Sunday, December 30, 2012

HKTrip12: Day 3 Macau - Part 2

This seventh installment covers the afternoon part of a day trip to Macau. Read on for ramblings about the old Macau (small village life and also the tourist mecca central area), MGM, historic pawn shops, and the sailing back to Hong Kong.

After lunch, we took a short bus ride to the small village surrounding St Francis Xavier Church. This is a quiet little settlement which still maintains a relaxed lifestyle and atmosphere, and almost appears to be stuck in a bit of a timewarp. It is sandwiched between hilly bush (with rich, lush green foliage) and a thin stretch of ocean (across which parts of China can be seen).

Some of the lush green foliage/bush covering the sides of the hill around Coloane. Here we see some palm-like trees, and many other interesting specimens (there even seemed to be banana-like fruit on some of the in places).

St Francis Xavier Church
The village is built around St Francis Xavier church and its courtyard. This small yellow building is built in what appears to be a traditional Portuguese design for churches. Inside, there appeared to be burgundy/maroon velvet cushions on the floor, underneath a classical "blue sky with white fluffy clouds" ceiling.

A view of the church and courtyard from the street looking inwards. Here we see the statue that was positioned centerish (though it didn't seem exactly centered, which made it hard to get a shot with exact symmetry of the two side bits with arches as I'd originally intended). 

A view from across the road - The sides of this street were lined with classical lamp posts like the one shown here, which had some of those white-ish stringy decorations strung between them. Although there was no traffic passing through, there were a few cars parked on the road.

A better view of the church

The covered side walkway thingies

Looking out from the courtyard towards the sea (and the adjacent China-land, which was almost close enough to tangibly touch). The colourful spherical lanterns on either side danced around gently in the breeze.

A tree grows through part of the structure. Like many of the trees in this area, it has been labelled with a little placard denoting that it is a "protected tree" of a particular ilk, along with its ID number. Still, it's quite surprising to see situations where buildings seem to have been built around protected trees (just the thought of the damage that the roots would do after a few years is sobering!)

Details - decorative window features on the side of the church. Note the clean lines, colour choices, and subject matter (Are those sunflowers?)... As seen in the bottom left corner, just below these, there were some faded posters advertising certain events from several years ago.

La Biblioteca - Hey, I kindof recognise that word... These four great pillars up front certainly look the part too (National Library anyone?)

The Village
Many of the buildings in the surrounding village had a similar style - both in terms of their overall design and shapes, but also in terms of the colour scheme (these yellow and white paints must've been really popular with the people here, or just dirt cheap to get).

By and large, the village buildings all looked something like this. As can be seen, the middle building has had some renovations done, and now sports some swanky new aluminum framed windows.

Looking down a narrow alley passing through the village (and right behind the church). While the buildings are all so old, it's still quite amazing to see all the air conditioning units mounted along the walls. Then again, in Asia, you really can't live without these, especially during the summer! Whew!

But that's no match for this house (or two), which is quite a sight: three stories tall, covered in climbers, and with one aircon unit per room!

In general though, houses were a more modest two stories tall. Not all were yellow or white - cyan was another popular option. And, some also had some block fences...

... which were adorned with these lovely specimens! These glass fragments are scattered over the tops of fences to act as a disincentive for criminals to scale the fences. (Note to self: apart from electrifying our fence, a few broken beer bottles and thumbtacks may be in order...)

Distinctive Features of Houses
The small details often reveal a lot about the culture and heritage of the people living (or who used to live) in an area. There were no shortage of interesting aspects to choose from here...

Gates - Shops use folding metal gates like this one, with flowery hole patterns etched along the tops. AFAIK, these are quite similar to the ones that were still used in Hong Kong in the 1960's or so.

An Asian-dog, much like the ones seen earlier roaming through the hills. This one though seemed quite tame and docile, almost like a pet (note the food bowl), though it could also have just been a stray. Moments later, in one of the shops nearby, there came a strangely robotic "meeoooww... meeoooww" sound, which carried on for a few minutes. At first I thought it might've just been a cheap toy or low-quality recording of a cat. However, my doubts were put to bed moments later, when an ugly looking cat bolted across the path in front of us, joining another cat in the shot nearby.

