One of Life’s Greatest Architectural Designs: The Asian Las Vegas

Asia had longed to recreate something of the same ilk as Las Vegas’s notorious and world-renowned Strip. After years of planning and many leading architects and engineers sniggering at the prospect of building something on reclaimed land, the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino opened its doors in 1999 in Macao.

It cost a whopping 2.4 billion to build according to Twisted Sifter. The architects have enthused the casino grounds with smatterings of cities from around the world. Take its spin on Venice for instance: a plethora of gondolas, a faux St. Mark’s Square and the Venetian’s very own take on Venice’s magnificent Grand Canal, and you get the picture that this casino wasn’t built on a whim.

The_Venetian_Macao_SanLucaCanal
Photo from wikimedia.org

The Venice-themed part of the Venetian alone has space for over 1,000 rooms, which contributes to their considerable amount of hotel suites that make the Venetian the biggest hotel in the world.

It also has a Canyon Ranch Spa Club that spans a staggering 65,000 square feet and 16 restaurants that serve cuisines from around the world. It also is a regular for high-profile boxing events. There are also two museums on the grounds of the Venetian: the Guggenheim Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum.

But its original purpose for being built was to offer visitors and residents of Macao a gaming mecca to be proud of. It would later be dubbed the Las Vegas of Asia—and the biggest casino in the continent by some way. It features a gaming floor of 546,000 square feet underneath a spectacular domed ceiling, making it the largest gaming floor in the entire world. There’s also live entertainment day and night at the Venetian.

TheVenetian_Macao_Great_Hall"
Photo from wikimedia.org

Undoubtedly, apart from the architectural splendor of the Venetian, its main appeal is the myriad of entertainment options that it offers its patrons. The Las Vegas Sands, who owns the Venetian, knew that they’d have to offer guests more than just gaming to help maintain healthy profit margins – something Vegas casinos have struggled to do over the years.

When the groundbreaking InterCasino ushered in online casino gaming in 1997, casinos had to rethink their business models to compete with the more convenient online options that gaming enthusiasts were now presented with. This is why many began offering a wide range of entertainment options – something Las Vegas Sands didn’t want to fall foul of when they created the Venetian. And that’s where the beauty lies with the Venetian: its many creations and live shows.

So if you think you’ve already enjoyed everything Las Vegas can offer, try something Macao on your next holiday. The Venetian is one of the most spectacular sights of architectural brilliance you may well come across—and it’s only a 30-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong. It’s an experience that’s definitely one for the books!

Hong Kong, Day Zero to One

I received word that I will be sent to Hong Kong just two days before flying out. This freaked me out so bad for a couple of reasons: first, I had to be there the night before the flight—meaning, the following day—for an editorial briefing and a client-hosted dinner afterward. This meant only one thing: clothes. Proper clothes.

That, and the fact that I had seven hours’ worth of winding roads and expressways between me and my destination. I racked my closet (aka dump of unused clothing, mercifully on a pile that’s different from those waiting in vain to get to the laundry) and packed like a maniac, stuffing the nicest, most decent pieces my slipper-wearing self can afford.

“Please bring formalwear for dinner,” said a text message. I was ready to cry and whimper like a little kid right there. But no, I was an adult, and nobody needed to know the ruckus my brain — and my apartment — was going through that day.

I made it through all the pretentiousness of cleaning up — I wore shoes and pants! — and even got a compliment from our well-heeled publisher when he spotted me sitting by the office’s waiting area with my luggage: “Hey, you look like a jetsetter!”

He didn’t see me roll my eyes.

I had nursed another expected headache that night, and for a time I cursed the additional baggage I’ve had to fit into my already-crammed luggage — folders and discs and a ridiculously thick hoodie given to me (“You’re going to need that”).

The next day came, and with me alone and having to attempt to mingle with other people who spoke better English than I did, I was overwhelmed. I only had time to savour the fact that I flew business class for the first time and had silver cutlery onboard instead of disposables.

The day whizzed past in a blur of airport gates, forlorn-looking spaces, grey skies, and buildings in sundry shapes and sizes. Before I knew it, we were boarding the cruise ship we were about to stay on for the rest of the trip. I started working the moment I stepped in, and continued well into the night. By 11 PM, I was reeling from exhaustion and seasickness despite having taken medication earlier. I literally stumbled to my cabin after long agonizing minutes of trying to locate it and then collapsed to sleep (are ship carpets really supposed to have big wavy prints on them in ridiculous neon color combinations that will make you barf faster than you can hold?). If the ship sank in the middle of the South China Sea that night, I would not have cared.

In those final moments of quiet, just before my brain shut down, I realized that hey, I’m in a new country!

And then everything just went blank.

Hong Kong

~
Words and photos by Nikka

Brunei’s numbers, colors, and gold

Brunei. What’s in there?

