Maybe I’ve become jaded in my old age, but the “must see” sites in Macau left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

A-Ma Taoist temple lies close to the southern tip of Macau island. It sprawls up a steep, rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. Perhaps a dozen coaches were parked outside having disgorged tourists on day trips from the mainland. The place was packed, and the ascent slow going. There was so little of interest to me here that I didn’t feel inclined even once to take my camera out.

I was subsequently to visit Kun Iam temple, described in my guidebook as “the largest and most interesting temple in Macau”. Visiting there I was left wondering “if this is the largest and most interesting, I’d hate to think what the smallest and least interesting is like”. Unlike A-Ma, this place was almost deserted, apart from a handful of worshippers and a couple of priests. Again, no photographs were taken.

Guia fort is another tourist attraction which underwhelms. It’s set atop a small hill, and there’s a small cable car to take you to the top if you don’t want to climb up – which I didn’t, given the persistent drizzle. At the top there’s not much to see – a lighthouse, a few cannon, and some underground tunnels with a small exhibition of photographs of the history of the place. I did take one photograph of a defensive position which caught my eye. So unlike the pillboxes from the Second World War which in those days still scattered the Kentish landscape of my youth. The Maccanese version is open sided, with a small garden on top, presumable as camouflage against attack from on high.

Fortification at Fort Guia, Macau

Fortification at Fort Guia, Macau

Rather more interesting, and probably Macau’s biggest tourist draw beyond the casinos, is the Church of St. Paul’s, the ruins of a Portuguese cathedral built at the behest of Jesuits and dating from the turn of the 17th century. Today only the façade remains, carved by exiled Japanese Christians. It’s an odd blend of Oriental and Catholic imagery, including, for example the Virgin Mary stepping on a 7-headed hydra. The accompanying Chinese characters can be translated as “the Holy Mother tramples the heads of the dragon’”.

St. Paul's Church, Macau

St. Paul’s Church, Macau

The façade seemed to me an appropriate symbol of Roman Catholicism: a lavish front promising much, but ultimately empty and worthless inside.

Nearby is Monte Fort which, according to the guidebook, was built by the Jesuits (though I rather doubt they did much of the actual work themselves) to keep the Dutch at bay. It did. Its steep stone walls are impressive, rather less so the modest museum within. From the top there might be an impressive view over the town if the weather is right. There are also cannon, one of which appears to point straight at the Grand Lisboa casino. ‘Tis pity they don’t fire the battery to bring down what must be one of the most hideous buildings in the world.

Canon pointing at Grand Lisboa Casino

Canon pointing at Grand Lisboa Casino

There’s really not much more to tell about Macau. The poor weather rather put a dampener on plans to travel outside the city to Coloanne and Taipa. Had a mediocre dinner at a local Portugese restaurant with portions large enough for three, and a rather better dinner at the training restaurant again. This time duck confit followed by a pair of braised lamb shanks.  No room left for pudding, unfortunately.

The final morning was dedicated to tracking down some egg tarts, a local delicacy derived from the traditional Portuguese tart of the same name. Their history, however, is surprisingly brief, and their inventor was neither Portuguese nor Maccanese, but a Brit. Andrew “Lord” Stow created the recipe based upon Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, but made the filling a little sweeter and eggier in 1989. He then marketed them aggressively, and it came to pass that Lord Stow’s Bakery became a “must visit” for tourists, despite its somewhat inconvenient location in Coloanne. (Though it would be convenient if you lived in Coloanne.) Fortunately for me, his wife, Margaret, who had helped him in the bakery, divorced the “Lord” and set up a rival operation, her own bakery in downtown Macau, Margaret’s Café e Nata. It’s here that I went to buy a box of the famous delicacy.

I’d read in numerous sources that Margaret’s is difficult to find. It is. Even with the address and a map location I couldn’t find it. I asked a security guard where it was, but he didn’t speak English. I guess he caught the word “café” and replied “Starbucks?” Showing him the name of the place got him pointing me in the right direction.  His initial response, though, reflects sadly on what so many seek whilst abroad.

