Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport

by Steven K. Bailey, Apr 1, 1996 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

If you fly much in Asia, you'll no doubt eventually wind up at Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport. This is particularly true if you're traveling to Vietnam. Bangkok and Hong Kong remain the most common transit points for flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. When you fly into Don Muang you might be planning to spend some time in Thailand, or you might simply be connecting from one plane to another. Regardless, Don Muang is a modern, fully equipped airport ready to serve your every need.

The airport is so well equipped, in fact, that when I stayed with friends who lived near Don Muang, we tended to use it as a sort of shopping mall. We could get up-to-date foreign magazines, use the highly reliable twenty-four hour post office, or change any of two dozen currencies at the bank. We could catch trains heading into Bangkok or northern Thailand; we could get a cab or leap aboard a bus bound for virtually anywhere in the Bangkok area. One thing we could not often do, however, was eat or drink since prices have risen to the extortionate level typical of all major airports. Still, if you get desperate the newer of the two terminals offers Pizza Hut, Swenson's Ice Cream, Burger King and a British-style pub.

If you arrive at Don Muang and have to wait for a connecting flight, you can keep cool in the air-conditioned terminals and find plenty to keep you entertained. Check out the free newspapers in the departure halls. People-watch one of the world's most international crowds. Sip on a Singha beer. Stretch out if you like; the airport police are used to weary foreigners.

If you arrive at Don Muang and plan to head into Bangkok there are several options. I recommend taking a cab, especially if you have anything more than carry-on baggage. A public bus into Bangkok will cost between fifteen and fifty cents whereas a taxi will run you more than ten dollars, but Thai buses are erratic machines. They make sudden detours or halt mid-route, or veer off on entirely new routes. They are hot and crowded. They stink of exhaust fumes. If it's rush hour, you might brave the train ' a cheap way to avoid the city's endemic traffic jams. Don Muang train station lies across the highway from the airport, but it's a hot and sweaty walk to the station, a hot and sweaty wait for the train, and a hot and sweaty ride downtown. Not to mention that there are no hotels convenient to Bangkok's central station. Taking public transportation is certainly part of the Thailand experience and not to be missed, but it's a challenge to attempt it when you first arrive, jet-lagged and burdened with your baggage. Go to the airport taxi desk and arrange a car instead. You'll probably get stuck in a three-hour traffic jam, but at least you'll have an air-conditioned seat.

For those just spending the night and catching a flight the next day, a skywalk conveniently connects the airport terminal to the Amari Hotel. If you don't want to pay the Amari's luxury rates for a full night's stay (the hotel also has a three-hour ÒministayÓ for twenty-five dollars), then head into the city. If you want a cheap place, go to Khao San Road. The area offers literally hundreds of guesthouses. For more up-scale accommodations, try Surawong Road. The inconvenience of journeying into the city center for a hotel room will be balanced out by the fact that you won't need a visa for your layover: Americans receive thirty-day tourist visas upon arrival in Thailand.

Should you be stuck at the airport with a few hours to kill, cross the pedestrian walkway over the highway into the town of Don Muang. The walkway offers a commanding view of the eight-lane highway, which is invariably jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching into a horizon of smog. At the base of the staircase lies a covered market built on a trash-filled swamp. Some of the more poorly paid airport employees eat here. Beware of the drains filled with fetid gray water and watch out for the motorcycle taxis ' they pick up passengers inside the market building. The town itself is dusty, hot and choking with traffic like a sort of mini-Bangkok. A must-see if you don't actually plan to visit the city itself.

I've spent a great deal of time in Don Muang International Airport. Among airports, it has become my sentimental favorite. Each time I land there I feel like I'm reuniting with an old friend. Don Muang International has gotten all of my visits to Thailand off to a fine start; it cannot help but do the same for your trip to Vietnam.