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Special Administration Regions

MacauSixty kilometres west across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong lies the former Portuguese enclave of Macau. A mere sliver of mainland and a couple of islands covering just under twenty-four square kilometres in total (and vigorously growing with creeping land reclamation), the territory is geographically and economically a midget compared to its booming cousin across the water. The transfer of Macau's administration (Portugal gave up any claims to sovereignty in the 1970s) to China in 1999 – two years after Hong Kong's – had none of the drama or controversy that surrounded that of Hong Kong. As in its larger neighbour, the majority of Macau's population of 436,000 are Cantonese-speaking Chinese. But this has not prevented the territory from developing an atmosphere distinct not only from Hong Kong but from other parts of southern China.

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. And Macau can even boast its own indigenous population, the Macanese, a tiny mixed-blood minority, whose origins in the colony date back centuries and who are often bilingual in Portuguese and Cantonese and still maintain the traditions of both cultures. The cheap Portuguese wine and Macanese cooking – an interesting marriage of Chinese and Mediterranean influences – are further reminders of colonial heritage, as is the faintly Latin lifestyle, altogether less hectic and mellower than in other parts of southern China. South of the main city, on the tiny islands of Taipa and Coloane (now linked to the peninsula by bridges and land reclamation), are beaches and quiet villages where you can eat fish and drink Portuguese rum or port in relative peace.

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 high-rise hotels, highways and bridges are appearing, and Hong Kong-style land reclamation has begun in earnest.

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 very easy (tens of thousands do it every weekend), though you need a couple of nights really to do the place justice.

Macau's climate is the same as Hong Kong's. Between June and September conditions are hot and humid – above 30°C – with frequent rainstorms, as well as a danger of typhoons. Between October and April conditions are cooler and much pleasanter, and while it can rain a lot in January and February, the temperature rarely falls below 14°C.

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