Moving on to smaller items...
A classical mailbox, mounted on the wall of a house beside the main entrance. They all have red letters like this stamped on them, and also have these little circular viewing windows on the side. However, not all are mounted straight on the walls...

Religion also plays quite a prominent role, with little temples embedded on the walls of many buildings...
A little temple/incense kiosk on the ground. I'm not sure if this one was lacking a bit of TLC, or whether the intention really was to worship a plant, but in any case, here it is: a plant growing in a little grounded thingy. However, where there is a temple on the ground, there is almost certainly one above it...

Another little temple, this one more well maintained, with some fresh "offerings" (i.e. the two oranges/mandarins), and the sticks/stubs of glowing incense. IIRC, the ones on the ground are for the land/ground gods, and the upper ones for other purposes.

Temples were also quite abundant around this area, with two located around the village...

A larger facility located up the hill - Note the distinctive red roofs and traditional Chinese styled roofs (green bamboo rods supporting tiles).

We stopped by at the smaller of the two, situated down a smaller little alley within the village buildings
The sneak peak which caught my attention - Remember what I said about "round = heaven, square = humans/earth", well, here we have a little round window to the temple. No doubt, this window and placement were done for "Feng Shui" reasons, as standing in there, you get a certain interesting vibe of clear flow.

Down the garden path - walking a few meters to the left and turning the corner, you arrive at the little doorway leading to the temple. As in traditional Chinese style, the name of the place is written on the big plaque above the doorway (IIRC, these read right-to-left?), with some descriptive/glowing endorsements on either side.

The entrance to the temple, as seen from under that shiny and covered thingy (seen through the hole). Under the camera (and just out of view), there were some stubs of incense sticks which had long burnt out. Note the symmetry of this place, and the amount of red in use.

Detail - The chicken and fire (?) figures on the roof of the silver thingy described above. It was starting to rain again when these shots were taken...

Inside the temple. The first thing that strikes you as you step in is the door frame, which has this 20-30 cm high ledge that you must step over to get inside. Suspended above the doorway, there is an intricate wooden carving, featuring many different types of animal. In the center, you can see a golden budda (or so) figurine, with kneeling pads (red squares) in front, and various other offerings on the sides and table (i.e. fruit, flowers, and probably wine of some sort). Also worth noting is the ceiling, which exposes the construction of these roofs - how the tiles are layered on top of each other, and sit on top of a dense framework.

Of course, it goes without saying that my favourite part of the carving were these two cuties!

Two round pots sitting outside the doorway - one red, one black - in a squarish alcove. There must be a meaning to this, but the exact meaning is lost on me. In any case, it's visually interesting (and probably would've looked even better when this was all new).

Lord Stow's

Finally, after walking around in the rain for so long, it was time for a short tea break at Lord Stow's to try out the famous Portuguese-style egg tarts. Compared to Hong Kong styled ones, these have a more porous filling, with a light grilled top. This little coffee shop was quite a nice cozy little place.

MGM and Wynn
For the next part of the journey, we took a taxi trip back over to the main island. It was quite a contrast going from the quiet tranquility of the small village back to the hubbub and gloss of a booming metropolis. Especially one with so much bling!

 MGM Lion Statue - Yes, they're big on their golden lions here...

It has to be said that their lobby was quite grand looking...
Lobby of MGM - Unlike The Venetian, you immediately get the sense here that you've arrived at a hotel, complete with giant fountain, semi-circular lobby, and porters.

Inside, there was even more bling...
These red flower decoration things above the foyer were quite visually striking...

The check-in counter was even more impressive. Wide, bright, and inviting. 

However, this was not the main attraction. Instead, if you walk straight through the foyer, you'll end up in a covered square, with some extravagant euro-castle themed setting. On this day, a couple were having their wedding photos taken there, and oversized Christmas decorations were hanging from the ceiling.

Of course, MGM was another one of those casino-hotel complexes. However, in this case, the casino was hidden behind the main attraction - head straight on through the square, through another short lobby (where there are some ATM's), and you're confronted by another quiet darkened hall.

Literally right across the road from MGM is the Wynn complex. Inside, it was more of the same: miles and miles of high end glossy shops (as if you're walking the pages of a glossy fashion magazine) but with no customers inside, all fitted out in that glossy golden look that is so typical of every other such complex seen so far. There was a bit more life in the gambling hall of this casino (located shortly inside one of the main entrances), but perhaps it was just starting to approach "happy hour" there...