I’d also read that Margaret’s has long queues and very surly service – service so unpleasant that if it weren’t for the sublime egg tarts the place wouldn’t have any customers. Neither proved to be true in my case: no queue and service with a smile. And this is what my box of tarts looked like:

Custard Tarts from Margaret's Cafe e Nata, Macau

Custard Tarts from Margaret’s Cafe e Nata, Macau

Needless to say, they were very good, and a fine snack to eat at the airport whilst waiting for my plane back home.

And so ended my brief visit to Hong Kong and Macau.

[HK&M 7]

After lunch it was time to head off to Macau, a 55 minute jetfoil journey. Even though Hong Kong and Macau are now both part of the People’s Republic of China, one has to pass through immigration, both on leaving Hong Kong and entering Macau, which adds to the time taken. The interior of the jetfoil is more like a budget airline, but comfortable enough for the short journey. The weather, however, was very grey and drizzly – weather that was to persist, interrupted only by periods of heavier rainfall, during my stay in Macau.

I was staying at the Pousada de Mong-Há, a short taxi ride from the port. The Pousada is a small (30 room) government training hotel with adjacent restaurant, both staffed by trainees wishing to enter the hospitality business. The keen enthusiasm of the trainees was an absolute delight, even though the service had a few hiccoughs. (A trainee opening a bottle of wine for me at the restaurant apparently was doing so for the first time in her life. Unfortunately, it appeared to be a particularly obdurate cork, and her supervisor eventually had to step in.) In fact, the sheer charm of the staff made me think about why such charm is so often woefully lacking in the supposedly more up-market hotels in which one stays.

Check-in was swift. The room was large, as was the bathroom, all very clean and comfortable. And, joy of joys, there was a computer with a fast Internet connection. (I’d been unable to find an adaptor in Hong Kong which would allow me to plug in my netbook, leaving me suffering severe Internet-withdrawal symptoms.)

It was dinner time by then, and after a shower in a stall equipped with a vast array of jets of different heights, positions and force – rather like a device in a science fiction movie for performing some hideous bodily transformation – I headed to the training restaurant. After a preprandial dry martini I had seared scallops with Portuguese black pudding and orange marmalade, followed by a traditional Portuguese dish of African chicken accompanied by couscous and roasted courgettes. Despite at this point feeling rather over-stuffed, I was enjoying myself so much I forced down a trio of desserts with mango pudding, mango macaroon with hazelnut chocolate.

And so to bed.


When Hamlet exhorted Ophelia to “get thee to a nunn’ry” he probably didn’t have in mind somewhere like Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian garden.

Nan Lian garden isn’t old. It was only opened back in 2006, but it harks back to the style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) with its trees, rocks, waterfalls and ponds

Conifers at Nan Lian garden

Palms at Nan Lian garden

and wooden structures (all backed by incongruous skyscrapers).

Pagoda at Nan Lian garden

The nunnery also isn’t old. It dates from 1934, but was completely rebuilt in the 1990s using Tang Dynasty techniques; it’s made completely of wood without any nails.

Chi Lin Nunnery

Behind the impressive front courtyard are smaller enclosed courtyards which provide a soothing retreat from the bustle of Hong Kong city life. A wonderful place. I surmise for a spiritual retreat, and my favourite amongst the sites I visited here.

[HK&M 5]

Lantau Island was originally home to a number of fishing villages. In recent years it’s changed, and it is now the home of the current Hong Kong airport and Disneyland, though I most certainly wasn’t there to make the acquaintance of Mickey & friends. No, I was there for Po Lin monastery and the Tian Tan Buddha figure. The easiest way to get there is by cable car, but just as the “Peak Tram” wasn’t a tram, this “cable car” wasn’t a cable car, but an aerial tramway. What is it with Hong Kong and misnaming transport types?

Nong Ping Cablecar

Anyway, after an almost 6 km journey I arrived in Ngong Ping “tourist village” with its souvenir shops, Starbucks, Subway and 7-eleven. One has to pass through this to reach the Tian Tan Buddha figure, which was the world’s tallest such figure prior to 2007. Made of bronze, it’s 34 metres tall and weighs 250 tonnes. It looked enigmatic in the drizzle.

Tian Tan Buddha figure

One can climb up a steep flight of stairs to reach it. (Pity, really, the cable car didn’t reach to the top.)

