I’m sorry for the delay in posting the next installment of my Asia trip… it’s been a busy few weeks! In any event, after flying from Chicago to Vietnam via NRT, then taking a Vietnam Airlines 777 on a domestic flight to Hanoi, followed by a jog down to Siem Reap on a VN A320, it was time to move on to Bangkok, the last stop on my trip. My friends were continuing on to Krabi, in the southern part of Thailand, but I didn’t have enough vacation time to spare, alas.
For this trip we booked a simple one-way ticket on Bangkok Airways, using their very simple website. After all of the red tape associated with flying Vietnam Airlines (we had to use a travel agent to book with them since they don’t offer online booking on their US site yet) it was nice to take care of things with a few simple mouse clicks.
Anyhow, on to the interesting stuff!
Saturday, May 2, 2008
Siem Reap/Angkor International Airport
After four busy days in the Siem Reap area (most of which were spent exploring the massive Angkor complex… we could have used another day or two!) we woke up early to meet our driver for the quick trip to REP. The sun comes up so early in southeast Asia that getting up at 5am really wasn’t as difficult as we expected, and in no time at all we were in the car headed out of town.
A quick plug for our hotel – we stayed at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) right in the heart of Siem Reap. The hotel itself is amazing – very modern furnishings, but lots of traditional touches. Room rates were reasonable, the service was excellent and it’s a quick jump over to the ruins. Highly, highly recommended if you’re planning a visit! I’ve got plenty of pictures up on my personal photo site, which you can check out here.
The Siem Reap airport is located east of town, in the middle of the Cambodia countryside. I took a shot as we got closer to the airport:
A few moments later we arrived at the nicely-landscaped airport entrance:
REP is a relatively small airport, although it’s been expanded quite a bit in the last five years. There’s a small domestic terminal (the airport’s original terminal) and the much larger international terminal, which opened in 2006. We headed for the departures of area of the international terminal:
The building itself is a real showcase – it’s built in the traditional Khmer style but with lots of modern touches. The whole structure is surrounded by tropical landscaping, and many of the lobbies and plazas are open-air. The whole setup reminded me quite a bit of airports in the Hawaiian islands like HNL, OGG and LIH:
The drop-off lobby is open to the elements and has a few retailers familiar to Westerners, including a Dairy Queen restaurant:
From the departures roadway we headed into the check-in hall, which was conspicuously quiet:
REP is not a particularly busy airport, although traffic has grown exponentially in the last few years. As this screen shows, much of the traffic consists of shuttles to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, the two largest and closest urban centers. The most distant scheduled flight is Asiana’s service to Busan and Seoul (as you can see, today’s flight to Busan was canceled):
The only flight checking in this morning was our PG flight to Bangkok, and there were only two passengers in line ahead of us. I was able to get a window seat towards the front of the plane (I normally like to sit behind the wing, but on the 717 that usually means the engine nacelle blocks part of your view), although my friends wound up several rows behind me.
From there we walked over to the immigration counters to pay the departure tax and head through security:
Another look at the landscaped courtyard between the departure and arrival terminals:
Security was easy enough, and just a few moments later we found ourselves in the terminal’s cavernous departures hall. Besides the usual smattering of duty free shops and food outlets, there wasn’t too much going on:
The new terminal at REP has five departure gates, all of which are at ground level (no jetbridges yet, although Phnom Penh has them.) The apron has just been expanded to include more aircraft parking positions as well – a PMT Air MD80 was resting at one of the newly-built positions:
Before too long our 717 touched down on runway 3 and was pulling onto its stand:
A few evocative shots of the 717 in the midst of its turnaround:
When all of the passengers from Bangkok had deplaned and the aircraft had been re-provisioned, the check-in agents (who had come through security and were now gate agents!) called the passengers to board. The departure lounge was only about half-full, so they simply opened the doors and started to take boarding passes – no announcements. I think they figured that most of us would get the hint.
Looking back at the terminal as we walked out to the aircraft:
Not much action happening at the domestic ramp, except for this lone unmarked 737 classic. Any idea who it belongs to?
