Taking modern conveniences for granted, today’s internet generation gets from point A to point B using mobile apps, e-tickets and on-line customer service chats. Leaving nostalgic types longing for yesteryear’s experiences like customer service phone numbers, free food and priority service for premium ticket holders, they model many Asian airports more like small cities than transportation hubs. Thankfully, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), a glimpse of the past awaits thousands of Bangkok bound passengers due to a revival of one of the worlds’ oldest commercial airports. Re-opened after being abandoned and replaced by Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2006, Don Mueang International Airport now provides one of Asia’s worst airport experiences. Remembering why we opted for the overnight train from Penang that’s now been altered due to modernization of Malaysia’s rail system, it’s hard to decide if the arrival or departure was worse. Anxious to share some stories from our eight-day Bangkok trip designed to escape end of Ramadan holiday crowds, I thought I’d get the ever-important semantics out-of-the-way first. Hoping we save our readers some time and frustration, here’s the scoop on flying to Bangkok from almost anywhere in Asia.
Having decided it’s easier to treat short-haul passengers like sardines instead of following through on a planned expansion of Bangkok’s beautiful modern airport, officials now route dozens of flights to an obsolete airport first used by KLM in 1924. In the city’s defense, they’re constructing a new extension to the BTS light rail that will ease much of the post-arrival nightmare but that might be years away. Glancing at the airport’s old drab terminal concrete building, it looks like The Brady Bunch took off from there when they made their Hawaiian vacation episode. Scheduling every arriving flight in a four-hour window each evening means unnecessary delays and adds hours to the landing process. Ensuring long bottlenecks at the immigration counters and a scam that denies most of the city’s thousands of taxis away from entering this airport, you’ll need almost two hours or more for negotiating your way through the mess. Remembering our arrival back in 2009 at Bangkok’s shiny new airport, we cringed when the plane landed, taxied about two miles and then stopped. Somewhere in the middle of a runway, we de-planed on the tarmac and they crammed us into waiting buses that take all passengers to the terminal. Reminiscent of our recent trip to Myanmar’s international airport, we expected better from Thailand.
After another mile long drive that took ten minutes, we finally arrived at a terminal building with little signage. Following the herd, we negotiated our way through a narrow passageway where passengers from about ten arriving flights stood in an eternally long line. Eventually reaching the immigration counters, chaos ensues every night as they mysteriously wait until the line reaches epic proportions before opening additional counters. Watching the mainland Chinese tourists literally step over people to join the new lines, we opted to stay put and after arrived at the counter about 35 minutes later. Leaving the customs area, we waited on another line where they scan your bags again and then finally allow passage to the baggage carousels. I’ve never really understood this extra scan process practiced throughout Asian airports. If you had a bomb, wouldn’t you have already used it? I assume it’s to look for fresh fruit or other contraband not permitted in whatever nation you’ve landed in but it seems redundant to me.
Almost an hour after touching down, we cleared the last hurdle and descended downstairs to another enormously long terminal floor, mostly devoid of crowds. Since thousands of passengers need to pass through the bag check before being allowed to leave, utilizing only one machine for the entire arrival hall totally defies logic and wastes time. Given the size of the enormous old concrete building, the wasted space should be filled with more staff, customs officers and information signs. Having come from a bottom priority destination by an airline’s standards, our flight’s baggage carousel was the furthest one away and everyone’s bags were sitting there for who knows how long. Rendering Air Asia’s “express bag” service totally useless, passengers paying more for Premium Flex seats will find this extra service meaningless and exiting the plane first means absolutely nothing. That pretty much leaves the “premium meal” as the only extra benefit of and it’s worth about 20 cents more than the little sandwich everyone else gets. Unless you really have a need for a “no change fee” clause, always buy the Value Pack service or base fare when flying Air Aisa. (Note they charge for checked luggage if you pay the rock bottom fare).
