+ Tony Wheeler
This well-traveled founder of Lonely Planet guidebooks tells JENNIFER CHEN why Macau remains a special place
Published on Apr 20, 2010
It’s easy to forget that China was almost completely closed off to the outside world only a few decades ago. We used to go to places like Hong Kong and Macau to glimpse across the border, to ponder that such a large slice of the world was so close by and yet so far away. You could venture out to the northern edge of Hong Kong’s New Territories and, with binoculars, peer across the border at “Communist peasants working in the rice paddies.” That was as close as I got in my first visits in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Then you could jump on a high-speed ferry and zip across the mouth of the Pearl River to Macau, a city-state that still had some Portuguese flavor entwined with a healthy dose of intrigue and steamy, seductive corruption. In 1985, at a time when the first independent travelers were beginning to explore China—earlier visitors were mainly on strictly regimented tours—I made a slightly extended stay, pinned down by a typhoon’s near miss.
A couple of years later, my first foray into China started with a bus trip from Macau to Canton (now Guangzhou), but it was my most recent visit that I’ll remember best. I was speaking at a travel conference and decided that I’d make a more appropriate arrival if I traveled by land from Singapore, so it was trains, buses and assorted other forms of transport through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and across China to the busy border of Macau. Land reclamation, an international airport, new casinos and a host of five-star hotels have transformed the city over the years, but from atop the 338-meter Macau Tower the view is fabulous. A. J. Hackett, the New Zealand bungy-jump inventors, stuff you into an orange suit, strap you to an overhead rail and let you walk right around the outside at the top, sit on the edge and dangle your feet over the drop.
Fortunately, the old Macau survives. The next day I lunched with friends at Fernando’s, a Portuguese seafood and barbecue place on the beach, and then rocketed back to Hong Kong on a high-speed ferry.