching how much you are paying.

And here's Heather on the brink of devouring 3200 calories. These days we don't really watch what we eat, but I've heard that once you hit middle age, your weight starts catching up with you.

Best to enjoy one's youthful metabolism while it lasts.

These are apartment blocks of workers in Macau. The city employs thousands of migrant workers, normally from South East Asia, to build the casinos and attend to the guests. From what I've heard, the working conditions for many of the workers are not that good. What they need here is some kind of modern day Robin Hood.

It's on my to-do list.

Then, somewhat unbefittingly, we headed back to the City of Dreams. The complex consists of a Hard Rock Casino, a Hyatt, a Crown Casino and a few other thingies.

The large glass ball behind Heather is an advertisement for the 'Bubble Show', which occurs every thirty minutes inside the complex. You need to go to the second floor to get a ticket, but its completely free.

The Bubble Show is in a large indoor dome, similar to a planetarium. It has roof sections that open, and large dangly things can pop in and out. Technically speaking.

In the middle was this huge UFO-like device. The water is sprayed downwards with computer precision to form special patterns in the light.

And the whole dome is one huge projector screen, able to plunge the audience into whatever environment the CG gods deem appropriate.

There was a loose storyline about a jade dragon deep beneath the ocean. And the dragon had a bubble that did something. And a whole bunch of epic things happened right where the casino was later built. So that's why this particular casino is more exciting than the other ones, where no such epic dragon battles occurred.

Parts of Macau are like a fantasy land. It's hard not to be awestruck by the sheer scale of everything, but I did sense undertones of greed and exploitation lurking behind the velvet carpets and marble walls. It's a nice place to visit, but somehow I wish things were a little different here.

Anyway, now we have one more Macau post to go, and then we're off to good old Adelaide!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Honeymoon: The L'Arc New World Hotel

If I had to choose between really hot weather or really cold weather, I'd probably choose the former. The main reason being that it's nice to hang out in the street under the shade of a tree. Luckily for us though, Korea has four seasons, as every Korean will tell you.

Just like everywhere else outside the tropics.

The weather in Macau is pretty warm all year round. There are a lot of gathering places like these, where the locals come to sit and talk to each other. It's funny how a location's weather can influence the demeanour of the people. Most Australians from Darwin that I've met are slow-moving and very relaxed, which I think is in part due to the humid weather all year.

Luckily our hotel had a pool that was completely empty. Most of the patrons were busy gambling.

Then it was time to go back to the L'Arc Hotel, which you may remember was recently opened by Peter Ng from Adelaide. The L'Arc is probably a billion dollar venture, complete with hundreds of rooms and a large casino. Peter had told me he was opening a new place in Macau, but when we found it, we were a little awestruck. Those statues are complemented by giant bronze horses on the outdoor suite level.

In the lobby was this large floral arrangement. All the flowers in the hotel are alive, which I confirmed by curious inspection. There's a lot of money flowing around in Macau, and the L'Arc stands out as one of the more opulent hotels.

We had a free dinner at the L'Arc buffet restaurant. I never like to ask old colleagues for freebies, but I'll take a free dinner anytime. Especially when I have a hungry newly-wed nibbling my sleeve.

And of course the buffet had everything you would imagine at a place like that. The plump chef on the right made an excellent laksa. Better than mine, and I've made hundreds. Laksas are easy to make well, but hard to make perfect.

I have a feeling that they'd be really popular in Korea, if you marketed them to students.

Here's Heather, enjoying some desserts. Peter came and ate with us, but he was a busy man and had to leave quickly. He offered us a free stay at the L'Arc, but we politely declined.

I told him he has a nice hotel.

Then Ron took us around with his magic key and let us look in the presidential suite. Ron is our old friend from Busan and was working with Peter there as well. Now he's the director of rooms at the L'Arc, and always has interesting inside stories about hotels. He's also very good at pointing out minor blemishes on things like marble and carpet, which normal people can only see after staring long and hard.

The presidential suite at the L'Arc has multiple bathrooms, a separate kitchen and entrance for the butler, and flat screen TVs that can be summoned from motorized cabinets. As you can imagine, it costs an arm and a leg to stay here. The price wasn't finalized when we were there, but you're looking at around US$20,000.
Per night.

And look, it's me and Heather in there. If I taught English at CDI again for a year and didn't spend anything, I could pay for one night.

And here's our good friend Ron. He's a fun person to know in this part of the world.

Peter gave us a nice bottle of wine that night. If you're heading to Macau and you have money to spend, try heading for the L'Arc hotel. There's good hospitality there.

Then we went out to the MGM Grand. The L'Arc is the biggest hotel in Macau with around 2000 staff, but there are still places with bigger casinos, like the MGM Grand, Wynn's and The Venetian.

This is the back entrance to the MGM Grand. It's like they've created a fantasy Disneyland in most of these places. The reason they do this is for psychological purposes, it helps to get people spending more money. But don't let that stop you admiring the pretty lights.

It's pretty hard to remain unfazed by all of the extravagance in Macau, but Heather did a pretty good job. That's why she's the right one for me.

