In a recent series of posts about my Star Alliance First Class trip from MCI-BKK, I mentioned that I took a side trip from Hua Hin to Bangkok. Here’s that report.
Date: 10 July 2005
Airline/Flight: SGA 1404
Aircraft: Cessna 208B Caravan (HS-GAA)
Departure: 13:00 (on time)
Arrival: 14:00 (14:05)
Airline enthusiasts not only enjoying flying, they seem to have a passion for those “special” routes: ones that are obscure, arcane, or otherwise out of the ordinary. We will book ourselves on impossibly complicated routings, just to experience something unusual. That’s part of the thrill, right?
Certainly, booking myself from SNA-LAX-SAN was an interesting flight, sort of like being a crop duster! And a SJC-SFO flight several years ago was a lot of fun. But over the past five years I’ve had my eye on a particular flight and on my last trip to Thailand in July I finally had a chance to fly the route.
Hua Hin (HHQ) is a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand, 100 miles south of Bangkok. It is a beautiful, small town that serves as the Summer residence for the past several Kings of Thailand. As such, Hua Hin is cleaner, safer, and freer of many of the “social ills” that you might find in places such as Phuket.
It also has a small airport with a 3937’ runway that, reminiscent of LAX or Denver Stapleton, stretches over the highway. When I first visited Hua Hin back in 2000, I noticed that Bangkok Airways (PG) was on the airport’s main sign – one friend told me that PG had paid for the terminal’s construction, although I doubted this. But with the incredibly white sand beaches and the azure blue gulf waters, I had no doubt that a flight out of HHQ would be an amazing sight.
Aerial view of HHQ – the terminal is to the upper right of the runway
The seed was planted in my mind, but since I always drove with friends from Bangkok down to Hua Hin, there wasn’t ever a good reason to fly.
Since that visit in 2000, Bangkok Airways ceased service to HHQ. But in November, 2004 an air shuttle service was reinstated by SGA – Siam General Aviation Company – to support several of the luxury hotels in the area. As good fortune would have it, my trip in July proved to be the opportunity to finally make this trip.
My partner needed to be in Hua Hin on business for the weekend and invited me to go along. Knowing that he would be tied up with his client all day on Sunday and wouldn’t be ready to make the drive back to Bangkok until late afternoon, I saw the perfect opportunity to make the one-way flight to BKK! Given the 5200 Baht return ticket, one-way was much more desirable at only 310 Baht. Yes, I know that 5200 Baht isn’t that much, but once you start spending time in an inexpensive country like Thailand, it suddenly seems outrageous!
Given that SGA only operates three flights a day – ignore their web site that says four flights – the early morning departure doesn’t seem very regular – I took a bit of a risk not booking in advance. Instead, I waited until Friday afternoon when we drove into Hua Hin and stopped by the airport.
The airport was deserted. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean it quite literally. There wasn’t a single car in front of the terminal or the parking lot and only one front door was unlocked. Walking into the terminal, built in a style reminiscent of every other airport in Thailand – various sizes of concrete boxes – and all of the lights and air conditioning were turned off to save electricity. The various services – restaurant, car rentals, etc. – looked to be permanently closed up. Across the lobby was a small check in counter, one desk, for SGA.
Hua Hin International at high noon
Ringing a bell, just like the front desk of a hotel, an office door opened and a young man stepped out of the only place that looked to be air conditioned. You could hear the “whoosh” of the air con when he opened the door.
He came over and I explained that I wanted to purchase one seat on Sunday’s 9:30 am flight to BKK. He determined that there was no 9:30 flight on Sunday, despite several schedules posted on the counter and a nearby stand that listed a daily flight at 9:30 am. However, he said, the flight at 13:00 was operating. So I purchased a ticket for that, receiving a printed receipt rather than an actual ticket. He stressed that it was very important that I be at the airport no later than 12:30 on Sunday so I didn’t miss my flight.
Continuing to the Anantara resort, I spent the weekend hanging around by the pool – but in the shade, as I’m not well-suited for tanning – while my partner was busy working with his clients.
The luxurious Anantara resort
Sunday morning arrived soon enough and after checking out of the resort, my partner dropped me off at Hua Hin Airport – spot on at 12:00, a full hour before the flight. The parking lot was once again deserted and I as walked up to the one open door, three security guards stood up from their respective poses of relaxation, manned the x-ray machine and metal detector, and motioned me inside. Remember that when I was here buying my ticket on Friday, there was no security. I just walked right into the building.
