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VEGAS OF THE EAST

Macau? You betcha

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If there is one thing you shouldn't try doing in Macau, it is try and keep track of time. Lights in every possible colour of the spectrum flash in marked irreverence of the dark. And even as they assault your senses, the roulette wheels just don't stop spinning in Asia's casino capital. And in the classic tradition of casinos, you'd be hardpressed to find a clock. While day and night melt into each other to form an inchoate whole, a 15-minute drive from the Cotai strip to Macau's Senado square is disorienting both in terms of time and place, where its old world Portuguese architecture with stately columns, long windows and candycoloured buildings offers visitors a visual slice of the enclave's colonial history.

Time, however, has been of the essence for the hospitality and tourism industry in Macau. In the past decade Macau has witnessed a big boom in real estate with several international players like Las Vegas Sands Corp and Wynn Resorts swooping in to build world-class casinos. Gambling, however, is not new to Macau, as the the erstwhile Portuguese colony has allowed gambling since the mid-1800 s. Now a 'special administrative region' of China, Macau earns over 40 per cent of its GDP from gambling alone. Called the "Vegas of the East", it seems to be on its way to making Las Vegas the "Macau of the West" according to some wags. In 2007, Macau's gambling revenue overshot that of Las Vegas' famous 'strip'.


The evolution of Macau's casino cityscape is visible even to the unguided eye. In the city's Cotai strip, Gurgaon to Macau's Delhi perhaps, they come glitzier. The area, modelled after the Las Vegas strip, is a glass and concrete jungle with luxury hotels jostling for attention in close proximity. You would find virtual poker dealers, automated Craps tables and even a virtual roulette wheel here. The casinos in the old town, however, out in the Macau peninsula, have managed to hold on to an old world charm. In casinos there like Paradise, Lisboa and Fortuna, you'll find a lot less touchscreens and hear the clackety-clack of chips being stacked against each other. Besides cards and wheels, you also have the option of betting on games of Mah-Jong. A few casinos also feature older Chinese games like Fan Tan and Pai Gow.

So how entrenched is gambling in Macau's culture? A walk from the Grand Lisboa to Wynn in the Macau peninsula will show you that every second shop you cross is a pawnshop, with their minimalist design soon recognisable from afar. They look like a watch and jewellery shop from the outside - with glass fronts displaying such - but the inside would invariably reveal a prominent forex counter. But not everyone will buy whatever you want to pawn. Some accept only diamonds and watches. Others are less picky. A pawnshop attendant's comment in broken English nearly made this reporter give up her attempts to communicate with pictures on her phone. "Dis okay, " she said, tapping a finger on the phone's screen, before grabbing a handy calculator to see what could be offered.

Though hoteliers and casino managers are eager to sell Macau as a destination for travellers from around the world, a sizable majority of visitors are Chinese. But the hotel business has high hopes from what they call (unfortunately perhaps) "MICE" - Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events. 2009 saw one such Indian jamboree roll into town when the IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) awards were held in Macau, while a popular TV channel's soapsoriented awards event followed soon after. "We get about 2 per cent of our business from India. But it is growing. Indian cinema and entertainment industry have built Macau as a big destination, " says Michael Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, that has built over five hotels in Macau over the last eight years. Having launched a Sheraton on the Cotai strip just last week, they are eager to start work on their next, The Parisian. The hotel will be built on the lines of that famous baroque tribute to Italian renaissance architecture that is 'The Venetian'. They must move quickly though, since the Chinese government has imposed a cap of 3 per cent on the annual growth of casino tables in Macau.

Experientially, there is little else that the islands have to offer besides gambling. Of course, you have all of Vegas here. Like dancing girls in feathery headgear larger than the clothes covering their bodies, vast food options and limousine rides (whose prices, TOI-Crest discovered, can be successfully knocked down with a bit of bargaining ). And while its cobblestone streets are chock-a-block with stores peddling high-end luxury brands, Macau is a bitter disappointment for those looking for streetside shopping a la Bangkok or Singapore.

History junkies have it a little better. They can trek to the imposing St Paul's ruins, the remains of a 17th century cathedral. Amitav Ghosh fans would be delighted to find a print of an 1835 illustration of the ruins at the site by one George Chinnery - an artist Ghosh prominently features in his book River of Smoke. Right next door to the ruins is the Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora do Monte de S?o Paulo, also known as Mount Fortress. The fortress was built in the early 1600s to protect Macau from an attempted Dutch invasion from the sea. A walk halfway up the long, hilly, tree-lined trek to the fort, gives you a vantage point for a panoramic view of mainland Macau. From here, you can also see the dangerous angle at which the fa?ade of the ruins has begun to lean in recent times.

The fortress houses the Macau museum, featuring everything from Qing dynasty artifacts to recordings of the ancient calls of Chinese street hawkers. In the evening, if you're lucky, you may find a police band performing hit classics in the middle of the Senado square. And don't dodge people thrusting trays full of almond cookies in your face. They do really want you to try them out, so that you can buy a bunch. The famous Koi Kei bakery stocks some of the best cookies, along with Portuguese egg tarts. That's probably the safest bet out here.

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