Don Muang, I missed you old friend. I remember the tears of joy I shed when you greeted my return to Thailand from cold climes. I remember the golfers whose games in the airport grounds where rarely interruprted by the arrival of my plane. I remember the quiet arrival halls and smiling faces of the immigration staff as you passed into the Land of Smiles with scant regard for technicalities like visas, or calculations of how many times you had already visited. They were pleased you were visiting and for the money you would give to their Thai brothers and sisters. I remember the short walk to pick up my bags and then on to the steamy forecourt of the airport and then quickly into a waiting taxi. Sometimes I would linger and fill up on a tasty 20 baht meal and a cheap beer. Don Muang, you were a pleasure to know and I felt no need to rush away from you.
I went back in November 2012 (flights to Chiang Mai/Suratthani) for the first time since international flights moved to Suvarnabhumi. I wasn’t pleased with what I found. Things have changed. My love affair with Don Muang has now ended. It is now just a inconvenience, and all of a sudden I now like Suvarnabhumi. Sorry Andrew Biggs, you are wrong on this one. ‘Swampy’ isn’t perfect, but it’s head and shoulders above the ‘new and improved’ Don Muang airport. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that the re-opening of Don Muang is a fantastically clever PR stunt to promote Suvarnabhumi airport. If so it worked.
The Airport Authority of Thailand has spent millions, and years, renovating Don Muang airport and they have managed to make it worse it every respect. This must have been deliberate. Adding fuel to a conspiracy theory.
Here is the abridged list of my complaints:
Don Muang has no convenient airport rail link. It does have a railway station which is not an easy walk with suitcases, kids etc. The train fares to central Bangkok are cheap, but the trains are not that frequent and take between 45 minutes (if you are really lucky) and 90 minutes or over on a normal day. If you want to connect with public transport you need to go all the way to Hualamphong station, which is good if you want to stay in Chinatown, but still a 30 to 40 minute journey to the areas where most of the popular tourist hotels are located. If you know Bangkok well, and you speak Thai, you can get off at one of the stations before Hualamphong Station and cut down your journey time. The consequence of this is that everybody wants to get a taxi, and this means long queues at the taxi kiosks. The photos above only partially illustrate it. Imagine several hundred mildly agitated people and then multiply that by 10 (both in terms of levels of frustration and numbers of people) In the future these queues may become a tourist attraction in their own right, if you can get there to see them that is.
Upstairs in the airport, before you go through passport control, there is a large food court. Its fearsomely expensive. A bowl of noodles is 185 baht plus VAT and service charge. Just outside the airport grounds you can get a tastier version of the same thing for 35 Baht. This is a rip-off and even more expensive than the food options at Suvarnabhumi airport, such as the excellent S&P restaurant chain. Don’t eat at Don Muang airport, especially if you have to foot the bill for the girlfriend and in-laws like me. 4 bowls of noodle soup, 1 beer, 2 bottles of water, and 1 fruit juice cost me 1,200 baht. Same sort of price range as Heathrow airport in a country where the national average wage is approximately a fifth of that in the UK.
It’s chaos. I arrived in good time for a 6am flight and the queues where frighteningly long. If it weren’t for Tony Fernandes’s excellent Air Asia staff I would have never got on my plane. Air Asia staff were having to walk around asking people which flights they were getting on and then rearranging the queues on the basis of urgency. It was really stressful for everyone concerned.
Shiny new tiling, and a lick of paint isn’t what makes a good airport. The AOT needs to wake up and consider things like service and value for money (ironically something achieved very well by airlines who operate out of the airport) if they want to make a success of Don Muang airport.