And finally our 717, which was marked “Siem Reap Air” on one side and “Bangkok Air” on the other:
Bangkok Airways Flight PG924
Siem Reap/Angkor International (REP) – Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK)
Departs REP 9:50am, arrives BKK 10:45am
Flying time: 50 minutes
Boeing 717-200, seat 7F (Economy Class)
Although the tailcone stairs had been lowered, the flight was boarding only through the forward door. Bangkok Air paints each of its aircraft in a slightly different color scheme, although all are bright and colorful:
As I headed up the stairs, a Vietnam Airlines ATR from Ho Chi Minh City was pulling onto the stand next to us:
The interior of the cabin was configured all-economy and was done up (in typical airline fashion) with blue seats and cream-colored walls. I took my window seat on the starboard side, while my friends headed several rows back. As I said, the departure lounge had been only about half-full, and for the first few minutes it looked like everyone on the flight would have room to stretch out and enjoy themselves. Just before departure time, however, a huge party of Italian tourists (probably a package tour group) came scrambling aboard, and within minutes the plane was completely full. It was much noisier too – the Italians were seated all over the plane and had no problem shouting across the aisle (or several rows ahead) to their friends. Ah, the joys of international travel…
Waiting for pushback clearance alongside the aforementioned PMT Air MD80:
The crew consisted of two men and two women – all announcements were done first in Thai and then in English. Prior to pushback, the crew handed out packets with a moist tissue inside, then took their positions for the safety briefing. Our 717 pushed back about ten minutes late (thanks to the Italians’ late arrival) and began its engine startup:
VN’s ATR unloading passengers and preparing to return to SGN:
Once the engines were started (since I was sitting so far forward, I could barely hear them) we taxied out past the domestic terminal and the unmarked 737 I had seen earlier:
Another shot of the domestic building, with the requisite picture of Cambodia’s king and queen displayed prominently near the control tower:
Although it was only 10am and still sunny, it was humid enough that the sky was already full of puffy, dark-bottomed clouds. Just like Florida in the US, it rains every afternoon in Cambodia, and today looked like it would be no exception! The wind had shifted since our plane landed that morning, and now it looked like we would be departing from runway 21, at the northeast end of the airport complex. REP doesn’t have a parallel taxiway that extends the full runway length, so we turned around using the pad at the runway threshold:
The captain came overhead and asked the flight attendants to take their seats, although by then the engines were already spooling up for departure. We took off smartly to the southwest, climbing out over the Cambodia countryside:
I had been hoping we’d depart on runway 3 (to the northeast) since the departure track takes aircraft directly over the Angkor complex. No luck today – although as we turned off the runway heading a minute or so later, I did get a look at the West Baray, one of the ancient reservoirs dug by the Khmer empire to provide water to Angkor:
During much of our climbout I was struck by how arid and dry the landscape below appeared to be. Angkor is located in a protected area, and is therefore surrounded by plenty of lush forests and jungles. Outside the park boundaries, though, much of the land has been clear-cut for cultivating rice, and there are only sporadic patches of forest left. The land really looked quite dry – our visit was just before the start of the rainy season, so maybe that had something to do with it:
Before we hit cruising altitude, the crew was handing out snack boxes – with a full load and a short flying time they needed to be quick! I was grateful to get any food at all (especially coming from the US, where you wouldn’t even get this much on a six-hour transcontinental flight) but it wasn’t very good. Apart from a box of orange juice, glazed breakfast roll and sliced papaya and pineapple, there were two meaty substances inside – some sort of swirled ham cake and an odd breaded fish loaf inside. I nibbled at the ham cake but left the fish alone:
Once I’d finished breakfast, I leafed through the inflight magazine, Fah Thai and had a look at some of the airline information. Bangkok Airways bills itself as “Asia’s Boutique Airline” and has carved out a nice little niche flying to some of Thailand’s lesser-known tourist destinations. The airline actually built the airports at Koh Samui and Sukhothai, and played a pretty large role in developing the tourist trade in both locations. Apart from the Thailand domestic routes, there are also flights to Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan, and a route out to Male in the Maldives. Not a bad little operation!
We heard from the captain about half an hour into the flight – he said we were approaching the Cambodia-Thailand border and would be starting our descent into Suvarnabhumi shortly. He also said we were being vectored around some thunderstorm cells to the north:
About 10 minutes later we were clearly descending, over the much lusher landscape of eastern Thailand:
The crew came through the aisles to pick up snack boxes and waste items as the descent continued. They also made an announcement describing transit procedures at Suvarnabhumi (I’m guessing this was for the benefit of the Italians) and told us our baggage belt number. We made a long turn to the west, flying lower over the long, thin farming parcels northeast of Bangkok:
Getting a bit closer to civilization… here come a few villages:
Before long the fringes of Bangkok appeared below – lots of new housing developments sandwiched in with farmland and a few industrial estates:
The very impressive Bangkok skyline was visible to the west:
The landing gear thumped down and we made a final corrective turn to line up with Suvarnabhumi’s runway 19R. I was surprised at how built-up the area around the airport is – given that the airport was built from scratch only a few years ago, I expected it to be in a much more rural area. I didn’t expect to see lots of new homes and warehouses sliding by as we came in on final:
Finally we winged low over the Bangkok-Chonburi Expressway and touched down on 19R. As we rolled out I could see a parallel runway already under construction to the east of ours, which should bring BKK up to three runways. Considering all of the problems Suvarnabhumi had in its first year, it’s good to see that a third runway is already needed.