Gold. Lots of it.

Well, this is both true and false. It is true because Brunei Darussalam, a sultanate southwest of the Philippines on Borneo Island, has lots of gold — from the domes of its lavish mosques to the bidets of its restrooms to the buttons of its well-loved sultan’s clothes.

But Brunei does not produce gold — well except for liquid black gold, or crude oil, which has shaped the fortune of this tiny country, allowing it to amass — nay, import — all the (yellow) gold everyone now sees in and around it.

Brunei is very close to the Philippines, but the differences are quite stark. Bruneians — the citizens of Brunei — enjoy lots of freebies, which frankly we Filipinos can do with as well: free housing, free healthcare, free education, interest-free loans. And because the country produces oil, petrol for cars is said to be very cheap.

We checked how much: according to globalpetrolprices.com, a liter of gasoline in Brunei is 0.43 USD — P18.49 — as of June 23 this year.

Most of its citizens also have two cars, and although the dwellings at Kampong Ayer — or Water Village — look rather rundown, inside are modern appliances, air-conditioning, and probably gold-plated toilets.

And oh, before we even forget, Bruneians pay no taxes. I repeat. They have no f*cking taxes.

Now, before we all pull all our hairs out of envy of their tax-free existence, allow us to take you around this tiny country’s mosques, markets, rainforests, and one of its biggest hotels.

Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
This is the biggest mosque in Brunei, locally known as Kiarong Mosque. Its domes are gold-plated, but of course you already knew that.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Malay Technology Museum
This museum, right beside Brunei Museum, displays artifacts from the earliest ways of life in Brunei — primarily in the water villages (the country’s population is predominantly Malay). These include ‘stilt architecture, boat making, fishing techniques, handicrafts’, according to Lonely Planet.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Tamu Kianggeh Open-Air Market
The Tamu Kianggeh (tamu is the local term for market) is a bustling space where local handicrafts and produce — including, if you noticed, big-ass chili — are sold. It is located on the banks of the Kianggeh River.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Pasar Gadong
Like all night markets, Pasar Gadong offers fried and skewered food at cheap prices, usually under B$3.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Kampong Ayer (Water Village)
The Water Village is a local dwelling area. Brightly painted houses stand on stilts, and locals navigate through boats. This village is self-contained, with its own public facilities such as hospitals and schools.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Inside a typical (!) local home — which has a so-called open house for tourists.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Water taxi used in ferrying people to and from Kampong Ayer

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Ulu Temburong National Park
Seventy percent of Brunei’s 5,700+ sq km land area is composed of rainforest. A part of this — 50,000 hectares — is the Ulu Temburong National Park. It is home to mangroves, various species of birds, proboscis monkeys, and crocodiles. Excursions start via water taxi from Bandar Seri Begawan, into 1,300+ steps (yes, a staircase) up and deep into the forest, ending in the Canopy Walk, a 140-foot three-tiered installation one needs to climb for a 360-degree view of the rainforest canopy (thus the name) and Mt. Kinabalu in the distance.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Canopy Walk

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
The highest tier of the Canopy Walk

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Left: Longboat to/from the Sumbiling Eco Village. Right: Waterfall inside the Ulu Temburong National Park.

Sumbiling Eco Village
Sumbiling Eco Village is a usual stop for excursions to Ulu Temburong National Park.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Typical Iban longhouse. With AC and car port. :) The Iban are an indigenous tribe in Brunei. They are former headhunters, but British rule has stopped the practice. Traditionally, several families occupy one longhouse.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Banana fritters

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Bamboo chicken. According to borneoguide.com, bamboo chicken is ‘a culinary specialty we are known for, featuring succulent pieces of chicken marinated with spices and herbs, then stuffed into a green bamboo tube and carefully cooked over (sic) wood fire. The moisture contained in this particular type of bamboo ensures the tube does not break open while cooking, and also contributes to a flavourful broth without pouring in any water at anytime during the cooking process.’

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
A man cooks the stuffed bamboo in wood fire. Ugh. Now I’m hungry.

Empire Hotel and Country Club
The Empire is the most lavish hotel in the whole sultanate. It has, among others, 21K gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It has 500 rooms spread over 180 hectares, and the flush knobs on its toilet seats are probably worth more than we are, combined.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
The Emperor Suite – the priciest in the hotel at B$16,000 (P500,000+, in case you needed to know).

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Tywin Lannister would be pleased.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
63-sqm pool and jacuzzi inside the Emperor Suite.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

So, what’s the catch?

Alcohol is prohibited. Throughout the country!

~
 This trip was taken by Owen in 2013 as a photographer for AsianTraveler and was sponsored by Brunei Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. All photographs by Owen Ballesteros. Words by Nikka
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