I've travelled to many places but my goal remains the same in every journey -- to bring back a souvenir unique to that place. From Paris, I brought a music box that played "C'est La Vie", a postcard and a vintage book. At London's Tate Modern Gallery, I picked a 3D holographic bookmark. But in Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China, I found myself in a predicament. All the souvenirs were either Chinese or Portuguese. Where would I find a quintessential piece of Macau, a peninsula known for its happy people and glitzy casinos?
Finding a Macanese souvenir involved peeling back the layers of glamour and discovering the secret soul of the city-state.
Macau is home to a chain of bakery stores that are present in every locality and boast of the best baked goodies you can find. I stepped into a Koi Kei Bakery in the hope of finding mooncakes, a Chinese delicacy made of lotus seed paste, prepared during the lunar festival. I had missed purchasing them in Singapore and alas, there were none in Macau either. There were, however, almond cakes and cookies that looked deceptively similar. I learnt later that these crumbly confectionaries are a Macanese specialty and not available anywhere else in the world.
If you'd like to try them for free, head to Food Street below the Ruins of St Paul's. There, you can also bite into flaky egg rolls, beef jerky and crunchy peanut candy from trays laid out in front of every other shop. Another place to pick up excellent almond cookies is Lord Stow's Bakery at Coloane Island. Although the shelf life isn't more than a week, you shouldn't have much trouble finishing them in that time.
Almond cookies: Check!
Edible souvenirs were very well but I wanted something I could treasure for years to come. Everywhere I looked, I confronted the same image -- that of the Rooster of Barcelos, the best known emblem of Portugal. Now if I was in Portugal, I might have been keener on picking up a rooster mug or key chain but not in Macau. I did compromise and purchase a tiny Chinese Laughing Buddha, because it was simply adorable and I have a weakness for these full-bellied harbingers of good luck. But I'll give you one good reason to browse through the souvenirs in Taipa Village -- the street name signs. They are as Macanese as you can get -- Portuguese road names printed in bright blue on white signages. While in Taipa, also explore its by-lanes full of interesting buildings and tiny Tao temples. And spend a quiet afternoon at the Taipa Houses Museum, with its lovely pond and cobble-stoned walkway.
Macanese street sign: Check!
If there's one thing that really stands out in my trip to Macau, it's the food. I indulged in warm breads, deep red port wines and the ubiquitous serradura biscuit and cream pudding at charming Portuguese restaurants. I also dug into elaborate Chinese meals at swanky restaurants like Sofitel and MGM Macau. But what kept me loyal company at every binge session of dim sum and bird's nest pudding were copious glasses of the warm golden elixir the Chinese seem to love -- jasmine green tea. It's nothing like the varieties we get in India. Chinese tea bursts with refreshing flavours and it even boosts your metabolism and aids in digestion. At the airport, I picked up tins of exquisite Gianni Jasmine tea for myself and my green tea-loving friends. Incidentally, if you're interested in learning the nuances of Chinese tea ceremonies, pay a visit to the Macau Tea Culture House adjoining the Chinese Garden of Lou Lim Ieoc.
Chinese tea: Check!
As my quest for Macanese souvenirs intensified, I realised that I was wrong to dismiss the ones of Chinese and Portuguese descent. The two cultures are after all an integral part of the Macanese ethos and perhaps, I would be quite justified in counting Chinese medicine and beauty aids among my Macanese spoils. Chinese medical stores as common as Western ones in the peninsula. And the products with exotic ingredients promise relief from every ailment you've ever heard of. I bought a bottle of pain relief oil that came highly recommended. Although I desisted from empting my wallet at the inviting Nature Republic stores, I suggest you do just that. They are the Chinese world's answer to the reigning supremacy of The Body Shop and offer gorgeous creams and tonics for your skin and hair.
Chinese medicine: Check!
Lastly, if you like novelty like me, make a beeline for the incense sticks sold at Chinese temples. The largest and most majestic of them all is A Ma Temple, with various pavilions nestled into the mountainside. Once you're done admiring the inscriptions, tapestry and models of boats dedicated to Matsu, the Goddess of fishermen, hop over to the shops selling devotional accessories like bells and incense sticks. Who knows, a blessing from a Chinese God may be just the thing to turn your fortunes.
Incense sticks: Check!
So you see, shopping in Macau is not just about Steve Maddens and Louis Vuitton. It's also about the markets at Senado Square, Taipa Village and Coloane Island, the panda collectibles at Macau Giant Panda Pavilion and the many unpredictable corners where you might find a material memory waiting just for you.
Getting there: Take a flight to Hong Kong Airport and then an hour-long ferry to Macau. The carriers you need to look for are Jet Airways and Cathay Pacific.
When to go: Autumn. October-November is when the weather is most pleasant. If you enjoy warmth, visit between February and March.
Where to stay: Sofitel Ponte 16, which is close to Senado Square or JW Marriott, which is a 10-minute walk away from The Venetian. The Ritz Carlton and MGM Macau are good options too.
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