Needing cash, we found one of the few ATM machines. Here’s a little tip for cash withdrawals in Thailand. Most banks set up an option on the machine that reads something like “Exchange Rate is 33.93. Proceed?” after you enter your PIN code and withdrawal amount. Unless your bank really sucks, ALWAYS bypass that option and use the button underneath that says “Use Another Option”. Cleverly disguised and not explained on the screen, choosing the second option means you’ll receive cash at whatever exchange rate your bank would give had you used their ATM (less an ATM transaction fee which is usually 200 Baht). Ideal for consumers using mega banks with no foreign transaction fee debit or credit cards, we received a rate 3.2% better than the rate offered by the ATM. Also needing a SIM card, we found several companies with counters and recommend True Move for excellent 4G internet service although the one phone call I received had terrible reception. Ten days of service costs 450 Baht and they’ll connect you on the spot. And you’ll probably want to check Google maps once you’ve been sitting in Thailand’s traffic for about an hour. Sadly, you may be nowhere near your hotel yet.
Thinking our very long arrival experience was over, we left the mobile counter downstairs and discovered only two options to get a cab. Option one involves standing on some insanely long line waiting to get a number for the limited cab service they allow at this airport. Seeing absolutely no movement and being tired and frustrated, we chose the real ripoff option which is a private company with a small counter that overcharges. Paying 850 Baht to “Zone B” which includes almost all popular tourist hotels, they smile and take advantage of the non-backpacker crowd with some extra cash to spare. Capping it off, they closed the only street out because the King’s family somehow decided to use the same road at 10:30 PM and when it finally cleared, we learned this is not Bangkok circa 2009. With about ten million more cars on the road now, the cab drivers tell you it’s another 120 Baht for the faster “tollway” option. Despite the late hour, it’s worth the extra cash unless you enjoy competing with every other passenger using cabs to get somewhere. Set in a suburban neighborhood almost 30 km from the city center, the nightly airport traffic creates daily late night bottlenecks and a 90 minute ride is not unusual if you opt for the local streets.
Although getting to the airport for the flight home wasn’t as bad, be aware that all outgoing flights also leave in a four-hour window in the late afternoon. Taking advantage of cost savings, every major discount airline in Asia jumped on the opportunity to use Don Mueang including Thai Air Asia, Nok Air, Silk Air, Lion Air and a host of Chinese start-ups. Herding passengers from four different departures into a dimly lit basement terminal with no jetways, they schedule departures within five minutes of each other to make sure there’s maximum congestion. According to an excellent book on the airline industry I just read called Cockpit Confidential, discount airlines schedule all short hauls to coincide with long-haul connections on their code-share partner airlines. Written by veteran pilot Patrick Smith, it’s an excellent primer on everything you wanted to know about flying and stresses Asia’s superiority with airports compared to its American counterparts. But there’s an exception to every rule and since the gates on our left and right had flights departing to Singapore and Hong Kong, guess who gut shuttled on the buses first despite having scheduled departure times later than ours? (The captain later apologized and blamed a late arrival for the delay which is industry speak for “you live in a non profitable market with one daily non stop so we don’t try very hard”).
Once the more important flights left, everyone was already pushing in front of one another and typical of all Asians, nobody listens when they announce the boarding only for “Premium Flex“ or any other higher class of seats. They all play dumb or simply don’t care and unlike America, airline passengers are not drilled with fear and know they’ll never be scolded or even questioned for not following rules. In fact, Asians board flights with impeccable efficiency and planes pulling into the terminal 15 minutes before departure time somehow still leave the gate on time. But don’t expect airports to enforce those silly “pre-boarding” rules and listen for the sound of every seat belt unlocking as soon as the plane touches down despite still traveling at full speed. As for cell phones off, seats in the upright position and other mandatory rules Americans know so well, they’re mere suggestions in Asia and be ready because every passenger in Asia acts like they’re late to their own funeral as they barrel in front of you, push out the door and show little respect for authority. But then again, not much stupidity occurs in Asian airports so there’s not much need for the TSA, threatening looking cops with large guns or intimidation tactics. And that’s just another great part of being an overseas expat.