MACAU, May 18 — Believe it or not, there is more to Macau than casinos. While the city’s reputation as the Las Vegas of the East is certainly well deserved, I’m no gambler; in fact, beyond a try or two at the jackpot machine, mostly for the thrill of hunting down one with the most elaborate animation, I keep clear of the casinos.
However, if you stay away from most of the obvious tourist traps (albeit a few must-visit stops), you will discover the old world charm of Macau and have one of the most leisurely weekends a mere four hours away from Kuala Lumpur. No sandy-white beaches in sight, true, but you’ll be spending your hours on foot exploring anyway. This is a walking holiday.
Begin your morning in Old Macau Town with a hot, piping bowl of Cantonese congee. It’s a typical Macanese breakfast, best experienced in one of the small alleys hidden all over the town. Cheng Ji Congee, my favourite stall, is a brief stroll along Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro from Ponte 16 (where the first fisherman’s port in Macau used to be).
Head to the junction of Rua dos Mercadores, then cross the road on your left. Here you will find folks already busily enjoying their bowls of congee and exchanging the latest gossip in the narrow side alley. You may have to wait for a table but it’s worth it. The owner is a friendly chap and often sings 80s Canto-pop tunes to his customers as they dine; how’s that for entertainment?
Order your bowl of silky-smooth congee mixed with pei dan (century egg), meatballs, slices of pork or fish, not to mention an assortment of pork innards. Nod when asked if you’d like some yao char kwai (Chinese crullers). Dunked into the congee, these Oriental croutons are alternately soggy and crunchy with every bite. This congee is so good you might return every morning for a bowl.
Next head down Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro until you arrive at the beautiful Senado Square. Admittedly, it’s a bit touristy. However the time-worn cobblestone paths and walls featuring scenes painted on China blue-and-white porcelain tiles are worth it.
Some of the smaller side alleys are adorned with landscapes of urban graffiti art. The old and the new share the same space in this former Portuguese colony; each imparting some sense of wonder.
If you’re feeling peckish and wouldn’t mind a mid-morning snack, head to nearby Rua da Palha, a narrow street on a slope that is packed with shops on each side. Here you may sample Macanese treats such as barbecued dried meat (ranging from conventional pork and chicken to less-common ones such as veal and spiced piglet), almond cookies straight out of the oven, and deliciously greasy pork chop buns.
Towards the end of this “food street” is Rua da S. Pãolo where the famous Ruins of St. Paul’s await you. You can’t really avoid the throng of tourists here so if you can’t beat them, join them: go crazy taking photographs as you walk up the imposing flight of steps.
The grand façade of the 17th-century cathedral still remains, guarding the crypts of the Jesuits who had established the original building.
All that walking is bound to make you famished by now so why not reward yourself with a simple lunch of rice and roast meats? Even this ordinary fare is taken to new gastronomic heights thanks to the skills found in the cramped kitchens here. The trick, of course, is to avoid the touristy fare no matter how tempting the set lunch promotions may sound.
At Leng Kei Roast Restaurant near Senado Square, the roast goose and crispy suckling pig are superb. Many locals order takeaway but there a few tables upstairs for those dining in.
It’s not frou-frou so don’t expect Michelin-starred service; you can fill your cups with hot tea from the thermos flasks at each table. No sweat; the ambience isn’t the attraction here but the succulent cuts of roast meats.
After lunch, it’s time for some contemplation at one of Macau’s many temples. Avoid the extremely popular A-Ma Temple favoured by busloads of tourists offering prayers in exchange for some luck at the casinos later. Instead track down the lesser-known Kun Iam Temple in the quieter part of town.
A 10-minute bus ride away from Senado Square, Kun Iam Temple is frequented by devotees of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The temple halls are filled with fragrant incense smoke. Ancient Buddha statues, carvings and calligraphic scrolls adorn the walls.
Outside in its serene courtyard, old banyan trees stand guard, their long roots falling from branches in mid-air till they form new pillars upon reaching the ground. Legend has it the Buddha attained enlightenment beneath a banyan tree. Certainly the space beneath the great trees invites reflection. Rest on the stone benches in this garden and relax.
This is the heart of the real Macau.
There is still plenty to see. Take a bus southwards of the Macau peninsula, over the bridges, and past the new casinos sprouting up all over the Cotai Strip and old apartment blocks of Taipa, to the lesser-known island of Coloane.
Coloane is a quaint village filled with pastel-coloured houses, a world away from the gambling strip and Old Macau Town. Even in this near-deserted place, there are treats awaiting the travelling gourmand. Opposite the village square is Lord Stow’s Bakery, the famous Portuguese egg tarts purveyor. It’s the best in Macau.
Dig under its crème brûlée-like crust and uncover a jiggly custard that is almost too rich. Enjoy these tarts with ice-cold, fresh lemonade. A large tree across the road offers some shade from the late afternoon sun. Once you’re done, cross the road again to buy more tarts to take away for later.
Take some time to explore the village: the tiny lanes that branch out from Avenida de Cinco de Outubro; the Chapel of St Francis with its Portuguese-style architecture; the secluded Tam Kong Temple where you may enjoy viewing the sunset across the channel. Come evening, head to Fernando’s at the Hac Sa (“black sand” in Cantonese) beach for a dinner of fresh seafood and colonial flavours before finally calling it a night.
Or, if you really can’t resist the siren calls of the casinos, a turn at the blackjack or roulette table couldn’t hurt, could it? Good luck!
Cheng Ji Congee
Off Rua dos Mercadores, Avenida de Almeida
Open daily 9am-noon
Leng Kei Roast Restaurant
35 Zhao Lane (near Senado Square), Macau
Open daily 9am-3pm
Kun Iam Temple
Avenida do Coronel
Open daily 7am-6pm
Lord Stow’s Bakery
1 Rua da Tassara, Colane Square, Macau
Open daily 7am-10pm
9 Praia de Hac Sa, Coloane, Macau
Open daily (except May 1) noon-9:30pm