In a Nutshell: At face value, it’s easy to make a comparison between Las Vegas and Asia’s own gambling capital, Macau. Casinos and bright lights, how could they be any different? But the reality is the comparisons can stop here. Cultural contrasts make for an entirely unfamiliar experience for those Vegas aficionados looking for a weekend of familiar packaged entertainment. Here’s what to expect.
If I asked you to name the largest gambling mecca on Earth, what would you say? Las Vegas? You aren’t alone, and you may be surprised to learn that this title is in fact held by a tiny special administration region of China, named Macau.
Featured in the James Bond film, Skyfall, you otherwise may not have heard of Macau. But, regularly termed as the ‘Las Vegas of the East’ you may be able to build a mental image. Tourism agencies firmly grasp this identification, it’s great for business, I mean who doesn’t enjoy a weekend escape letting their hair down in ‘Sin City’?
However, like cats and tigers are both felines, the similarities between Macau and Las Vegas end at their roots in glitzy, glamorous casino façades built around gambling.
It comes down to the casino culture being markedly different in Asia. Western casinos breed a particular type of culture with Las Vegas towering at the peak as a culmination of all things degenerate. To most, Las Vegas is a social avenue more so than a place to strike riches, the casinos double as an entertainment complex, a place to dress up and head out with friends and forget daily monotony through alcohol abuse and a casual flutter at blackjack. You may check out a show or an exhibit, casino hop on foot creating a timeline of cheesy selfies, and invariably you’ll end up at a club until 4am with no money yet a great story to tell the porcelain toilet later that morning. Your friends, of course, remember everything, including your regrets, many times not limited just to gambling last week’s paycheck, and it’s all over Facebook that afternoon.
But it’s damn fun, Las Vegas is an institution and one of a kind. Until of course, you heard about Macau, which at face value appears like the perfect equivalent to your dustbowl adult entertainment debauchery wrapped in the culture of Asia. You’re looking forward to it.
But, to be the bearer of bad news, you won’t have this fun in Macau. Your Vegas expectations will fall flat.
Put simply, unless you have an abnormal admiration for drinking green tea and chain smoking harsh Chinese cigarettes while enduring sixteen-hour Baccarat benders without supplementing your time with well…anything else, you probably won’t enjoy Macau. It just isn’t designed for anything else, especially not the American tourist, or any non-Chinese tourist, really.
But why not? You ask. Casinos, lights, gambling, what’s different? It’s the gambling culture and the atmosphere. Contrasts are evident even at the surface. In Macau almost every casino is dry, meaning, there is no alcohol for sale outside restaurants. This is a deal killer for many Vegas aficionados in itself. If not, maybe a lack of shows will be, there is only one show reminiscent of Vegas in the entirety of Macau which is ‘The House of Dancing Water’ in the City of Dreams on the Cotai strip. The Cotai strip is Macau’s unimaginative version of the Vegas strip, housing just ten casinos out of the thirty-three, if you want to see the others, it’s a 15-minute taxi to the Macau Peninsula. A stumble between casinos is purely a transit, gone are the street magicians, dancers or musicians, impersonators are thankfully omitted too, as are the ‘classy’ limousines and fun buses. Enjoy them or not, they give Vegas personality, and Macau lacks its own recipe.
To be frank, everyone’s just inside too busy gambling.
Most Macau casinos cater primarily to the privileged upper-class Hong Kong nationals or mainland Chinese high rollers. Social gambling stakes are difficult to come across. The Chinese gamble big, and 48-hour sessions are commonplace, they just don’t leave until either Baccarat has taken it all or their ferry back to Hong Kong leaves come Monday morning for work. If you find a table game to your liking, be prepared to share it with second-hand smoke, superstition above laughter and some manners that you might find slightly unsavoury, or, at least, unhygienic. Regularly hawking up a giant spit and proceeding to show it off on the casino carpet isn’t rare.
The tacky nature of Las Vegas, that which harbours irresponsibility, turning men into boys for the weekend, not limited to Elvis weddings, firing ranges, exotic car experiences or indoor skydiving is left worlds away back in Nevada. This can be perceived as a good thing by many, but it’s hard to argue that these junk novelties don’t add to the overall Vegas allure, shuttling in tourist masses for years gone by for stays beyond a weekend. Macau doesn’t have anything of the sort, which would be entirely fine but Macau has no replacement either, leaving those with Vegas expectations wondering what to do after inevitably losing at the tables.
In context to Vegas, Macau feels sterile and lacks it’s own charm, instead opting to duplicate comforts from Hong Kong and mainland China, targeting pre-existing Chinese gambling habits rather than trying to induce them or increase tourism. Entertainment was never a priority in Macau, it’s always been about the pipedream of making money. Not a little bit of money, but a lot of money. The grand luxury of Chinese-inspired casinos is a testament to this, presenting a mature, classy and calculated approach appealing to the all-important Chinese social status and success. It’s an entirely different market, and one which you won’t find passed out in the Casino lobby.
It’s strictly business in Macau.
Clubs front lining the biggest names in dance music, rooftop pools, regrettable bachelor parties, celebrity spotting and a myriad of strip clubs say a lot about the weekend Vegas wants to give you, and the patrons that demand it. It’s never just been about the gambling. Conversely, Macau’s solemn atmosphere, lack of alcohol, entertainment options and the hundreds of jewellery store fronts used primarily to launder money into the Macau Peninsula say a lot about the weekend Macau wants to give you, too.
This may well be your cup of tea (pun intended), but really, to most Western tourists with their eyes on Macau being the Asian Las Vegas, you’ll be seeing apples and oranges.
But look, don’t get me wrong. Don’t write Macau off as a destination. You may really love Macau visually, it’s a beautiful place especially at night. You may love Macau’s exclusive, rich Portuguese-Chinese heritage overlap, you may love Macau if you have a gambling problem, or if you simply need a well-earned break from Hong Kong. You might even love Macau just to walk away having done the largest bungee jump in the world, but you’ll unlikely love Macau with arrival expectations mimicking that of a packaged weekend of Vegas entertainment.
Macau may well be on its way, watch this space, but ‘what happens in Macau stays in Macau’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
And, for those expecting to chase their vices in the ‘Sin City’ of the east, it doesn’t live up to it either.
P.S Have you visited Macau? Did it live up your entertainment expectations or fall flat? I’d be interested to know your opinions in the comments below!