We had landed at the complete opposite side of the airport from the domestic stands, and made a long, slow taxi across the airport to get there. Right as we were turning off the runway, I spotted an Aeroflot IL-96 lifting off from the parallel 19L, but I wasn’t able to get my camera out in time to catch it. The remaning subjects weren’t quite as an interesting – an Air Asia 737 and a Thai A300 still wearing the old color scheme:
I was sitting on the wrong side of the aircraft as we taxied in and wasn’t able to see any of the action at the terminal building – through the windows on the port side I could see plenty of Thai A300s, 747s and 777s parked at the gates. Eventually we turned onto the domestic apron and I got a nice look at this Orient Thai 747-200, parked at the long-stay apron:
Another Air Asia 737 resting outside Thai’s maintenance base:
Pulling onto our stand alongside a company A320:
I guess PG’s 717s aren’t important to warrant a jetbridge (even though there were plenty of available ones at the terminal) so we deplaned by stairs. No problem for me!
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport
There were two buses waiting at the foot of the airstairs – the Italians were busy squeezing into the one on the left, so I headed for the much emptier bus on the right. Except for the doors, the windows of the bus were completely covered in pixellated advertisements for Bangkok Airways; I made sure to get a spot by one of the doors so I could take pictures. Here’s the domestic wing of the terminal, with a PG ATR on a neighboring stand:
Once the rest of the passengers (including my two friends) had filled up our bus, it jerked to life and we set out on a long, meandering ride across the BKK aprons. I’m not sure if the driver was confused, or if that’s just normal procedure for domestic flights arriving at Suvarnabhumi, but we wound up driving underneath several of the concourses and turning around at the far end of the complex before heading back to the bus arrival gates at the central terminal building. I didn’t mind, though – more opportunity to take pictures! Here’s one of the bus departure gates at the junction of the A and B concourses:
A Cathay Pacific 777-200 and Thai 747 in Star Alliance colors parked at Concourse E:
A newly-painted Air Berlin A330 parked at Concourse D, along the frontage of the main terminal building:
… and a closer look:
Finally we shuddered to a halt in front of the arrival gates, and everyone surged through the sliding doors into the terminal. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of Suvarnabhumi, both on this site and elsewhere, and I have to join the rest of the crowd in saying the terminal is a bit of a disappointment. It’s an interesting design, but the building itself is dark and very sterile feeling, with lots of exposed concrete, tinted glass and long, unbroken stretches of terrazzo flooring. I’ll write more about BKK in the next installment of my report, but suffice to say it’s not in the same league, architecturally speaking, as other new terminals like Madrid, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur.
The long, cold arrivals concourse is on the lower level. Feels like being inside a parking garage!
Another shot of the arrivals concourse. A few potted plants and King Power Duty Free kiosks don’t do much to relieve the endless gray expanse:
The most interesting feature of the arrivals hall were the large digital boards displaying each flight’s carousel number and location:
… but you have to read them quickly, since they’re constantly switching back and forth between English and Thai:
Here’s a nicer touch – a traditional Thai warrior statue outside the entrance to immigration:
Baggage claim is even worse – although there plenty of carousels (and big ones at that, so everyone has a place to stand) the ceiling is low and the room is dimly lit. More concrete columns add to the drudgery:
The AOT (Airports of Thailand) has done their best to spruce up the place with flowers and some murals on the far walls:
It’s only when you finally come through customs and emerge in the meeter/greeter lobby that you finally see some natural light, since that area is at the bottom of a multi-story “canyon” that extends up to the departures area. We came through Door B, and as you can see, there was plenty of action at Suvarnabhumi that time of day:
There were taxi drivers everywhere, all trying to convince us to come with us (although I understand the drivers at Suvarnabhumi aren’t nearly as aggressive as they were at Don Mueang, thanks to the government cracking down a bit.) We shrugged them off and headed outside to the official taxi rank, where smartly-dressed officials directed us to a taxi, handed the driver our hotel’s address and told us what we could expect to pay.
The outside of the main terminal – pretty impressive, even if the interior isn’t:
That’s it for part four of the report. Bangkok was the last stop on my trip and was a bit of a culture shock after spending a week and half roaming through Vietnam and Cambodia – by comparison, it’s a bustling city filled with skyscrapers, elevated expressways, billboards and smartly dressed residents. Still, it’s a fascinating place and I thoroughly enjoyed my three days there.
The next installment of the report will cover my trip home – a BKK-HKG-LAX-ORD routing on Cathay Pacific and American. Stay tuned until then!