The main attraction here was the so-called "singing tree" - it supposedly rises out from a pit in the ground for brief shows on a regular basis (e.g. once per hour). However, that day, it was supposedly "Closed for Maintenance". Bugger...

The ceiling with golden aperture-blade decorations.

The covered dome, from which the tree rises. It has patterns on it resembling a map. This is contained within a large circular pit.

Ruins of St Pauls and Surrounding Streets
Finally, no (first time) visit to Macau would be complete without visiting the Ruins of St Pauls. This is a world famous landmark, renowned because only the facade was left standing after a great fire destroyed the rest of the building.

Ruins of St Pauls
This is what most people think, when they think of this landmark:
A looming structure standing on the edge of something...
A detailed look at the detailing on the front of the facade

However, arriving from the street behind + below, you actually see something more like:
The cobbled-stone road leading up to the frontage. It turns out that this landmark is situated at the top of a hill which slopes away on both sides of the facade. The dark grey short wall on the right is not a wall, but the base of the courtyard behind the church, where its footprint used to reside.

I found this red-brown lump of rock (covered in some moss or something like that) most intriguing. Was it always there, or was this added later to help secure the structure? Those bricks up there in the top left also look a bit haphazard, especially if they were to be located in quake zone...

Detail of the back side of the wall - these interesting black patterns must've been a result of the raging inferno which destroyed the rest of the building...

Rear view of the facade. Note the the large steel supporting structures now in place, and the courtyard behind it. Each of those green square surrounded by pot plants contains a little exhibit and is located where one of the pillars of the cathedral once stood.

Some side-on views of the facade - it's interesting how such a relatively thin structure could remain free standing for so many years (the steel certainly looks like it was only added in the past 20 years).

It turns out that far from being quite an isolated location, the Ruins of St Pauls is actually closely surrounded by things to do in a tight-knit network of streets with a unique character of its own.

For instance, right beside the landmark, there is a traditional temple:
 Temple beside Ruins of St Pauls - Note the cone-shaped long-burning incense candles suspended from the ceiling. Also note the interesting looking figures on the roof.

Rickshaw and promotional material in front of a building bordering the square around this landmark. Once again, yellow + white buildings with rounded-arch facades seem to be a recurring design trend here...

On a broader scale, the ruins are actually part of a square, which flows down the hill below the stairs leading up to St Pauls:

View from in front of the facade, down the stairs towards the square

A full view of the facade and the surrounding buildings

And finally, putting all of this in context from the main street downward the hill (It all looks a lot smaller and more cozy than you'd otherwise have thought!) This is strictly pedestrians only, and is flanked on both sides with heaps of stores...

Heritage Quarter
The streets leading away from this landmark were packed with people, with night fast approaching.

A stretch of the main street down. On either side there are shops selling various things, including one popular chain of souvenir shops (IIRC, one of the outlets for this is pictured here on the right in red) which had something like 4 outlets stationed along this route. This stretch of the road has tarpaulins overhead shielding pedestrians from the rain, but that wasn't that case all along.

Along with the traditional/local stores, there were also a number of international brands. These stores become increasingly common when travelling downhill.

Apart from the stores, there were also several distinctive buildings along the way. Here are some of them which were quite typical of the general architecture found in these areas:
Left - A shop/residence, with balcony (and ornate railings) above
Right - A church. Note the resemblance to other churches seen already in this post... 

Towards the bottom of the slope, you get to yet another square, with some buildings which are much larger (and have more distinctive traits). This area also had many of those dangling stringy decorations strung overhead... Most if not all the buildings here follow the same basic colour schemes seen everywhere else in traditional Macau architecture...
The house of the golden arches has these fancy red awnings

It was also clear that many of these big and grand old buildings had also been snapped up by some big brands wanting to make an impact... I'm always quite amazed to see these sorts of cultural clashes: the pinnacles of consumerist modernity embedded in ornate traditional settings.

 Giordano - No idea what this brand is, but they're sure out to make a statement about something...
Levi's Jeans (not that I can personally stand wearing jeans, but I digress...)

However, there were still many traditional shops and sights around too worth mentioning:
Left - One of the buildings bordering the square. Covered walkway on ground floor (with rounded arches), and decorative windows above. The white sign with blue writing on it is a typical street sign in use for these sorts of buildings.

