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Macau gets a makeover

The gambling haven of the East is attempting to reinvent itself as the new family destination. But can it steer clear of its casinos?Photo by AFP

travel Updated: Jan 21, 2010 20:26 IST

Cigarette smoke fills the air as chain-smoking gamblers throw out wads of notes and break into peels of laughter every now and then. On the podium in front, a group of girls swirl around a pole in two-piece bikinis to what sounds like the Cantonese version of Man ka Radio. Outside, another group of stylishly attired young women are waiting to be picked up by the cars passing by. This is the scene at a typical Macau casino in the wee hours of the day.

The island nation of Macau has for long been hailed as the gambling haven of the East. For decades, it was monopolised by tycoon Stanley Ho, until foreign competitors entered the scene in 2002. Glitzy hotels, lavish casinos, night clubs and dance bars -- the transformation of Macau into Asia's glamourous gambling den was complete. So much so that now more than business, gambling seems like the new Cantonese way of life! Cardwaving youngsters and aunties busy at betting are a common sight.

Back to the roots
And that's exactly what the local government is trying to change. With big ideas like the Macau Grand Prix, Hotel Venetian tour and Macau Tower, and a stress on local history, Macau is now being pitched as a complete family entertainment hub. So, the first place that our tour guide in Macau -- Alorino, or Alu as he was fondly called -- took us to were the ruins of St. Paul's. One of the grandest Catholic churches ever built in the East, and destroyed by a fire in 1835, only the façade of this 400-year-old structure now remains. Built by the early Japanese Christian exiles, St Paul's also houses a museum on Macau's glorious past.

What intrigued me more was a small Buddhist temple with ornate decorations and colourful incense sticks hanging from the ceiling, right next to the church. Also interesting were the small offerings made outside every home and shop in cute little structures across the city. Macanese people seem pretty religious by temperament, given their high dependence on luck.

"This is like we do in India," said Alu, a Gujarati from Daman, who settled in Macau a few years ago. But Macau's bigger Indian connect, he said, were the banyan trees that dot the city streets. Though nothing like our desi Banyan, this tree, brought here by the Portugese, is known as Banyan because of its hairy roots that dangle from the branches.

Leal Senado or Senate Building is a magnificent piece of Portuguese architecture in the city's branded shopping hub, the Sonado Square, which is thronged by youngsters in the evenings. For cheaper Chinese stuff ,one can visit the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai, which requires a visa, unlike Macau.

Modern day magic
The Macau Grand Prix was the highlight of my visit, since I had never witnessed a Formula One event before. With the best of car racers and their vehicles in attendance, the Grand Prix season is actually the best time to visit Macau.

For adventure freaks, a must-see spot is the revolving Macau Tower which gives options of bungee jumping and dining, along with an awesome 360-degree view of the island and China.

But a visit to Macau is still incomplete without a customary visit to its casinos. Casino Lisboa, here we come!