This is the reception desk. I guess they ran out of money and got kindergarten kids to put the finishing touches on the wallpaper.

Hey look, they even made a statue of my wife.

And if you arrive by car, this is what the valet reception looks like. More like a spaceport than a hotel. If you're tempted to gamble a lot in a nice place like this, just remember why they can afford to build at such epic proportions in the first place.

But I did 'accidentally' end up gambling a little. You only live once.

And this is what the Sands Casino looks like. Hundreds of tables, operating continuously throughout the year, with smoking patrons rolling dice and flipping cards. The free entertainment was nice, but they make terrible cocktails here.

And here's Heather observing the commotion below. She doesn't think much of table games, but took a liking to the slot machines. She likes the pictures that flash up, and her favourite one is called Geisha. My favourite machine is called Double Dolphins, because I like marine biology, and it's remotely educational. Well, not really.

Anyway, more of Macau coming soon...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Honeymoon: Food in Macau

One of Macau's most famous landmarks is the remaining facade of a cathedral known as the Ruins of St. Paul's. Originally Asia's largest cathedral, all that remains is the southern entrance, with the rest being destroyed by fire a couple of hundred years ago. The Macanese government set up a restoration effort in the 90's and now it's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The structure has intricate carvings depicting different religious events. It emanates an impressive contrast, lavishly decorated due to the riches of the time, but now an entrance to nothing but empty sky.

Nearby is the newly built Museum de Macau. In general I'm interested in museums, but some are much better than others. For some reason I usually get pretty bored in craftsmanship or maritime museums.

Museum de Macau is pretty good.

The museum begins with the history of the Portugese settlers meeting the local Chinese inhabitants. The first explorers of the time often encountered kingdoms who, at that point, had only heard stories of other countries far away. It must have been like First Contact in Star Trek.

The photo above shows a model layout of an old fireworks factory. The Chinese invented gunpowder and Macau was once an exporter of fireworks to the West. In the middle of the compound is a lake with a hut built over it. This was where they used to store the more volatile chemicals. On the bottom right are the packing facilities, with concrete blast walls.

I think I would have chosen to be a fisherman in those times.

In the photo above is the world's scariest coat hanger. The irony here being that a lot of time and effort probably went into making this thing for a small child, only for that same child to be terrified of opening the wardrobe.

Here's Heather sitting in one of the openings on top of the museum complex, which was originally a smaller fort. The openings were for cannons to fire upon unruly neighbours.

Semi-tropical areas like Macau get a lot of sun, which stimulates the rapid growth of foliage. The museum grounds are typically Macanese, with a nice blend of faded stonework and greenery.

You don't see too many stone benches around the place these days. Which is a shame really, because they tend to last a few hundred years and never need to be painted. Perhaps when I retire, I shall become a stonemason.

And perhaps not, also.

We left the museum grounds and went for a winding walk to try and find the main road. A noticeable difference between the apartments in suburban Hong Kong and those in Macau are that the Macanese ones have cages around them. Good for security, but can be a problem if there's a fire.

And here's an interesting mix of Portugese and Chinese in a name: Edificio Kam Lin.

It seems that the pleasure to be derived from spending hours finding a miniscule stripey man in a crowd knows no borders.
When I was young, some other kids in the school library had already circled the location of Wally on all the pages, in a bright green highlighter. I remember being somewhat displeased at the accelerated reading experience.

After a fairly pleasant walk, it was time to eat. When travelling, Heather and I usually try to find small restaurants that are popular with the locals. A good trick is to buy something at a store, and then ask the shop attendant to recommend a good local place to eat.

For entree' we had a fish curry sandwich. Three of my favourite foods, all in one.

And in the photo above is ostrich meat. More interesting than the fact that they sell ostrich meat, is that they garnish it with Pringles on the side. Quite common in Macau.

I'd never eaten ostrich before, but I've heard it's popular in some places. It doesn't taste like giant chicken, as one might expect. More like a mixture of pork and beef.

And we also had spaghetti in octopus ink. Octopus ink is slightly salty and tastes nothing like real ink, which you may have had the misfortune to taste if you chewed your ballpoint pens in middle school. The flavour was pretty agreeable and had subtle seafood undertones. On the top was a battered fish fillet.

Probably Macau's most famous delicacy are these egg tarts. I had read about them in a tourist brochure and was eager to try them. Even though I don't like sweet things.

Well, they were alright.

And I guess Macau's second most famous delicacy is meat jerky. I say meat jerky because it's made from all sorts of things from the animal kingdom. Best not to ask.

That guy you can see in the middle was one of a number of vendors giving out free samples. By walking from one end of the street to the other and trying every sample on offer, one could easily consume enough jerky to never want to come back.

And then we ended up back where we started, looking at the Ruins of St Paul's again. I like it when I find myself back where I started again, and it gives a nice rounded feeling to a blog post.

But to take us out this week is a pharmacy sign proclaiming a lack of fake products. Makes you really wonder about the pharmacy next door, that suspiciously has no such disclaimer evident.

Perhaps they just can't read English and spend the days wondering why all the customers go next door.

Well, that's all for me this time. See you soon!