Travel writer John Borthwick shares his top tips for navigating Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, aka Bangkok Airport, is pronounced in elegant, Thai-style tones as Soo-wanna-poom. And not phonetically as blunt Sue Varna Boomy. Alternatively, is known among many expats by the nickname, “Swampy”. Ironically so, since the airport was built on a former wetland known as the Cobra Swamp.
Where is it?
Well-designed and well-run Suvarnabhumi is 35km by road from central Bangkok. The easiest way to reach it is by the Airport Link train from downtown Makkasan or Phaya Thai stations. The 26-minute trip costing 45 baht (A$1.80) delivers you to the basement level of the airport. Alternatively, a taxi that takes a little, or much, longer depending on traffic, costs around 400 baht (A$16) and brings you right to the Departures hall doors.
The Big Picture
The terminal which opened in 2006 is a long, low structure that resembles a series of angular, wave-like forms. The world’s tallest free-standing control tower looms 132 metres over it. Departures, at the highest of the airport’s five levels, occupies an open-plan space with high ceilings. As Thailand’s principal domestic and international air hub, and servicing over 65 million passengers a year, Suvarnabhumi gets busy and is vast, so plan accordingly. It is wheelchair-friendly, has electric transfer buggies (by arrangement), lifts to all levels and accessible toilets. Face masks are not required.
Check-in rows for the multiple airlines stretch across the entire, length of the Departures level. Signage in English and information screens direct you to the appropriate row. Traffic flow is efficient but Suvarnabhumi is very spread-out so take account of the long walking distances in the full departure sequence. If you’ve purchased eligible duty-free goods and hold the necessary VAT refund papers you need to have the items inspected (don’t pack them in your checked luggage) and have the forms certified while you are still “landside”. That is, before passing through Security and Immigration. This VAT processing desk is at the far righthand end of the Departures hall.
After checking-in you proceed upstairs to Security at the mezzanine level and then down to Immigration, where queues can be long. Tip: towards the righthand end of the Departures hall is a dedicated but low-key entrance for Buddhist monks, infirm passengers and “Over 70” seniors, including foreigners. Definitely use it if you’re eligible. Security is thorough and polite, and involves the usual laptops out, belts off, no liquids, and similar shakedown. But it doesn’t end there. Later, at the boarding gate to Australia-bound flights (and selected others) there is a final, manual inspection of carry-on items for all passengers. Again, allow plenty of time.
Having cleared Immigration you descend a wide ramp, at the foot of which is a long, large, colourful sculpture from Hindu (not Buddhist) mythology depicting an episode called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Other than this there are few features of Thai cultural note, with shopping and imbibing being the main events. If shopping bores you, head to an airline lounge should you have access. Free WiFi is available in most areas.
Booze and chews
“Landside” (before Security and Immigration) on level three there are numerous restaurants, bars and cafes. Similar outlets are also located “airside”, offering Japanese, Western, Korean, fast-food franchises and of course Thai food.
After Immigration if you’re eligible for a duty-free goods refund present your paperwork at the dedicated VAT desk. You’ll be paid in Thai baht, which you can then spend on more duty-free goods such as spirits, electronics, photographic gear, cosmetics and the usual brand-name apparel, although nothing is notably cheap. Several large outlets specialise Thai handicrafts, souvenirs, silks and packaged foods.
Baggage storage: if you’re in transit or for whatever reason need to store luggage, there are two Left Luggage counters, at Level two and Level Four. 100THB/day per item. Level Two (Arrivals) has rows of bank counters, car hire offices, ATMs, SIM card sales outlets and hotel booking booths. If departing from the airport to the city or other Thai towns, head downstairs to the taxis and coaches on the ground floor, or further down to the basement for the Airport Link train. Also at this lowest level are money changing booths offering probably the best rates you’ll find anywhere, as well as short-term sleeping accommodation. More: bangkokairport.net