Stairs to Tian Tan Buddha figure

There were a monk and four acolytes making their way up the steps, chanting and prostrating themselves every two steps. You can see them in brown on the right in the photo. It was slow progress. By the time I’d been to the top and looked around, they were still only about a third of the way up.

Past the Buddha figure is Po Lin monastery. Nothing really of note for the tourist here. Just lots of burning incense and a large, modern gateway.

Gateway to Po Lin Monastery


In the evening we took the Star Ferry to Kowloon. To be honest, the Hong Kong skyline doesn’t look that much different from the water than from Victoria Peak. However, when the sun set, the neon signs came to life.


At 8 p.m. there’s what the Hong Kong tourist board calls “coloured lights, laser beams and searchlights [that] perform in an unforgettable all-round spectacle synchronised to music and narration that celebrates the energy, spirit and diversity of Hong Kong”. To be fair, some of that is true. It’s just the “unforgettable” and “spectacle” that are a little wide of the mark. I’m not really sure what is spectacular about office blocks turning their lights on and off. The first two minutes were interesting enough, and it made me wonder how it was achieved technically, but the “performance” long outstayed its novelty value.

[HK&M 4]

Hong Kong has a reputation as a paradise for foodies, and in the three days I was there I had three memorable meals, though not all for the right reason.

On the evening of the first full day I went to Kowloon’s Temple Street Night Market. The market itself is of little note. Just another crowded, closed off street lined with stalls selling tat of various descriptions. However, the area also houses a large number of restaurants, many with outside seating areas. I sat down outside one such restaurant and ordered a couple of firsts for me: stewed goose and mantis prawns. The large portion of goose breast arrived sliced, on a bed of peanuts and dressed with a little gravy accompanied by a tiny saucer of a vinegary dipping sauce. It was pleasant enough, though rather tough and not as rich and fatty as I’d been expecting. The mantis prawns were (I think) coated with salt and barbecued. They look a bit like miniature rock lobsters, with a flat, plated body. They apparently have a fearsome reputation for their aggression whilst alive. According to Wikipedia they “sport powerful claws that they use to attack and kill prey by spearing, stunning, or dismemberment” and are known in some circles as “thumb splitters”. In death they are simply incredibly well armoured, and it takes a lot of work to extract the tiny shred of (admittedly rather tasty) meat from within.

The following evening my companion spotted a restaurant he’d read about, Peking Garden. Apparently, there are few places in Hong Kong serving Peking duck, and this is reportedly one of the best. I rather doubted we’d get a table since it was the weekend, but we were in luck. Not having the capacity to demolish a whole duck (though personally really not lacking the willingness to try), we ordered stir-fried beef with scallions, chilli chicken and hot/sour soup – hardly the most adventurous of choices, but the food was excellent (as was the service). However, the almost endless procession of enormous, beautifully lacquered ducks being taken past, presented to the table, then carved in the restaurant was a might distraction, and my heart sank just a little with each passing bird. If only I were there as part of a larger group…

The final “memorable meal” was breakfast. It was at a café close to the hotel which was always packed whatever the time of day. As I write, the name of the place eludes me, much as I would like to name and shame. Perhaps the awfulness of the experience has blocked the name from my mind. Anyway, one ordered at the till on entering, then joined a line to pick up one’s food. I ordered an omelette with hash brown. Well, let’s just say that the “brown” part was a misnomer. It was a blob of semi-raw, watery, grey grated potato. And as for the omelette, to be positive, one side of it was cooked – albeit to a strange leatheriness. The other side was untouched by the effects of heat. Mercifully, it was very small.

Ah, Hong Kong! A gourmet’s paradise.

[HK&M 3]

Apparently, one of the “must see” sights in Hong Kong is the view from Victoria Peak. When you’re in the heart of the city you can’t see quite how hideously god-awful the mass of concrete and steel imposed upon the landscape actually is since all you can see is the next monolithic temple to Mammon stretching to where the sky would be if you could actually see that far. Thankfully, a short ride takes you to a suitable vantage point to view the consequences of capitalist excess: Victoria Peak.

The journey starts with a lie: you take what they call the “Peak Tram”. It’s not. It’s a funicular railway, founded in 1888.

Victoria Peak Tram

Sadly, the tram has abandoned its original class system; in 1926 there were three classes:

First Class: British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak;
Second Class: British military and the Hong Kong Police Force personnel;
Third Class: Other people and animals.

