Monday, July 4, 2011

Bangkok - An Airport Hub to Love


Even not-so-frequent air travelers know about the hub and spoke system by now - the technique airlines use to funnel passengers through large central transfer points and on to their destinations. This gives people the opportunity to be in - but not necessarily to get out and enjoy such destinations as Frankfurt, Chicago, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and London.  


Recently, while traveling on Emirates from New Zealand to Dubai  I realized my flight stopped in Bangkok so I decided to get off the plane, spend a day seeing the city and continue my journey to the UAE a day later.


Narita's Jet Lag Cafe
I stumbled on the concept of a quick city visit in October 2010 when my sister and I were in Japan for the annual ISASI conference which was being held in Sapporo. In an abundance of caution, Lee scheduled us to fly from Sapporo to Narita the day before our flight back to the United States. “Lee,” I whined, what are we going to do in Narita for 24 hours?”


Well if you’ve ever visited Narita, you know how this story ends. If you haven’t, take my advice and go. (Especially now, when every single tourist is appreciated). The day we spent in Narita was one of the highlights of our trip. We stayed at the airline crew hotel, met up with some pilots and did a tour of aviation haunts in the quaint and historic center of town.


My sister Lee, biking in Narita
The following morning we bicycled through rice patties back into town passing by a tiny elaborate temple in the middle of the woods. But this story isn’t about Narita; at least not yet. 


This post is about Bangkok and it is the first of a number of other places I’m going to be writing about as I start my new Lovin’ the Hub feature.  With this post I am declaring myself the official reviewer and bestower of the title great airport hub city - celebrating those places around the world where there’s lots more to do than spend a layover sleeping in a waiting room or shopping in duty free. 


What makes a great airport city hub? Glad you asked. To make the cut it will 

·         Connect many international destinations
·         Provide easy access between airport and city center or local destination of interest
·         Offer opportunities to do something, see something and eat something without spending a lot of moolah,
·         Have a public transportation system that makes getting around manageable - even for first-time users
·         Have a hospitable hotel close by or actually on the airport property


Photo courtesy Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel
I had little time to figure out what I was going to do in Bangkok. I simply made the decision and went. So I was delighted to find out that Suvarnabhumi International Airport - completed in 2006 - is well-positioned to show off Bangkok to transiting passengers. If it is all part of some grander scheme to woo tourists into town and then leave’ em wanting more, well, it worked for me. 


I arrived at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi Hotel at four o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, the reception clerk did not tell me that I was too early to check in. The Novotel understands that travelers can arrive anytime of the day or night and they’ve made accommodations with a program called 24 Hours Flexi. The clock starts ticking on check in and checkout time is 24 hours later. How sensible is that?


View of the airport from the train
Both the hotel and the airport are in easy walking distance to the high speed rail station to the city center. The trip takes 30 minutes and the train runs almost entirely above ground making a sweeping curve that seems designed to give riders as long and as luscious a view of the airport as possible. For your additional viewing pleasure, jumbo jets roar by while the train passes lush tropical scenery.


In hustling, bustling, crazily chaotic Bangkok, the BTS Skytrain connects some parts of the city, Chao Phraya River Express Boats connect others and for the adventuresome, there are city buses and private tuk-tuks. Safety specialists, let me just go on the record and say that the iconic three-wheeled, open-air tuk-tuk is not your ideal mode of transport.



Nevertheless, I had a great time riding around in one, visiting Standing Buddah, Happy Buddah and Lucky Buddah, part of a city-wide celebration that had tuk-tuk drivers offering free transport to tourists interested in getting a look-see at these amazingly elaborate temples. 


An entire day could be spent at the city’s museums and temples. But since passengers in transit have to watch the time, and my criteria calls for not just seeing something but doing something and eating something, I recommend Khao San Road or another of the many adorable areas where shops line one side of the sidewalk and affordable, delicious food is available from stalls lining the other side. 


Bangkok reportedly has wild nightlife and dinnertime cruises on the Chao Phraya River, but I was too tired to personally check them out. Instead I opted to run out the rest of my 24-hours with an authentic Thai meal at the Novotel's Sala Thai restaurant and a deep slumber not far from the hubbub of Suvarnabhumi Airport and Bangkok, a truly great airport hub city.


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