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September 16, 2014

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Kats in Macau: Upon arrival, the region is eerily familiar — and entirely foreign

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John Katsilometes

A shot upon arrival of a familiar looking Venetian Macau, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.

Pacquiao vs. Rios at Venetian Macau

Manny Pacquiao takes a break as he is interviewed after his Launch slideshow »

Pacquiao vs. Rios: Macau

Teams battled and tempers flared at a workout today when the camps of Team Rios and Team Pacquiao crossed paths during training sessions Wednesday at The Venetian Macao Resort, Nov. 19, 2013. Launch slideshow »

MACAU — What is the first impression, the initial vibe and sensation you feel upon arriving on the mythic Cotai Strip in Macau?

This is eerie.

As in, have I been here before?

This was the first conscious thought after about a day’s worth of flying across the Pacific, first from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, then to Taipei and finally Macau International Airport, where we were shuttled to Venetian Macau.

Upon first blush, Venetian Macau is so alike in design and scope to its sister property in Las Vegas that it seems you have not left the real Strip for the Cotai Strip. Las Vegas is a brilliantly conceived and uniquely appealing city, but it is derivative (or, if you like "themed") for so many other international locations. Venice is one of those, and why the Venetian is so popular is it feels like Venice.

But what can you say of a resort in a Chinese enclave that is itself derivative of a resort in the U.S., which is derivative of a classic Italian city? After you recover from the dizziness, you can say the Venetian Macau is giant, even by Vegas standards. It has 9,500 rooms (more than a thousand more than the Venetian/Palazzo in Las Vegas combined), the building covers 10.5 million square feet and is the largest single-structure hotel in Asia.

More impressive, Venetian Macau's casino is 550,000 square feet, or five times as large as the casino space at Venetian Las Vegas.

You hear the stories, or even fables, about gambling in these casinos. I've made two trips through Venetian Macau so far, both in the middle of a weekday, and there is a lot of activity. There are "commission" blackjack and baccarat games, where players pay a fee just to sit at the table, and there were people stacked at some tables, but those I saw were just spectating, not playing.

Many tables were open, but there was a sea of tables, and I expect the action will be heavy by the weekend. This is something we'll track, along with the entertainment and nightclubs — oh wait, there are no nightclubs here. The culture is not fond of clubs, at all, in the way U.S. and international tourists love the clubs in Las Vegas. There's no Tao at Venetian Macau.

This sense of familiarity is further stripped when you walk into the property and realize that this is indeed a foreign land. At one moment, I spun around to shoot a photo of a Christmas tree at the hotel’s Grand Canal Shoppes (yep, just like the retail center in Las Vegas) overlooking the casino floor.

As I took a single photo, a gentlemen wearing a canary-yellow security jacket waved his index finger at me, the universally understood “no-no” sign.

Succumbing to my familiar environment and not realizing my in-fact physical location, I actually said to this man: “That is a really pretty tree, and I want to shoot it. Where can I do that without getting into trouble?” He raised his eyebrow and motioned for me to walk the stairs to the second level.

He didn’t speak English, of course. Even in my first hours here, I have found that I need to resort to hand gestures and even pictures on my iPhone of such famous figures as Manny Pacquiao to find such important locales as the hotel’s main lobby and Cotai Arena. That’s the sky-hook that brought me to Macau, the “Clash in Cotai” welterweight bout pitting Pacquiao against Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios at the 15,000-seat arena inside Venetian Macau.

The story arc for the week leading into the bout is pretty clear already: Once regarded as one of the two best fighters on the planet alongside Floyd Mayweather Jr., Pacquiao is now on a two-bout losing streak and also coping with the grim aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which swept through his native Philippines. Rios and he arrived in an explosive manner Tuesday night, the “Grand Arrivals” set at the main entrance of the hotel.

The two walked across a crimson carpet stretching into the entrance, and fans shrieked and lit up the scene with flashes from smartphone cameras. It was a scene reminiscent of the fighters’ entrance at MGM Grand in Vegas, and it implied pretty convincingly that this was a major happening in the region.

If Macau is going to forge its way into position as a major factor in the international fight game, such promotional moments are important. When I asked Pacquiao about Macau’s viability as a fight Mecca, he said, “It depends on how well they can promote a fight.”

There will be more from the Pac-Man, who is in terrific condition, as is his custom. But first I have to fix a problem I brought with me from Taiwan: I’m carrying the wrong money.

At Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, I exchanged U.S. currency for Macanese Patacas, or attempted to. As I approached the window of the airport’s Bank of Taiwan currency exchange cage, I was looking around the terminal for the proper gate number and heard the woman ask, “Local currency?”

“Yes,” I nodded, distantly.

Now I have a fairly substantial amount of Taiwan dollars. But fortunately this hotel will exchange the currency for something I can use. It’s a great amenity for expert international travelers, or even a first-time guest from Vegas all agog over this scene.

Follow Kats in Macau on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, find coverage at this link and follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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