High-Rolling in Macau

Holiday like a Movie Star

I think it’s fairly normal for people to make travel plans based on destinations in films they’ve watched; no doubt countless people have made their way to Bangkok after seeing ‘The Hangover Part 2’ in search of an equally debauched experience. And Maya Bay is now starting to recover since they banned all the Leonardo Dicaprio fans inspired by ‘The Beach’.

I’ve always been quite taken by the more glamorous side of travelling as presented in James Bond films. I always like the way he just hops on the plane to an exotic destination, jumps in a cab and checks into the swankiest hotel in town.

So our recent movie inspired jaunt was to Macau, as featured in ‘Skyfall’ (although it was a set and not really anything like real Macau) and also ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’. In ‘Skyfall’ I can’t remember exactly why he’s in Macau, but he goes to a high roller casino with scary komodo dragons.  Anyway, Macau is shown as this mysterious and opulent setting.  Where people casually gamble away vast sums of money, drinking hard liquor and smoking thin cigarettes.

Gambling Capital of the World

It’s fair to say that I had some expectations of what Macau would be like. And whilst the glitz and glamour certainly didn’t extend to anyone’s dress sense, I cannot deny that Macau is a pretty spectacular place.

Before we went, I didn’t realize that Macau is officially the gambling capital of the world. It overtook Las Vegas in terms of revenue back in 2006. Macau currently boasts 36 casinos with a collective annual revenue of $33 billion. And the Macau government apparently take 40% of this, and Macau residents pay zero tax.

China, but not as you know it

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. It is part of China but not subject to the same laws, is governed separately and has its own currency.  But this degree of autonomy is only supposed to last for 50 years until 2049. And then I guess it will fall into line with China? I’m not sure what that means for the casinos!

The old part of Macau has a distinctly European feel having been settled by the Portuguese. The official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese with English also being widely spoken in hotels and casinos. The newer parts of Macau have been modelled on Las Vegas.

The Cultural Part

Our long weekend wasn’t all casinos and bars, we made time for some sightseeing on a group tour of Macau. It’s fair to say that our tour took a while to get going but came good in the end. Our Guide was a chap called Mario, originally from Portugal but who had lived in Macau for 33 years. He didn’t seem particularly keen on the Chinese side of Macau, he kept telling random Chinese tourists to shut up and also refusing to let them have any of the samples of Portuguese egg tarts as they were reserved for ‘his people’. I think he was just referring to our tour group….?

Mario will only share the Portuguese egg tart with ‘his people’.

I’m not sure why I was surprised that Macau would attract a few Chinese tourists, but when we went to the Ruins of St Paul’s, a 17th Century church that had been almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1835, I couldn’t believe how many people were there! In our efforts to avoid the throng of now umbrella armed tourists, Mario led us through the ‘back streets’. These were cute little lanes with random local shops, a bit like shop houses in Thailand but less messy! We saw a group playing Mah-jongg and I wondered how my Mother would fair playing for real after all those hours of practice on the PC.

A few other people also wanted to see the Ruins of St Paul’s
A light drizzle, 1 trillion umbrellas
The ‘back streets’
Mental Preparation

We had a little flutter in the casino on Friday but we decided we would ‘go big’ on Saturday. Most casinos I’ve been to also double up as pretty nice bars, so even if you’re not gambling, you can still take a seat and get a drink. Not so much in Macau. I actually don’t think it was possible to sit down anywhere other than a gaming table or slot machine, and if you sat there without gambling you were moved on. Of the four casinos we’d already been to before Saturday night, there also didn’t seem to be a lot of drinking going on.

We elected to mentally prepare ourselves with a few drinks in our hotel bar, Vida Rica. Along with our colossally expensive cocktails, we were constantly refreshed with complementary olives, cheese, chorizo and cashews. The replenishment of our snacks was so generous that we decided to save our dinner money for the casino. This was a decision I would later come to regret.

Time to Hit the Tables!

We made our way to the MGM Macau which was connected to our hotel via a shopping mall. The casino was mostly dominated by Baccarat tables. According to Forbes around 88% of the casino revenue in Macau comes from this game. The minimum stakes were typically 1000 HKD so we gave them a wide birth and fortunately stumbled upon a Craps table. Chris had briefly studied ‘Casino Gambling for Dummies’ before we left Thailand so was confident he could win back our first night dinner.

I don’t know why but casinos are time drains and a few hours passed in what felt like minutes. We took a quick break back in the bar again and enjoyed a few more fancy cocktails. And then it was back to the Casino, now with an Australian brain surgeon and his German friend in tow. I questioned the authenticity of the brain surgeon, trying to catch him out with the extensive neurosurgery knowledge I’d picked up from watching Grey’s Anatomy. But it turned out he really was a brain surgeon, with a website! Or he’d gone to a lot of trouble to make the ruse plausible!

It was all of a bit of a blur but by some miracle Chris ended the evening with some winnings. He even thinks the casino employees applauded him? Anyway, it was 3am and I was worse for wear so cannot confirm or deny.

Birthday Wishes

The next day we went for a birthday brunch at the Ritz Carlton Café and Chris received his third birthday cake of the weekend. Macau is probably the best place you could celebrate your birthday if you enjoy being the center of attention.

Happy Birthday! Again!

And that was Macau in a whirlwind weekend! My only really gripe with the place was the inside temperature – it was bloody freezing! It wasn’t particularly warm outside but inside we were air conditioned to within an inch of our lives! People literally didn’t take their coats off.

Although it didn’t quite live up to my Bond-inspired expectations, the standard of service in hotels and restaurants was incredibly high so we felt pretty spoilt all weekend.

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