Right - A wonton noodle shop. We had planned to pay this place a visit, but ended up being too full still. Next time!

A traditional pharmacy, which is still trading as, well... a pharmacy! Note however how it looks quite different to all the other buildings in this region, with its rectangular windows and doors, squat two-storey construction, and dark blue awnings.

This elegant white dame must've served some significant purpose, especially with those decorative features and crest right up top. IIRC, this was some government related thing (police/justice/courts) at some point, though I can't seem to find the sign which suggest that now.

In some of the short alleys/side streets between buildings, small vendors had set up shop. I particularly like these shots, as these shops appeared particularly photogenic, with their vibrant colours, warm inviting lighting, and the snippets each reveal about the traditional way of life in these parts of the world.

 Roasted bean merchant
Fruit and veges - Heaps of bananas are on display here :)

Finally, some closing shots of the square. They were still putting up the Christmas tree that day (just the last/tip segment needed to be mounted before it was complete), and a workman had a wooden ladder leaning against the side of the tree.

 The unfinished tree
Stringy lighting overhead. Foot traffic was initially light, but got increasingly heavy as rush hour loomed.

Pawn Shop
At the end of the square, there was a road where traffic (cars, taxis, busses, and more) was allowed to pass, unlike in all the other streets seen so far. Despite this, the sides of the road were still flanked by more of the buildings that we'd been seeing, but this time with more variations and interesting lighting to boot.

Traffic could pass down this street. On either side, shops were open in the heritage buildings.

An example of a traditional store under the walkways - this one selling candies, which are contained in these large glass jars.

This building doesn't share the standard characteristics of the other buildings around here, but is still recognisable as being a building in Macau. On the bottom right, a taxi is approaching.

Across the road from this, a traditional pawn shop, which had been converted into a museum (NOTE: paid entry).
View from behind the counter - they had these little porcelain lamp shades that were dangled down low to light up the place. Here, the cabinets contain many little artifacts from the previous operation based here.

 The secure holding cells located behind the shop (in a separate building)

Passageway through to the cells/storeroom out back. The shop front and the storeroom are separated by a short gap outside, so you have to walk out of one before entering the other - this was probably for security of some kind. Above the cells, there was a second level, which could be accessed from a rickety pair of stairs that were quite steep (WARNING: only a limited number of people may go up there at a time, so it's probably very fragile). After trying a few steps myself, I decided that it probably wasn't safe for me to head up, since the stairs were flexing a bit too much for comfort, while being very very steep

 Honeycomb tiled floor

Old logo/sign of the pawn shop which used to operate from here. Bold, red and gold.

The old doors were thick and heavy affairs, with these really chunky and solid-looking bars. They really meant business back in the day!

The shop windows had some rather intricate stained glass panels (chinese style), finished off with these ornate grills. Here we can see a promotional banner for the museum. Not sure what the drums were for though!

Ferry Trip Back to Hong Kong
Taxi Ride to Ferry Terminal
By now, night had well and truly set in, and the lighting on many buildings gave everything a very different atmosphere. The trip back to the terminal basically involved a big loop around the back of everything we'd just walked past, up a little highway, and out back to the terminal.

Passing the pawn shop, with all its lanterns

A lighthouse, situated high above the highway road on a rocky outcrop above

Outside the ferry terminal, upper deck - In the distance, you can see an interesting looking building whose colours changed constantly. IIRC, it resembles the aquatics event centre for the Beijing Olympics

Unfortunately, somewhere along this ride (or maybe just before getting off), I managed to lose one of the two umbrellas we'd been carrying. It was a small and short little thing - blue with a silver handle, and with yellow writing on it (it was from a conference held in Hong Kong).

Boarding and Tickets
We had originally bought tickets for the last ferry sailing of the day (at 10:10pm or so). This was to ensure we had a return ticket while not having that much time pressure to cut activities short to avoid missing the sailing and/or forfeiting the tickets. That is because you can hop on any earlier sailings (if you hold a later ticket) by waiting in line in the "standby" line. As it turns out, this is a very popular option, with quite a long queue of people waiting to get on that sailing (you'd be allocated any old seat that wasn't filled already). At times, this may turn out to be not such a great thing, as we found out on this trip...

