Welcome to unfabulous Macau
Thu, Feb 3, 2011 (midnight)
Photo: Qiu Feng, AP
Lurking in the news of every casino opening in Macau and every bump in the peninsula’s gaming revenue is a threat to Las Vegas. It’s the threat of stolen business, of Asian whales staying closer to home, of outdoing the city that made a reputation for not being outdone. According to Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, in December alone casino revenue for the Chinese region reached $2.4 billion, nearly half of what the Strip made for the entire year. But if Las Vegas is concerned about losing people like me to Macau, it shouldn’t be.
As a Los Angeles business school student I’ve spent plenty of weekends on the Strip stimulating the Southern Nevada economy and reveling in that Vegas feeling. So when I left California to spend a semester abroad in Hong Kong, I was eager to check out Macau, the gaming mecca of the East. Given my passion for gambling, booze and all-night partying, I figured this would be an experience to remember. It turned out to be one I won’t easily forget.
In Macau, the casinos are even larger and more awe-inspiring than those in Las Vegas. Macau’s Wynn and MGM are exceptionally stunning, and even more impressive is the Grand Lisboa, aging casino magnate Stanley Ho’s response to the West. But once you enter these behemoths, the atmosphere is strikingly different from that of Las Vegas. The casinos are quiet. No screaming, no random drunk guy knocking your drink over on the craps table, no slot machines doubling as the soundtrack to your vacation experience.
In fact, it’s not just that the drunk guy is quiet, it’s that he’s hard to find in Macau. While the servers bring a steady diet of coffee and tea with the goal of keeping the serious Chinese gamblers at the tables all evening, finding something a little harder takes serious work. After scouring the hotel for a beer, we learned the easiest place to get a drink was not at the tables but inside the restaurants. And rather than the usual comped casino fare that arrives next to your chips, the prices inside the restaurants were totally unreasonable. For a poor student like me, it was an uphill battle against my biggest enemy—sobriety.
After our failed quest for alcohol, my friend and I were eager to get some grub before a night on the town. The restaurants in our hotel were incredibly expensive, so we figured we could find something reasonable by leaving the resort’s doors and wandering down the street. This is supposed to be a thriving city, right? The Vegas of the East? Our odyssey lasted an hour, and from what I recall, we saw only one restaurant. That’s right—one restaurant. We eventually settled on eating in another hotel, and not surprisingly, we were disappointed—our steaks were terrible, and we were the only ones in the place. Our experience was spiraling downward, so we decided that if we wanted to salvage our trip, we needed to change our attitude. After a couple of drinks with dinner, we had a renewed sense of faith and the beginning of a good buzz.
For nightlife suggestions, we consulted two concierges, one of whom said he was not allowed to recommend places outside of the hotel. (You got to be kidding me!) The other directed us to two clubs—D2 and D3. I’m not sure what happened to D1, but we arrived at D3 around midnight—prime Vegas party time—only to be told to come back at 3 a.m. when the night really started. Great! So we redirected to D2 to kill a few hours. The “disco” (“nightclub” means brothel in Macau) had little in common with a Vegas club. The place was littered with working girls, and the hottest moves on the dance floor were being showcased by 50-year-old Indian men. Now, I don’t have anything against middle-aged Indian men getting their groove on; I was just hoping for a younger, more engaging crowd, if you catch my drift. And not the kind that goes home with an extra helping of cash at the end of the night.
Finally, sober and single—a dynamic combination to end any evening—we decided to leave the club and head to the casino to at least get some gambling in before we retired. Post-club gambling, of course, is a classic Las Vegas move, so I figured it would help make up for the 10 or so hours of my life that I had now wasted wandering about Macau. After navigating through what seemed like parades of prostitutes, we found ourselves back at our hotel, with our wallets still in hand and our dignity intact.
But the final blow was yet to come. I’m a craps fanatic, and now that we were sticking to gambling, I figured my luck had to change. My friend and I searched endlessly for the craps tables, and after asking a number of dealers, we found the one craps table in the entire casino and maybe all of Macau. I slapped $500 worth of the local Patacas down on the table, and was ready to show the East what type of game Americans bring. Only they wouldn’t let me play. They wouldn’t even change my money. Patacas, I learned quickly, are not accepted in Macau casinos. That’s right—the local Macau currency isn’t valid at the establishments that make up Macau’s biggest industry. The only currency accepted is Hong Kong Dollars. I had a few words for management, argued about the unfavorable exchange rate and consequently I am now not welcome back in a certain Macau casino.
Halfway around the world, I’d managed to do something I’d never been capable of on the Strip—getting kicked out. But I learned my lesson. Macau is not Las Vegas. It’s not Atlantic City, not even Reno. It is, by my account, the worst place on earth. That’s just my opinion, but I’m sticking to it.