Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bangkok Notes I : Suvarnabhumi International Airport

Fasten your seatbelts...this is where we touchdown with all our superlatives.

The name Suvarnabhumi - Sanskrit for "Golden Land" - is a name chosen by the Thai king, after a mythical kingdom in SE Asia. The airport officially opened on September 28, 2006, taking over all flights from Don Muang. Built at the cost of Baht 155 billion ($ 5b / Rs. 20,000 Cr; 60% JBIC loan) over 40 years the airport has 2 parallel runways (60 m wide, 4000 m and 3700 m long) and two parallel taxiways to accommodate simultaneous departures and arrivals. It has a total of 120 parking bays, of which five can accommodate the Airbus A380.

Designed by Murphy/Jahn Architects, it has the world's second largest single building and airport terminal (563,000 m²). It has the world's tallest control tower (132.2 m). The plot of land occupied by the airport covers about 8,000 acres (32.4 km²). This place is BIG.

The numbers don’t quite prepare you for what is actually on the ground. We landed there at 6:00AM and the first thing you notice is large, open water tanks that hug the runways – a technique perhaps, for draining the low-lying Nong Ngu Hao (“Cobra Swamp”) on which the airport was built.

As you approach the terminal large tubular structures come into view – roofs that look like a cross between a caterpillar and billowing holiday tents, but from inside it looks like a delicate silken canopy. Beneath the canopy, a long corridor, moving walkways and escalators take you along large paintings of the Buddha, to currency exchange counters, passport control (immigration), and baggage ramps and then on to the arrival gates.

The driver took a good 20mts to get his car. He must have had to walk a long way – the airport has parking capacity for 402 taxies, 807 limousines and 262 buses! It takes about 30mts to cover the 26km drive to the city. Normal taxi-fare is about Bh200.

In the departure area, the first few gates are exclusively for business-class and for domestic passengers, and the rest, for ‘normal’ international passengers. Check-in area is laid out in 24 rows (A-W), each with 24 counters. Once you’re relieved of your baggage, you can climb atop the observation loft to get a bird’s eye-view of the concourse. The loft itself is not a comfortable place – its hot (air rises!) and has no seats. Kids love to sit on the floor, gaping at airplanes but most adults shuffle out within minutes.

If you want to grab a bite and some beer, it is better to indulge yourself at the Family Store in the check-in area. Once you walk beyond the Airport Fee counters (Bh500), and passport control, the world belongs to King Power Duty Free. Here you can gawk at fancy designer outlets and their absurd price tags; you could lounge in a bar or surf the net; buy liquor, gadgets, mementos and Thai chocolates (“Buy 4 get one 1 free!”). Its unusual but in this departure area, there are no announcements for departing flights and unlike at KLIA the charts are small and are not well placed. So most passengers tend to huddle near their departure gates to avoid the risk of becoming lost explorers and "no-show" passengers.

In the middle of the concourse sits a sight that is bound to astonish folks from India. The centerpiece of this entire airport is a tableau representing Samudra-Manthan – the Churning of the Oceans. I have never seen a scene from Hindu mythology represented in a modern setting, on such a grand scale. Thai versions of gods and demons pulling at a dragon-like serpent (Thai Vasuki?)while Shiva dances atop mount Mandara smiling benignly at international travelers and their flashing digicams.

As I stepped out of this airport I thought of what awaited us at IGI airport Delhi, and winced. When will we roll up our sleeves to build infrastructure that is truly world class?