After getting revised seats, the main waiting area was already empty/devoid of people, as almost everyone else had already boarded the ferry. We had to rush a little to get on the ship, as the staff were starting to jabber away into their walkie talkies to start closing up boarding.

The Sailing
For this sailing, we were seated on the lower deck, and in the second row from the front of the ship. As it turns out, the seats down here aren't that cramped either (i.e. still light years ahead of "cattle class"). The other caveats of sitting downstairs are that:
 1) There's no meal provided
 2) From the safety briefing, it's abundantly clear that the life-jackets down here are much much clunkier to use (a fact that became all the more nerve racking later on)!

The lifejacket procedure down here (from the little that I managed to understand/pick up on/remember) was something like: pull the tiny strips/straps on each side through two tiny buckles on the companion straps on that side, then drag these out front, criss-cross them, do some funny knots, and once again for good measure. Good lord! How the F***K are you supposed to remember all that and survive when the boat is pitching up and down in heavy swells, taking on water quickly, and threatening to sink in pitch blackness - a typical scenario for evacuation in an emergency. Compared to the ones upstairs (which were basically the same as the airline ones), where it's just click-clack on either side and pull to tighten, these were archaic (and potentially lethal)!

For a nighttime sailing, this initially started out quite well (well... as well as being on a moving boat on the open sea at night could be). I just about managed to fall asleep then and there (after all the walking that day), which I'd found was a great form of entertainment for such a trip. However, this was not to be.

About 10-20 minutes into the sailing, things started to go downhill from there, as the sea got progressively choppier. The boat began pitching up and down in the waves, something like straight up and down by over a meter (closer to 2 or so I'd guess) within the space of a second. It was brutal. Up and down *shudder*, up and down *shudder* *sssshhhh*, up and down *sssshhh* *shudder*. As the pace picked up, you could increasingly hear the sound of the waves slapping the boat with a loud hissing noise (the cabin became increasingly quiet, while these noises just grew louder and louder). Worst of all, it was pitch black outside - no lights, no reference points, nothing. Just a medium-sized craft in the middle of a heavy sea in the dark, pitching up and down. Some of these movements were so rapid/strong that a few times, I felt my bum becoming airborne, hovering some 2-3 inches above the seat, before getting rammed hard into the depths of that very seat the very next instant. There was gasps in the cabin with each of these extra strong surges, though no doubt it probably felt the worse sitting right there in the front few rows of the ship no doubt.

By this stage I was clinging tightly to my seat for dear life, fingers clenched tightly over the hand rests, legs wedged into the seat in front, trying to minimise the sensation of being biffed about by the waves. I was also getting seriously concerned that we could at any moment run into some serious trouble... with the waves pushing the front of the ship down so much on the down cycles, and the surf's tendency to wash over the tip, it'd have taken just one rogue wave that was slightly too large or perhaps an ill-timed extra push into the oncoming water to have tipped us over. Yet, despite all this, the ship still seemed to plough ahead at full steam valiantly into the oncoming waves. Again and again we charged. Surely it must've been obvious that if we keep pushing so hard, something would eventually have to give! Yet, on and on it went for a solid 10 minutes, before finally there was a Public Announcement advising passengers to remain seated for the rest of the trip due to the heavy seas, and that we would be arriving late in Hong Kong as a result as they'd have to slow down. Finally, an acknowledgement of the conditions we were facing, though it wasn't very welcome news, as it meant that there was still more to come.

For another few minutes, the ship still continued to charge ahead at full steam before eventually slowing down a bit. It was another 10 minutes or so before things began to finally settle down a bit to more comfortable levels, before dying down to normal levels for the remainder of the sailing.

It was a relief when the lights of Victoria Harbour started floating into view alongside the ship, but an even greater relief to finally get off and back onto solid land once disembarked (note, even while docking, we were still rolling around quite a bit). Finally we had made it! And in fact, we actually arrived on time (and not late as had been initially announced). Amazing.

 Some Christmas decorations on office blocks that were only visible from the boat as we docked

Compared with the hour long ordeal we'd just been through, finding and filling out customs forms, and queuing up to get back into Hong Kong was a breeze. Having said that, they did appear to be having a few problems scanning the passports properly - the guy in front of me had his scanned some 10 times before the thing eventually managed to work.

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