Macau has an interesting history.  In the 16th century, the Portuguese began trading with the Chinese and, in 1557, were granted the small islands of Macau (located a few miles off the coast of China on the South China Sea) as a reward for driving away the pirates that inhabited the area.  It became a huge trading port of call for the West, but began a rapid decline when the British were granted the islands of Hong Kong (only an hour away by speedboat) in the mid-1800s.  Macau remained under Portuguese control until 1999 when it was handed over to China as a semi-autonomous region of China (similar to Hong Kong, which was handed over to China in 1997).  This semi-autonomous status allows the Macau government to control many of its own affairs without the supervision of mainland China (other than the areas of defense and foreign affairs).
One major act of the Macau government was to legalize gambling, an activity that is banned throughout China and Hong Kong.  The Chinese are notorious for their love of gambling.  Several Chinese-owned casinos have taken advantage of this in the past, including the historic Casino Lisboa.  It was only a matter of time before the West finally realized the opportunity in Macau, especially with the number of Chinese millionaires that have been produced by the incredible economic growth in China in recent years, earning Macau the nickname “Vegas of the East”.  In the past couple of years, the Sands Hotel and Casino and the Wynn Hotel and Casino (a huge name in Las Vegas) have opened their doors, and, in just the past two months, the Venetian Hotel and Casino opened as the largest casino in the world.  As you drive around Macau, you will notice many other hotels/casinos (including the Four Seasons, the MGM Grand and a Sheraton) under construction.  Macau is undergoing a major boom.
Casino Lisboa (old school casino in Macau)
As one of our wedding presents, some friends gave us a couple of nights at the Venetian Hotel (which was reasonably priced due to the grand opening).  When we checked in, we where overwhelmed by the size of the casino (much bigger than any casino I’ve seen in Las Vegas) and the size of our room (all the rooms are suites at the Venetian).  Our excitement was quickly squashed when the ATM we used ate my ATM card (ok, it was my own fault since I entered the wrong PIN number 3 times in a row, BUT I realized later – too late – that the way the numbers are arranged on Chinese ATM keypads are the exact opposite as in the US…you live and you learn).  The prospect of a few days (and maybe weeks) in China with no access to money was – to say the least – a little stress-inducing.  You’ll be happy to know that a few panicked phone calls and two visits to the local office of Banco Weng Hang the next day ultimately produced my ATM card, which I promptly kissed.
Venetian Hotel - Macau
The atmosphere of a Macau casino is dramatically different than one in Las Vegas.  First, it’s relatively quiet – they’ve turned off the sounds of the slot machines, and the Chinese (who are normally a very chatty people, from our limited exposure) are intense gamblers who don’t really talk or cheer while gambling (very different from the drunken outburts you witness at casinos on the Vegas strip).  We also noticed that the Chinese don’t drink (a notorious pastime in Las Vegas) while they gamble, creating a much different environment.  Finally, the games played in the casino are much different than in Las Vegas, with baccarat (which you’ve probably only seen in James Bond movies) and some game where you try and guess the sum of three dice that are rolled dominating the casino.  I can’t forget to mention how many tables the casino had of the game War (yep, the game you played as a kid where you simply draw a card and see if it’s higher than your opponent’s card).  It’s a 50/50 chance you’ll win, but – of course – the casino takes a huge percentage making the game a terrible bet.  Regardless, the War tables were packed with people lining up to grab an empty seat!

In my opinion, the real draw of Macau is not the casinos, but the historic colonial district of the Portuguese era and the great food.  I’ll talk about that later.