Gambling for Panda Butts

Saturday’s are probably one of the worst days to set an alarm for 8:00, but the adventure ahead will be worth rubbing my dry eyes over.

I take the bus from Lingnan University directly to downtown Kowloon, right by the Star Ferry Port. My bare legs are covered in mosquito repellent, so the air smells of air-conditioner drippings and fresh DEET as I walk past the high-level fashion stores surrounding me. I head to a Starbucks and meet with Charlotte, an English marine biologist doing fieldwork in rural Hong-Kong for the next few months. We met at a concert at The Wanch (pretty much the only bar in HK with decent live music) a few weeks ago and instantly decided to be field trip buddies. We made tentative plans to head to Macau last weekend, but then the big bad Super Typhoon Mangkhut decided to roll through town.

So we rescheduled.

Now we found ourselves on the ferry to Macau, a little bit angry because they wouldn’t let us outside and made us buckle our seatbelts. The only joy of being on a boat is letting the salty air run through your hair, looking out at the majestic coast while dolphins swim along your seafaring vessel. Not the case, in rule-driven Hong-Kong. But we had some tea and talked for a relaxing hour or so.

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We arrive in Macau, surrounded by Portuguese and a hint of diesel or boat fuel with a mix of rotting fish. It’s a lovely way to enter a new country.

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I’m inexplicably excited to be here. This is the only country I’ve visited with Portuguese roots, and Portuguese culture, in general, is extremely interesting to me. I like the way the language makes me smile when I attempt to speak it, and I like its adorable nasally sound. Both Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine is delicious, and Portuguese wines and cheeses could fill me for decades. Beyond that, Portuguese culture is exotic to me, which must be the biggest reason for my curiosity.

Our first encounter with a Macanese person was right outside the terminal, waiting for a bus. Charlotte saw a pretty building, so she approached a man on a smoking break and asked an innocent enough “What’s that building?” to which he freaked out and yelled at her, commanding her to stand behind an invisible line. She went to stand behind it, then repeated her question. He shouted no no no, stand behind the line, go around not here. We didn’t know what he was saying, and he clearly didn’t know what we were saying either. So we hushed our curiosity and peered through a dusty bus window going downtown.

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Our first stop is A-Ma Temple, the oldest temple in Macau and apparently where the country got its name.

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The Temple was small and intimate, and not too crowded. I’m already starting to sweat a bit, as the sun beats down intensely. We buy some incense packs and fake money for our ancestors, and walk around the temple praying to various deities and spirits.

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The air is thick with incense, both from our sticks and these immense coils of burning fragrance hanging up everywhere. I can’t imagine how long it takes to make something like this, or how long it lasts, but I love the peaceful spirals adorning the temple.

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We toss our money in the fire for our ancestors and the other ghosts that need money in the afterlife and make a little prayer.

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If I’m not wrong (but please correct me if I am), it’s three bows facing the deity, three to the left, and three to the right (hopefully).

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Deities and spirits happy, we head out of the Temple and walked north to the old part of town. Macau is so far less developed than Hong-Kong, but not in a bad way. If anything, I like it a bit more. Everything seems on a human scale. There aren’t skyscrapers everywhere, filled with cage houses like in Hong-Kong. Most of the buildings here are only few stories, which I much prefer.

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We stop in front of a restaurant, and a voice across the street yells “That place is no good, don’t go.” We turn around and see a hip looking Macanese woman in a jumpsuit walking an adorable puppy. She recommends the place around the corner, a little hipster place called Padre. Locals know best.

I wanted to experience Macanese cuisine, but this place was a bit more Italian and a bit too expensive. Still, they make perfect homemade pasta. I go for a little snack and decide I can wait for some street food. We get out and continue our walk uptown.

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The colonial vibe in Macau is far more present than in Hong-Kong. Buildings look like they popped right out of Portugal, and the locals just put Chinese signage on the front. Honestly, I really like it. It’s a perfect blend of two beautiful cultures, regardless of the run-down facades.

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I’ve never been to Portugal, but I imagine the buildings to look a wee bit like these, just without the water damage and Chinese on the front. There’s an obvious presence of gambling as well. It is, more or less, the only income for the country, being Asia’s Las Vegas and Monaco all wrapped up in a little package. The Grand Lisboa looms over this side of town as an ever constant reminder to enjoy the glitz and glamor and spend a couple hundred Hong Kong dollars.

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This is what I was expecting though. Everyone I had talked to prior to coming told me it wasn’t worth the trip. “It’s no better than Las Vegas,” they’d say. But I shooed them off, knowing there had to be more to a place, more to a culture then feeding off those with a gambling problem. In this neighborhood, this is evident in the architecture surrounding every street. It feels a bit more like a colonial town in the Caribbean than anything in Asia, but that’s exactly what I wanted to experience.

Charlotte and I are on a mission to see some pandas. We hop on a bus that drives to the other island of Macau. Macau is just two main islands, and we need to head to the other one. There are pandas at a little pavilion across the water in the Coloane village, so we board a crowded bus crossing our fingers that it will be the right one.

