An Unlikely Moment of Zen at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport

Don Mueang International Airport

I don’t remember flying into Don Mueang International Airport back on June 22, 2006, for what would end up being the first of many flights to Bangkok. I don’t remember what it looked like inside or out, what the customs process was like, or, sadly, even my first taxi ride into the city from the airport. I do remember sitting next to a college-age Christian girl, on the flight from Tokyo, who was also making her first trip to Southeast Asia, but as a would-be brainwasher of Buddhists missionary, not a tourist. According to the (scant) notes I recorded concerning the voyage over, she asked me to give Jesus another chance because “he’s just so cool.”

Anyway, a few short months after the arrival in and departure from Don Mueang that I don’t remember, it was closed down. It simply could no longer handle the onslaught of rising tourism to Bangkok — according to Wikipedia, some 38 million travelers and 700,00 tons of cargo passed through the aging airport in 2005 — so Suvarnabhumi International Airport was built (on a watershed) as its replacement and has since handled all international and most domestic flights in and out of Bangkok. It’s a fine airport, but one that’s predictably become somewhat of a zoo as Thailand continues to annually break its own records for number of foreign visitors: last year it swelled to over 20 million.

Re-enter Don Mueang.

Though in the end it was closed to commercial flights for just six months, the airport only handled a small number of domestic flights since the arrival of Suvarnabhumi until, in an effort to alleviate overcrowding and shield their collective asses from further criticism, last March the government asked all budget airlines to redirect their domestic and international Bangkok itineraries back to Don Mueang. That relocation process is still ongoing, but Air Asia, Nok Air, and One-Two-Go are the three carriers who’ve already made the switch. Last weekend was the first time I’ve flown Air Asia in a long time — Tiger Airways has been killing them on roundtrip fares from Singapore lately — and my  first opportunity to revisit this relic of old Bangkok six years later.

I know that it’s been continuously in use even if I haven’t used it, but still, I expected Don Mueang to be in bad shape. I expected forests of mildew and mold spreading across the ceilings, piles of rat poop in the corners, long lines at customs and flunky customs officials, and the air to reek of six-year-old piss and vomit. I certainly didn’t expect what I found: freshly cleaned (if not a little dated, in a good way) facilities; seamless arrival and departure service at fully staffed customs; small crowds; no lines at the restaurants, coffee shops, and duty-free counter; even a kinda-neat interactive digital feature panel that you stand in front of to have yourself projected onto the screen and into scenes in London, New York, and other international cities.

Something didn’t feel quite right as I settled into a well-padded chair at a clean Starbucks, jazz music softly filling the space, to sip a cappuccino and look out through floor-to-ceiling windows on a few disparate airplanes taking off and landing. I felt… relaxed. The airport ambience was… god help me, the ambience was actually pleasant, and it seemed to be rubbing off on everybody there, from the airport’s staff to my fellow passengers. There were no squawking tourists, or screaming babies, or surly fast-food employees, or (this time) any sleazy sexpats.

As anybody who is in and out  airports on at least a monthly basis knows well, these scenes of relative tranquility are a rarity; in Thailand, I thought this level of transporation-hub zen was now an impossibility. It truly felt like I wasn’t the only one who recognized and appreciated it.

The surprising calm of Don Mueang likely won’t last, of course, as more airlines migrate back over from Suvarnabhumi. It’ll heave with squawking tourists again and swell to near capacity again, but for now: good show, Don Mueang. No matter what happens we’ll always have January 14, 2012 — and this time, I promise to remember what it was like.

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