What makes a country?
Hong Kong and Macau are designated as special administrative regions of China, under the ‘One China, Two Systems’ policy.
Yet both require your passport to be checked and stamped when you enter. This applies to Hong Kongese and Macanese just as it does to foreigners.
So if you have your own immigration policy does that make you a country? Or maybe a territory? What’s the difference anyway?
What if we also consider that they both have their own:
- Governments and political parties.
- Customs, rules, and regulations (like police and school systems)
- and languages.
If we count Macau as a country then it will be the 60th country we’ve been to.
We prefer milestone numbers to be exotic and exciting… Country number 50 was Iran. If this is to be number 60 we really should have thought about it and planned it better.
We landed still undecided if we count it or not (google was no help, it turns out ‘what makes a country’ is way more complex than most of us realise). However, we had decided that regardless we need to travel more!
A quiet airport immigration and customs was a breeze. Being back in an expensive place our first stop was the tourist information office. They were super helpful and told us what bus we needed to catch to get within walking distance of our digs and how much it cost, with a warning we needed the exact change. Helpfully in Macau they also take Hong Kong Dollars (change can be given in either HK$ or Macau Pataca or a combination of both) so we already had the right change.
The bus journey was quite surreal. As we made our way through the main casino area, past replicas of Venice and the Eiffel Tower, the streets were deserted. When we got off the bus we found life. We’d booked the cheapest hotel we could find. On the edge of the old town it was close to the few tourist sights, down a quiet backstreet with local eateries mixed with tourist orientated shops and traditional medicine shops. We didn’t enjoy seeing lots of dried shark fins for sale.
Our room didn’t smell the freshest but we had a queen bed, some space around it and the bathroom was an adequate size. The shower was amazing! By far the best we’ve had.
After suitably messing up our room aka settling in, and eating some of our snack supplies for lunch, we ventured out to explore. Macau doesn’t have many tourist sights, and most are clustered around Senado Square so we’d picked a hotel that was only a few minutes walk away. The Square is dominated by Portuguese colonial buildings. A short walk away is the Ruins of St. Paul’s, the most famous landmark in Macau. Constructed in 1580 it was built with granite and had a grand vaulted roof and 3 amazingly decorated halls. It suffered fires in 1595 and 1601. Reconstruction took 35 years and on completion it became the biggest Catholic Church in East Asia. It suffered another blow after being hit by a violent typhoon in 1835 and then it caught fire for a third time, at which point it’s glory was relegated to history.
Today all that really remains is its baroque front facade. So while it has amazing history it really isn’t much to look at. Not that the swarms of people there seemed to mind, or maybe it is because it has a nice view over the city. We continued past and made our way up to Mount Fortress. Built in conjunction with the Jesuits between 1617 to 1626, it was the city’s main defence and was equipped with cannons, military barracks, wells and enough ammunition and supplies to endure a siege lasting up to two years. The views were better but being a Sunday it was heaving with people and Marie’s stomach was not happy so we just walked up to it and enjoyed the view.
With no real plan beyond that we just walked. We headed down the other side of the Fort and enjoyed walking the narrow backstreets of the old town. We enjoyed seeing everyday life and discovering small suburban temples as we went. Since we were heading in roughly the right direction we decided to head to one last sight before turning back. Kun Iam Temple is a Buddhist temple, and the oldest in Macau. Dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy it was founded in the 13th century and with the present buildings dating from 1627. The welcome statues are pretty cool and the courtyard was peaceful. It also had the biggest incense burning place we have seen. Dozens of spiralled incense burning continuously, they even had their own shelter and pool below to catch the ash. It was a great place to end.
The walk back to our digs was on big busy non-descript roads. It was dark by the time we got back. After having a rest we headed out to forage food. We hadn’t noticed many options around but the dark gives a different perspective. After a good walk round we’d only found a couple of small grubby looking places down the backstreets. We headed back to Senado Square (which had come alive at night) we found a few boring looking expensive restaurants but nothing that captured us. Tired and hungry but wanting something half civilised for the last dinner of the trip, so we decided to go to the Pizza Hut we’d seen opposite the Square. It was reasonable food and expensive but we felt half civilised.
To get back to Hong Kong for our flight home we wanted to take the recently opened Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB). It’s 42km length from Macau to Hong Kong Port to Zhuhai Port comprises the 29.6km bridge and a 12km link road (part of which is through a sea tunnel), it is the longest sea crossing in the world. An infrastructure marvel it is also the longest fixed link in the world and took 9 years to build at a cost of US$20 billion.
Having only opened in late October 2018 information on how to cross it was scant. It took much googling to work out what bus we needed to catch to the port, how to get tickets for the bridge shuttle bus and how to get a bus into Hong Kong central.
Wanting to allow plenty of time in case things didn’t go to plan we were up early. We then walked all the way down the main road with our rucksacks on, only to get on the bus and find its route takes it all the way down the road so we had only needed to walk 100 yards. At Macau’s port we entered the bridge terminal building. A massive Chinese affair it was basically deserted. We walked straight up to the desk and bought shuttle bus tickets and straight through customs and immigration. We thought that was eerie weird until we were on the bus and found ourselves on a huge 6 lane (plus hard shoulders) highway that had nothing on it apart from periodic shuttle buses and the odd private vehicle. It appeared to be a case of ‘built it and they will come’ in which nobody did. Misty fog made the whole thing more eerie.
Within only a couple of hours of leaving our hotel we were in the immigration line for Hong Kong. Immigration in Hong Kong is odd, outbound it is fast and efficient machine-read. Inbound is manual and was again one of the slowest we’ve been in. When finally through the buses were well signed and it wasn’t long before we were heading into the city.
With our last couple of hours we explored properly the central district. We dropped our rucksack into the left luggage at the MTR station and walked the main streets, past the stock exchange and huge commercial high rises. We really enjoyed mingling with the locals and expats going about their day.
Finally, we rode the The Central–Mid-Levels escalator. The longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, it is over 800m long and gains 135m in height. Made up of 20 individual escalators and 3 travelators a couple of sections were being renovated and it was a steep climb. In the morning it runs downhill and from mid-morning for the rest of the day it runs up. We walked back down exploring residential high rises, and markets in the steep narrow streets that are quintessentially Hong Kong. It was a great way to end the trip.
Note: For the record we only count countries if we’ve spent the night and by that we don’t mean at an airport hotel. We don’t count the times we got an exit stamp during a stopover and went outside for some real air. Also for the record we don’t actively seek to increase the number of countries we visit, we go to places because we want to. Although we do have a tendency to squeeze in as many new experiences as we can into every trip. We just keep a tally because we think it’s healthy to reflect on what we have experienced and achieved. It’s also a great motivator to travel more!
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