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Sixty kilometres west across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong lies the tiny Portuguese enclave of MACAU .

A mere sliver of mainland and a couple of islands covering about twenty-four square kilometres in total, the territory is geographically and economically a midget compared to its booming cousin across the water, and the Macanese transfer of sovereignty back to China in 1999 – two years after Hong Kong’s – had none of the drama or controversy that surrounded that of Hong Kong.

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As in its larger neighbour, Hong Kong, the majority of Macau’s population are Cantonese-speaking Chinese. However this has not prevented the territory from developing an atmosphere distinct not only from Hong Kong but from other parts of southern China. With outdoor cafés, charming Portuguese place names, public squares, the odd palm tree and numerous Portuguese restaurants, there is a definite whiff of southern Europe in the air

However, by the millions of gambling fanatics living in nearby Hong Kong (and increasingly Shenzhen and Guangzhou as well), Macau, with its liberal gambling laws, is seen as little more than one giant casino . It is largely as a spin-off from the colossal gambling trade that money is being pumped in, allowing large-scale construction to take off, including that of Macau’s own (underused) airport on the island of Taipa. New highrise hotels, highways and bridges are appearing, and even Hong Kong-style land reclamation has begun in earnest.

Nevertheless, temptations for non-gamblers remain. With a colonial past predating that of Hong Kong by nearly three hundred years, Macau’s historic buildings – from old fortresses, to Baroque churches, to faded mansion houses – are still plentiful, while the crumbling backstreets around the port are reminiscent of Hong Kong as it might have been fifty years ago. Finally, the two islands of Taipa and Coloane , now being linked to the peninsula by bridges and land reclamation, contain pockets of total tranquillity with fine beaches and restaurants.

Considering that costs are a good deal lower here than in Hong Kong, and the ease of travel between Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau, it’s a great pity not to drop in on the territory if you are in the region. A day trip from Hong Kong is possible (tens of thousands do it every weekend), though you need a couple of nights really to do the place justice.

The Macau currency is the pataca (abbreviated as “ptca” in this book; also sometimes seen as “M$”), which is worth fractionally less than the HK dollar, and is very nearly equivalent to the Chinese yuan. HK dollars (but not yuan) are freely accepted as currency in Macau, and a lot of visitors from Hong Kong don’t bother changing money at all. Like the Hong Kong dollar, the pataca is set to continue its status as a separate currency for the foreseeable future.

Macau Visa regulations are not set to change either. Citizens of Britain, Ireland, Australia, NZ, Canada, USA and most European countries are automatically granted permission to stay twenty days on arrival. If in doubt approach the nearest Chinese Embassy or Macau tourist office. In Hong Kong there’s Macau tourist office at Room 1303, Shun Tak Centre, 200 Connaught Road, Central (tel 2549 8884).

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