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The scale of Macau is very manageable as well. Even though Hong-Kong is small, it still takes me about 1:30 to get anywhere downtown. Macau is a lot smaller, a lot cuter. But not as cute as little red panda butts.

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For 10 HKD/MOP (~US$1.27), you get to spend an hour watching pandas. That sounds like a long time, but somehow an hour watching a bunch of pandas sit on their butts and eat bamboo goes by in a flash.

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We even had the chance to watch the cutest fight in the world, which was more like two pandas just flopping on top of each other like black and white bean bags.

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It’s an hour I’ll never get back but it was oh so well spent. The area also has an aviary, monkeys, and a butterfly walk, offering some great nature for those who’ve been gambling all day.

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We’re a bit hungry so we head back uptown to Taipa village, just a stone’s through away from the main casino row.

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We got a bit lost and ended up at a horse track and outdoor work out facility, but getting lost anywhere is the best way to see a city.

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This part of town was one of the most interesting. Small, colonial buildings filled with Portuguese restaurants and Macanese food stalls. There’s a market street with bubbling broths and crispy egg tarts (Macau’s answer to pastel de nata), and a Japanese culture festival going on with live music and sushi stands.

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Here we got some curry tofu, and I grab Macau’s most famous street food: the pork bun.

A bit like a banh mi, it’s literally just a slab of marinated pork chop thrown on a perfectly crispy piece of bread roll. I grab a couple, and I could easily eat a couple more if I had higher expectations of my digestive track.

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We stop for a beer at a local bar playing a rugby match between the South Sydney Rabbitoh’s and the Sydney Roosters. I’m a tentative bunnies fan, but they lost so I didn’t make it a bit thing. It’s a perfect little bar with micro-brews on tap, and I miraculously see some other exchange kids also on a day trip.

The clock is growing late, and we figure a casino is a perfect way to end the day. The closest and perhaps most extravagant is the Venetian, glittering with a near perfect replication of St. Mark’s square with a little lake for expensive punting trips. The gambling complex is immense. The ceiling is quite literally, one giant camera. No blind spot exists in this mess of gambling. I raise my camera to my eyes, which was a terrible decision, because a guard ran towards me shouting “That is a criminal offense, it is illegal to use photography please delete any photos immediately.” I didn’t even take any pictures but that certainly shut me up, I probably should have been a bit smarter.

We wander around a while and lose HK$10 in a slot machine. I’d rather spend another hour watching pandas, but we can say we gambled in a Macau casino. Upstairs, we grab a bite to eat in a shopping mall made to look creepily identical to Venice, with an eerily perfect sky painted ceiling. It was all a bit too much for me. We ran around in circles lost, coming to the conclusion that we’d never be able to find an exit. Every time we asked someone how to get out we got a different answer, sending us around in more circles. We finally ran downstairs back to the casino, and considered joining a roulette table but decided to just escape before we got sucked in.

The gambling aspect wasn’t so nice. Las Vegas, at least, seems to have a lot of amazing shows and concerts. It’s turning into the entertainment hub of the US. But here, it just feels like a lot of people feeding their addictive personalities. A bit more like Reno, or at least the Reno I encountered with old lady’s on slot machines all day, holding foot long cigarettes with ashes that refuse to fall.

It was all a bit too much, and we felt the need to get out. We sat outside, watching some escorts try and lure tourists. They were pretty, but I wondered what kind of a life they could live in a place like this, where the only source of income stems from a business of pleasure. The row of casinos in Macau is all a bit too much, for all of the senses. I decided it was probably best we leave, before the night gets too long. I could, and will, absolutely come back to Macau. I was expecting to be bored by mid-afternoon. But there’s so much more for me to do here. The mix of Portuguese and Chinese is so miraculous and mysterious, and I feel as though there’s so much to be discovered underneath the gambling facade. In those colonial buildings, there are some amazing stories and customs waiting to burst out. But for now, it’s time to go home.

Luckily, ferries run almost twice an hour back to Hong-Kong. We hop aboard the midnight ferry, arriving back around 1:20ish. Charlotte lives far far away, on the South side of Hong Kong Island away from any public transport or life. That’s what ecologists do, and her days are normally spent measuring snails and running little tests on their trails. We say goodbye, and I sit and wait by the bus while she hops in a cab.

A good while passes, and over the street I see my journalism professor coming towards me. He was in Macau visiting a friend from his time spent reporting in Iraq, showing just how small this world can be. I like to get dinner pretty late when the dining hall is nearly empty and I can listen to the low mumbles of a couple sleepy diners around me. Lately, he’s been eating quite late too, joining me in discussions on journalism or Argentina or one of his many out of this world stories. I figure I won’t be able to catch all of his stories in this semester, so I’ve been really lucky to take a few of them over dinner. The bus takes a while, and we spend the wee hours of the morning letting Hong-Kong’s lights pass by, reminiscing on the minuscule yet beautiful world we live in.

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