Perhaps out of appreciation that they finally had something to do, the guards conducted a surprisingly thorough security check, looking in my bags – kind of – and then using a metal detector wand to scan me. Cleared, I proceeded back across the empty and still-unlit terminal to the check in counter. This time the young man who had sold me my ticket was sitting at the desk, waiting for the passengers. It took just a few minutes to check me in. With my luggage traveling back to Bangkok with my partner, I had only a backpack.
Completing the check-in, for which I received no boarding pass or seat assignment, he walked me across the lobby and opened what appeared to be an office door. The sign on the door said “VIP Lounge” and there was another “whoosh” as the cool air conditioned air escaped into the humid terminal. Walking inside, I took a seat on a small sofa and the agent brought a tray with cold bottles of Pepsi and hermetically-sealed cups of water. Thanking me, the agent closed the door and returned to his counter.
Inside the lounge were five other passengers: another man traveling by himself, and then four younger (college-age?) travelers, two Thai women and two European men. There was a small selection of magazines including an issue of Flight International. I opened a Pepsi and took some photos, both of the Pepsi and of the lounge. This did not endear me to my fellow passengers. I think we’re all familiar with that, “Why is he taking pictures of everything?” look that enthusiasts often get. Or maybe it is just me?
SGA VIP Lounge – in other words, the only air conditioned area in the terminal
Over the next few minutes a few more passengers arrived, making eight or nine in total. About 12:45 the agent poked his head in the door and announced that we would begin boarding. Everyone gathered their bags and we walked to another, larger x-ray machine located next to the ticket counter. Rather inexplicably, our bags went through the machine again and we were swept with the metal detector wand another time. Oddly, though, we weren’t in a queue or organized in any fashion. Instead, the lot of us were just standing around the x-ray machine and we were being “wanded” in a haphazard manner.
“Who was checked already? Have you been checked? Never mind…”
There was no method to the madness and really no benefit to it. But that’s okay… as they say here in Thailand, Sabai, Sabai.
Interior view of the terminal showing the ticket counter and secondary screening
We walked over a small bridge crossing a water feature and planter in the middle of the terminal lobby. This brought us to the gate area, just another corner of the same lobby, and we walked out the door onto the tarmac. Right in front of us was HS-GAA, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan painted in SGA’s yellow and black color scheme.
The captain and copilot’s doors were opened wide for cross-ventilation. We boarded from the rear in no particular order as seats were not assigned. At the back of the cabin is a space where you can place carry-on bags. Seating is 1x2 (yes – every seat is either a window or an aisle!) with a scant nine inches between the single seat and the twin. Everybody else was sitting close to the back or middle of the plane, but not wanting to miss the action I went all the way forward to the front row, directly behind the co-pilot.
Mind you, in the Caravan there is no division between the cockpit and the cabin. We’re all part of the same space. Thinking quickly, I decided to take the double seat – more room and we didn’t have the maximum 12 passengers. There are large windows all around and other than the wing overhead there were no obstructions to my view. Looking at my camera, I realized I had only about 180 shots left. “Must pace myself,” I thought.
Fellow travelers in our “cozy” cabin
”Captain, there’s nine people jumpseating in the cockpit!”
The captain and copilot worked through the pre-flight checklist and the ground crew loaded a few bags into the pit behind the cabin. The copilot turned around and did a quick head-count, smiled and nodded his head at us. Above the captain’s head was a small Buddhist amulet. Like all Thai vehicles, a certain amount of divine intervention is invoked in the name of safety. I’ve always wondered – and perhaps someone on the forum can answer this question – but do TG jets have Buddhist amulets or other items in the cockpit, above the windscreen? You see them on boats, in cabs, tuk-tuks, and Cessna Caravans, so why not on an Airbus A340-500?
Equipped with all the necessary safety equipment – as well as some additional measures
Doors were closed and our engine was started. The checklist was completed and the captain called air traffic control on the radio. He ran up the engine from idle and we pulled forward, making a wide turn to the left across the apron and past several Thai government planes.
The aircraft is equipped with a flat-screen monitor in the cabin, that ties into a portable DVD player that sits in the glove compartment next to the copilot. We were not offered a safety demonstration, nor any IFE. According to SGA’s website, they also conduct charters and sightseeing tours, so perhaps the IFE is available for those purposes. There was a DVD case in the pocket on the copilot’s door: Shakira Live in Concert.
