Sunday, November 30, 2008

You went to where? For what?

Our trip to Macau began with a late-night flight to LAX and a surreal trip through the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which must be the worst airport terminal in the country. It is barely lit and packed with greasy long-haul travelers trampling on broken escalators. Oh, and there is nothing to eat past security. Not that I wanted to eat after personally witnessing (and smelling) a child puking into a styrofoam cup while she weaved her way through the endless, chaotic line. Meanwhile, poor Amy had to move gates three times while she waited for me to arrive.

The Cathay Pacific flight itself was pretty good, considering it was over 15 hours long. It was a brand-new plane, so the seats were comfortable, and the in-flight entertainment system was the best I've ever had. I've also found recently that I'm able to sleep on overnight flights, which is truly a cause for joy. Amy fell asleep almost immediately, and slept most of the flight.

So we arrived in Hong Kong relatively perky, and were met by a tour guide who would drive us to the ferry terminal. I'd already figured out that we could leave our luggage with a guy at the terminal for the day and see HK on our own, so after an hour of buying tickets and finding the luggage guy, we were off into the city by about 9am.

HK isn't very crowded on a Sunday morning, so that was a surprise. It was downright quiet. We weren't sure how much energy we'd have for the day, so we limited our trip to seeing Victoria Peak, which overlooks the city. We walked about half a mile to the Star Ferry (which you might recall from an episode of the Amazing Race when Mary & Peach lost their map and managed to go from first to last). After the ferry (cost: 25 cents) we grabbed a bus (cost: 65 cents) to the tram that goes straight up Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak turns out to be a big shopping tower, but the view was good, and Frommer's recommended a nice restaurant overlooking the island. So it was a pleasant way to spend our first day.

Macau is only a one-hour ferry ride from HK, but Amy still managed to sleep pretty much the whole way. (Amy likes her sleep.) Getting off the ferry, you look across the water and immediately see a fake Tang Dynasty fortress next to a fake volcano. Your first thought is, "What the f*** is that?" It's Fisherman's Wharf!, Macau's first theme park, which also sports a fake Roman colosseum and "Aladdin's Cove," a fake Middle Eastern theme village. It is a globalized Main Street USA on crack. I am endlessly fascinated by foreign interpretations of Western culture, because things are right in the broad sense, but they get the details hilariously, disastrously wrong.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Macau is a small peninsula closely linked to two adjacent islands, somewhat similar to Hong Kong. Whereas HK was colonized by the British, Macau was colonized by the Portuguese, and both were crucial for the China and Japan trade in earlier centuries. The main peninsula is quite small, only a few square miles, but it's the most densely populated territory on Earth. (Really!) Today, Macau is known almost exclusively as the "Las Vegas of Asia" and indeed, it is lousy with casinos and casino construction. But it is also just a very interesting place, a combination of colonial Portuguese and modern Cantonese influences.

Amy and I were staying at the classy and quiet Mandarin Oriental, a short walk from the ferry. Although once the major hotel in Macau, it is now quite literally dwarfed by the Sands Hotel & Casino next door, which is covered in shiny gold glass windows. It is one of the tackiest buildings I have ever seen, and packed with a constant stream of Chinese people arriving on bus es from the ferry and the immigration gate. Even though the ferry is a three-minute walk away, we are the only people who walk here. Well, us and the Australians, who are ubiquitous walkers everywhere aronnd the world.

The casinos themselves are not that different than Vegas -- big, smoky, and loud. The table games are somewhat unusual though, with not a poker table in sight. The Chinese are in love with baccarat, an incredibly boring game that seems to involve no skill whatsoever, but the casino's take is very small, so I guess they feel they are getting good value for the money. They also play some blackjack, a weird dice game, slot machines, and various roulette games. Every game was based almost entirely on luck, which didn't compel me to actually play anything.

The Mandarin, in contrast to the Sands, was quiet and peaceful. The staff was unfailingly professional, taking service to an extent that was almost startling, insisting on taking bags, helping unasked with directions, and delivering ice buckets via room service. At night, at the back door, you can even hire a very pretty, polite, and solicitous prostitute who will provide any number of services that the regular staff might balk at performing.

Amy and I spent our time compromising on daily activities; she spent more time walking in random directions than she normally would, and I spent a lot more time in museum gift shops (which would be any time whatsoever). I did enjoy shopping at the Ko Kai bakery, which is very popular with the Chinese, and hands out free tastes of everything. We did not enjoy the cookies with dried pork very much, and we refused to even sample the Chewy Lard Bites.

The food overall was very interesting and tasty. You can get Cantonese, Portuguese, and Macanese food, which is a combination of Chinese and Portuguese flavors. We mixed it up on a daily basis, although towards the end we got a little sloppy and ate some Italian food. For Thanksgiving we had Thai food at the hotel; my panang duck curry was delicious, but the surprise $10 bottle of water was not.

The weather was fantastic, always in the low to mid 70s and low humidity. (Travel tip: November is a great time to visit the Chinese tropics.) We went to a history museum, a ruined church, and a Buddhist temple. We took lots of pictures. We spent a day touring the outlying islands, and another day just sort of hanging out and relaxing. One of my favorite moments was a trip to a local massage parlor, which charged only $15 for an hour with a smiling, broad-backed Cantonese torturess. After being escorted to a tiny room equipped with only a narrow table and Snoopy sheets, I was ordered to take off my shirt and stick my big head in the head hole. She then proceeded to pull, crack, and probe every bone in my body. She even walked on my back, which I thought they only did in movies. I have to say, my back never felt better, even as I struggled not to scream bloody murder.

I needed a loose back for the return home, which was long, bumpy, and grumpy. It seemed longer, even though it was quite a bit shorter. Thankfully, my patented jet-lag elimination techniques have worked like a charm, so I've had a reasonably productive and happy weekend. Indeed, I think it's time for a turkey burger.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hong Kong! Macau!

On Friday night, I leave with Amy (Counselor to the Stars) for a one-week trip to Macau and Hong Kong. My intent is to write at least one or two posts while I'm there as sort of an amuse bouche between longer trips. I have zero time to plan the trip, so it should be fun!