Macau might seem a less than obvious destination for the gambler but this island paradise is betting on becoming bigger than Las Vegas.
When the Sands Macau Casino Hotel complex opened in 2002, "high rollers" literally tore doors from hinges to secure a place at one of the 300 tables. Downtown in the smoky, wood-panelled parlours of the Lisboa Casino, a game of Baccarat is in full swing as the temperature soars.
For years, frustrated Hong Kong residents have taken the 55-minute hydrofoil across the water for a breath of 'laissez-faire' fresh air. An oasis in a continent of otherwise traditionally strict gambling laws, Macau is fast becoming a Las Vegas of the East: every hour, more than three million 'patacas' (the local currency) are placed in bets. Thanks to a lift in local monopoly laws and heavy American investment, this 24 sq Km island of about 400,000 people could soon become a gambling mecca.
A forgotten corner of the globe, this former Portuguese colony has always been considered an island, which since 1513 played a pivotal role in the copper, silver and raw silk trades and enjoyed prosperity into the mid-1600s. This financial success would only again be repeated in the mid-20th century with licensed gambling; Taipans (great traders) from Canton would regularly visit to indulge their sins, and since that time the island has enjoyed a well-earned reputation for hedonistic pursuits.
Although the Portuguese moved out of Macau in 1999 and rule reverted to the Chinese, signs of Westernisation have never been so apparent. In all its modernist glory, the Sands Macau Casino is a stamp of American presence in North-East-Asia.
There are now a dozen casinos on the island and work is due to commence on several new major developments. This explosion in building first erupted in 2002, when business mogul Stanley Ho lost his 40-year monopoly as sole gambling licensee. Sheldon Adelson, founder of Las Vegas's famous Venetian Casino Hotel, fronted the first foreign-operated casino on the island. The Sands Macau Casino (www.sands.com.mo) features a 100,000 sq ft casino, 300 tables and 500 "hungry tigers" (slot machines). Designed to attract Hong Kong's elite (who often arrive by helicopter) the bronze-tinted building boasts an interior designed by a feng shui master. The 6,000-bulb chandelier hanging in the main hall is an appropriate reminder of the wealth flowing through these doorways. Assisted by Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, the sands group has already announced plans to build a 'Macau Strip' over the next decade with almost 20 resorts on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land at Cotai. Recently accepted was the proposal for a $1 billion underwater casino, with a hall surrounded by marine life.
Hot on Adelson's heels is Steve Wynn, founder of the Bellagio Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. His most recent project is the Pharaoh's Palace (Avenida da Amizade), a kitsch world of Ancient Egyptian symbols. Despite an anarchic appearance, his Lisboa Casino Hotel (2-4 Avenida de Lisboa) continues to be one of the most popular and atmospheric complexes on the island. Facilities include 1,000 guest rooms, 18 restaurants and options for sporting wagers (including Premiership football). A different gambling experience can be had at the Floating Casino (Casino Macau Palace; Avenida de Amizade, Outer Harbour), housed upon a tattered but characterful boat.
There are several peculiarities that apply to gaming in the Far East. Slot players, for instance, win if they line up lucky eights, not sevens, as per local superstitions. Craps and poker are much less popular and baccarat tends to dominate the casino halls. Also favoured are 'Pai Gow' (a game of dominoes), 'Fantan' (played with a silver cup and porcelain buttons), 'Dai Sui' (where players have to guess the value of three hidden dice) and roulette-style games. Tea terraces can be found alongside bars and medicinal herbs are often dispensed on request. Although there is no strict dress code, shorts and sandals can't be worn inside casinos. There is also no need to tip croupiers, although most will skim a 10 per cent charge as a course of practice.
- The most comfortable time to visit Macau is from October to December, when the air is clear and dry. March to May is also pleasant.
- Flights to Macau depart from several major Asian cities. Alternatively, fly into Hong Kong and take the hydrofoil across the water (100 boats run daily). Fares cost about US$20 and can be booked at www.turbocat.com. Helicopter flights cost about US$160 one-way (www.helihongkong.com). A return flight to Hong Kong with BA costs about US$750 inc. taxes (www.britishairways.com).
- The local currency is the "pataca" (MOP$). About 8.5 MOP$ = US$1
- Check into the Mandarin Oriental Resort & Spa (www.mandarinoriental.com) for the best deal on luxury accommodation. The adjoining Embassy Bar is one of the best nightspots in town.
- The Restaurante Litoral (+853-967878) is one of the best restaurants on the island. Classic setting and friendly service.
In 2004, casino tax payments accounted for 57 per cent of Macau's revenue; other Asian states are reviewing their laws on gambling to enjoy similar revenues. Thailand may hold a referendum to legalise casinos. The Seaview Casino Hotel has opened in North Korea, near the Chinese border, and South Korea boasts 10 hotspots. A 24-hour casino has opened in the remote 'Lake Geneva of Asia' (www.dansavanh.com), and Cambodia and Burma now have casinos in remote border locations.
[Jun 2005 last update]
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