The journey is steep, but mercifully brief at five minutes (unlike the queuing to get on). 1.4 km later and 400 metres higher one is dumped in a tacky gift shop (technically a “shopping and leisure complex”) curiously devoid of exit signs; anyone would think they wanted to keep you inside and spend all your money there. I eventually found an obscure backdoor exit next to the gents.

I’d read that there were attractive gardens which were originally attached to one of the residences of the Hong Kong Governors not far away. It’s a steep and sweaty climb, and as to whether it was worth it, I’ll let you be the judge.

Victoria Peak Garden

As for the concrete excrescence that covers the island, here’s one view:

Hong Kong Skyline

[HK&M 2]

Songkran, Thailand’s traditional New Year, is traditionally celebrated by getting drunk, getting into your pick-up truck or onto your motorcycle, then getting killed (or kill someone else). Admittedly, this year’s Songkran, earlier in the month, wasn’t a particularly good one. There were only 2,828 accidents, 321 dead and 3,040 injured over the 7 days of celebration. Fractionally more than last year, but far fewer deaths than on a really good year. Still, there’s always next year to look forward to – apart from for those who successfully ended their existences.

Songkran is such a fun time that the ruling Pheu Thai party decided a few days before it was much more entertaining to extend the parliamentary recess, rather than continuing its most important work of implementing widely opposed constitutional reform to grant its criminal fugitive leader a “get out of jail free” card so he can return to Thailand wisely governing the country. I rather suspect former PM Thaksin may be a little miffed at this.

Songkran is also marked by throwing bucket-loads of cold, dirty water over total strangers. Quite how a quaint tradition of pouring jasmine-scented water over the hands of one’s elderly relatives in blessing evolved into this carnage and mayhem is rather a mystery.

Anyway, faced with Songkran once more, I had to decide whether to stock up the freezer and lock myself in my house with a good book and a better bottle of whisky for a few days, or to travel to foreign parts. I took the road less travelled and headed off to Hong Kong and Macau.

I flew from Don Mueang airport, as it’s now spelled. (Before it was Don Muang, though neither spelling gets anywhere close to reflecting how it’s pronounced. Still, its spelling is rather a better shot than the totally impenetrable Suvarnabhumi.) This was the first time I’d flown from there since the floods of 2011 which inundated the place causing extensive damage. Even today only one of the three terminals has reopened, with a second scheduled to reopen in 2015. To be honest, there was little visible evidence of the flood damage, and the only bad flooding I encountered was in the gents toilet where, it appears, a significant number of men had been, shall we say, directionally challenged?

There were a lot of ethnic Chinese gentlemen waiting to board the flight to Hong Kong. It appears that they had also got into the Songkran spirit – “play Songkran” as Thai people say. As I entered the gents I was liberally sprinkled by a man shaking his hands as he exited. So much more fun to “play Songkran” than use the paper towels and hot air driers provided! Indeed, as I washed my hands post-pee, another Chinese gentleman decided to play Songkran all over my trousers as I stood at the sink. Such Chinese enthusiasm for a Thai tradition – even though Songkran wasn’t due to start until the next day!


I arrived at my hotel rather late, and immediately went searching for somewhere to eat. Most places were closed, including the Chinese restaurant I’d earmarked for a visit. Ended up having a Vietnamese meal, which wasn’t quite what I’d expected for a visit to one of the world’s culinary capitals.  The meal was decent enough, though.

Walking the streets I was somewhat surprised by the large number of Russians there. I was also surprised by the number of groups of men sitting on the street drinking alcohol. And despite racial stereotypes, these two groups didn’t overlap. My overwhelming impression, though was of the stench of dried seafood; my hotel was in a traditional dried seafood-selling area, selling every conceivable part (and quite a few inconceivable parts) of a fish dessicated. And in the morning light I would see streets full of shops selling these stinky delights, some simple places with boxes of what appeared to be foul-smelling cardboard stacked outside, and others with décor akin to a Swiss private bank, or a very upmarket jewellers with the finest specimens of olefactorily offensive fish offal displayed in glass cases.

And so my Hong Kong adventure began.


[HK&M 1]