Hong Kong and Macau – Back in China After All

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Fly to Hong Kong and settle in
  • Day 2: Day trip to Macau
  • Day 3: Visit Man Mo temple and Victoria Peak
  • Day 4: Fly out to Manila, Philippines

Dates: January 26-29

Our Odyssey:

After our scary illegal layover in Beijing a few weeks ago, we scratched a return visit to China (which we had originally been planning between Seoul and Hong Kong). The joke is on us, however, because unbeknownst to us at the time, Hong Kong and Macau actually are not their own countries and are very officially part of China. I feel silly in hindsight that we didn’t realize this beforehand. We knew Hong Kong and Macau had some kind of relationship with China, but assumed they had their own country status. After all, we often hear them discussed independently of China. As it turns out, Hong Kong and Macau are China’s two “special administrative regions.” This means that yes, they are technically part of China. It also means, however, that China doesn’t have the authority to extend its laws over them. The two cities are more or less autonomous, and you even need to pass through immigration and passport control to transit between the two. Additionally, for US citizens, you do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong or Macau, whereas you do for China proper. This special status stems from the history of colonialism in the region. With Portugal governing Macau, and Great Britain governing Hong Kong, for over a hundred years until the 1990s (yes, that recent), the regions have developed with laws and a style of government that is different from China.

Since we were staying in Hong Kong for only a few days, we kept our plans pretty light. We knew we wanted to visit Macau (considered the Las Vegas of the East), and visit Victoria Peak in Hong Kong to check out the view over what is touted to be one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

Our arrival was a bit hectic. When going through immigration, the officer processing my passport pressed a button on his desk that apparently summoned other officers over. He then filled out a form that was labeled “RESTRICTED”. I thought for sure I was not going to be allowed into Hong Kong at this point because of our SNAFU in Beijing. My record must be flagged or something, I figured. But thankfully he let me through and I never learned what that actually means. We successfully made it to the subway station from which we would then take a bus to a stop near our hotel, but once off the train, we could not find our bus stop. The station lets out into a large shopping mall, so with our packs on our fronts and backs, we walked over this mall. Up and down escalators, back and forth, inside and outside, trying to find this bus stop. It was like we were trapped in a hyper-commercialized high-end fashion hell. Eventually we did find the bus stop, but I can’t tell you how or ever replicate it. By the time we got to our hotel after all that, we were pretty exhausted. We were using points to stay at a Marriott brand hotel again, and were so happy when we checked in to learn that even though it’s a Courtyard (a step down from actual Marriott hotels), they had a concierge lounge with free food and drinks. I know it’s not especially authentic to eat at your hotel, but when it’s free and they’re serving what appear to be Chinese dishes, it’s hard to resist. When you’re backpacking long-term and on a budget, you basically eat free food every opportunity you get.

The next morning, we ventured to Macau via the ferry. It’s about an hour away and a pretty easy trip from Hong Kong. Macau is often compared to Las Vegas, as it is the main hub for gambling in Asia. Thus, it was hard not to walk into this city and compare everything about it to its American counterpart. A few differences that stood out right away was that Macau is older and the casino area is much smaller. Macau has two general sections that would be of interest to a tourist. One is the old colonial town (you may be surprised, like I was, to learn that Macau was actually colonized by the Portuguese and under their administration until the 1990s, when it was passed to China). The second is the island off the mainland where most of the casinos are concentrated. It’s Macau’s “Vegas Strip”.

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Macau’s Portuguese-style tiled streets

We started our visit by walking from the ferry terminal about a mile and a half to the center of the colonial town to see Macau’s most famous historical sight, the ruins of the Church of St. Paul. In 1835, a kitchen fire destroyed this former Jesuit Church from the early 17th century. Now all that remains is its façade, earning it the apt nickname “Gate to Nowhere”.

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Ruins of St. Paul’s

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Mirror selfie on a reflective window in Macau

Afterwards we headed back to the ferry port, stopping for some pastries along the way. From the ferry terminal, most of the casinos have free shuttles that anyone can take to their resorts. We hopped on one for the Venetian and set off across the long bridge to Cotai, home to some of the biggest casinos on earth. When we got there, though, everything we saw looked and felt smaller than their Las Vegas counterparts (although apparently the Venetian in Macau is THE largest casino in the world). I felt bad constantly comparing everything to Vegas, but when they have the exact same resorts and landmarks (like a mini Eiffel Tower), it’s almost begging for a comparison. There was also a ton of construction going on. The fact that there only seemed to be a few casinos and that so much was still being built made it feel like the area is not yet finished in the way the Vegas Strip is. I should also add that the whole area seemed way less about the party (no tourists with yard drinks walking the streets, no excess of bars and restaurants in the casinos) than Vegas, and way more about high-end shopping and big money gambling.

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Macau’s casino hub

After walking around a few of the casinos, we hopped on another bus heading back to the ferry terminal and made our way back to Hong Kong.

The next day we reserved for exploring Hong Kong. We started by walking towards the tram up Victoria Peak, stopping at the Man Mo Taoist temple along the way. This temple was easily my favorite place we visited in Hong Kong. The red and gold temple was crowded with locals carrying incense and offering fruit at a shrine. The thick smell of the incense added to the crowded feeling of the place. Periodically we heard the beating of a drum. It was an environment that demanded the attention of all our senses. It was beautiful to witness this aspect of local life as the faithful visitors prepared for the upcoming lunar new year.

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Man Mo Temple

Another half hour later we arrived at the line for the tram up Victoria Peak. The mountain overlooks the whole of the city and on a clear day offers brilliant views of what many consider one of the most impressive skylines in the world. Unfortunately for us, we were visiting during one of the smoggiest times of the year, so in addition to normal overcast weather, we had the haze of air pollution to deal with as well. Most of the buildings were shrouded in clouds, so frankly it was not a very good view. The tourism industry experts prepared for this however, as the company running the tram also offers to photoshop you into a picture of the skyline on a clear day. I thought this was hilarious. I can definitely see how this would be an amazing place to visit on a nice day, but the fact that we couldn’t see much combined with the cheesy signs exclaiming what a good view it is, and the fact that the tram drops you off in a mini-shopping mall (there’s even a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) made the whole thing feel gimmicky. Of course, that made it fun in its own way!

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View from Victoria Peak

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If you’re unhappy with your view in your selfies, you can pay for a better one…

After this we made our way back towards the hotel, picking up some lunch on the walk. I had to be back in the room and connected to strong internet for an exciting opportunity that I promise to reveal at a later time. Until then you’ll just have to anxiously wait!

That night we ventured out for some evening exploring. We took the Star Ferry across the harbor so we could get a view of the skyline at night, which truly is very beautiful. The buildings are all lit up in different colors, so it’s quite the sight. Every evening there is also a lights and lasers show. The much-hyped show was honestly kind of lame – it was hard to tell when it was even going on. But, the skyline at night in and of itself, and the fun ferry ride, made the trip out worth it.

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Night Lights

Back on the mainland we headed to the Lan Kwai Fong area, which was more or less on our walk back to our hotel and is the hub for nightlife. We stopped in a few bars for some beers and had a fun time just soaking in the atmosphere.

We didn’t stay out too late, however, as the next chapter of our adventure began the next day with a flight to Manila, Philippines!

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