And as the growth in air travel shifts from North America and Europe to the far and Mideast, Bangkok is seeing a boom in airport traffic. Many of these travelers do not have Thailand as their destination; they are passing through on their way somewhere else. That is what brought me there early this month.
My plan was to travel from Christchurch in New Zealand to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for a news assignment for The New York Times. When I realized my flight stopped in Bangkok and that Emirates, the airline I was flying would not charge me extra if I got off the plane and then continued my journey to Dubai the next day, well, what would you do?
So with this post, I am declaring myself the official reviewer of great airport hub cities. My criteria is simple; to make the cut a qualifying airport hub city will
- Connect many international destinations
- Provide easy access between airport and city center
- Offer opportunities to do something, see something and eat something without spending a lot of moolah,
- Have public transportation for getting around
- Locate a hospitable hotel close or on airport property
Bangkok joins Narita, Frankfurt and Singapore as hub cities with lots more to offer than spending hour after hour wandering around duty free. If it’s all part of some grander scheme to woo tourists by bringing ‘em in and sending ‘em out wanting more, well, it worked for me.
At 4:00 a.m, I checked into the Novotel Suvarnabhumi hotel. The hotel has a special – and in my opinion brilliant – program that offers guests the ability to check in anytime day or night, pay the nightly rate and stay for 24-hours. How great is that!
With a quick shower and check of my email, I was ready to hit the town by 8:00 a.m. I took the spanking new and ridiculously cheap high speed rail from Suvarnabhumi International Airport to downtown Bangkok. The trip takes 30 minutes and the train runs almost entirely above ground so you can thrill to the sight and sound of jumbo jets roaring above the train and then turn your attention to the lush tropical scenery. Get a good look at those idyllic scenes but don’t blink because you’re just minutes away from hustling, bustling, crazily chaotic Bangkok.
As luck would have it, the day I was there was a Buddhist holiday so the government declared it would pay for tourists who wanted to use the tuk-tuks to visit the temples of three of the country’s better known Buddahs; Standing Buddah, Happy Buddah and Lucky Buddah. I’m a life-long, practicing Presbyterian and I don’t do Buddah. But even I know about the tuk-tuks. How could I say no?
(Note to readers: If there’s anything more alarming that traveling in a tuk-tuk, it’s the sight of motorbikes being used as family transportation. Dad’s driving the bike, mom’s sitting side-saddle behind with baby in her arms and an older sibling is wedged between mom and dad.)
When I got over my shock at the aforementioned hazards, I started to enjoy blasting through the streets, with my driver, Ken darting around buses and slower moving cars – motorbikes and other tuk-tuks darting around Ken.
The adrenalin infusion came to an abrupt halt at the temples. There I could only stand slack jawed looking at the gilded Buddahs and the riotously elaborate settings in which they are placed. There was so much to absorb; the lines, the curves, the angles of the buildings. The spectrum of colors; the finishes of wood, glass, metal, enamel, paper, marble, tile and stone. Like the city street, there was no place for my eye to rest and yet here it all worked. In fact, it was downright tranquil.
After three hours Ken finally dropped me at the National Museum where I spent another two hours wandering among equally ornate antique river barges and royal carriages. Here I came to the realization that Thailand has a strange history with transportation.
Roads came rather late to the country. The first roads were constructed in the late 1800s. Before that, people got around when possible, by riverboat.
So I guess its full circle that Bangkok’s boom is based in some part on its increasingly important role in moving people around the globe. That some of those people are coming to visit the city when otherwise they might just keep on trucking through, will certainly be enhanced by the new rail link to the city.
After a long day, I climbed aboard that train heading back to the Novotel. To make a hub city visit work an accommodating hotel is key. Extra credit when the hotel offers a taste of the local culture.
The Novotel scored on all these points. I planned on returning to my room to freshen up and go back into town for a little nightlife. But in this case, my plans were bigger than my travel-weary body could deliver. So instead I had a delicious Thai dinner at the hotel restaurant, slipped between cool fluffy sheets on a comfy bed.
Some hotels and airports are so bland arriving at one can feel just like a return to the one we just left. That was not the case in Bangkok – a great airport hub city that is a beautiful reminder of the thrill of travel.