We headed out to runway 16, taxiing to about 500’ from the end and then pulling a 180 to face the beach and onshore breeze. A quick look around – no traffic – and the engine was throttled up and the brakes released. We began our roll, gaining speed quickly and were airborne less than 2000’ later. As we climbed quickly and crossed the end of the runway and the beach, the King’s summer palace was visible – about 4 km down the beach. Resorts, hotels, and condos dot the coast, not as crowded as Miami Beach for example, but still a good number of them.
Turning into the wind for takeoff
Just airborne with a view of the terminal area
Crossing the threshold and beach
Coastline along Hua Hin
About a minute later we made a wide left turn, lining up with the coast and heading roughly north. For the next ten minutes or so we were below the cloud layer and the view of the coastline and hills was spectacular. As we climbed through 3500’ the cloudy haze obscured the view, but you could still look at the Gulf of Thailand and the incredibly blue waters. We passed several fishing vessels and the occasional larger ships heading towards or away from Bangkok.
The big blue Gulf of Thailand
Throughout the flight, I was studying every detail trying to soak it all in. The cockpit included a very modern-looking navigational display that showed a full-color map of our surroundings and indicated our progress as we moved north toward Bangkok.
Our glass cockpit
DVD player – is it for the navigation system, IFE, or Shakira Live?
For the next twenty minutes we were at our cruising altitude – 5500’ – and we settled into routine. Occasional calls from ATC followed by minor course corrections. The passengers chatted. One worked on his laptop. There were two or three other solo passengers, all farang – foreigners. I wonder if they live in Bangkok and have weekend homes in Hua Hin. This wouldn’t be a bad commute to work!
Our route from HHQ to BKK
After about 30 minutes airborne we began our descent. We were approaching the top of the Gulf and there were hundreds of acres of shrimp farms all along the coast. As we reached the wide mouth of the Chao Praya river, there was a lot of traffic on the water. Especially notable were the trains of barges, chugging along slowly behind a tugboat and braving the open waters as they headed to Pattaya and other coastal cities.
Prawn farms on the Gulf
Mouth of the Chao Praya river – the Mississippi of Thailand*
*Sorry, I realize how horribly US-centric that comparison is.
We continued our descent along the eastern side of the city, passing the factory areas, suburbs, and finally about 10 km west of the new airport: Suvarnabuhmi International. Slated to open around June 2006 after being delayed from September 2005 (after being in the process of development for nearly 30 years), the airport is an incredibly striking and modern facility. When it opens it will truly revolutionize Bangkok as a connecting point for regional travel. At this point, I’m sure many people avoid Don Muang when making connections, favoring Changi or KL. But this will change minds, I’m sure.
Suburban sprawl beginning to affect Bangkok
Suvarnabhumi Airport under construction
With the haze, distance, and camera limitations the pictures didn’t turn out great, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea. I was secretly hoping that the airport wouldn’t open until I moved there in November and it seems I’ll get my wish. Stand by for whatever open house day they have: I will definitely be there!
As we continued north and descended below 2000’ Don Muang Airport came up to our west. Parallel with the runways, we received a call from ATC that there were several heavy jets arriving ahead of us. We were placed in a holding pattern making a large clockwise circle to the east of the airport. Now down to 1500’ we had a great view of several suburban towns, the local wat and klhong (temples and canals).
Finally we completed our pattern and were cleared for approach. About 7 km north of the runways we turned for our base leg and then started a gentle turn to line up with runway 21L.
Turning from base leg to final approach
Crossing the inner marker
Over the threshold as the TG Airbus taxis into position on 21R
The final approach was nice and slow with a great view of a TG airbus pulling into position on the parallel runway with an SQ 777 behind him. We touched down about 2000’ down the runway, as gently as could be. The captain throttled back on the engine and we slowed quickly, rolling along the famous golf course that lies between the runways.
I was surprised when, about two-thirds of the way down the runway, we exited to the left toward the hangars and Thai Air Force base. Turns out that general aviation also operates from that side of the field, so we taxied past several decrepit Phuket Air planes, including two YS-11s that were without engines, and pulled up at the SGA hangar.
Grounded Phuket Air YS-11 – where is the grounded 747? LGW?
Siam General Aviation hangar
The engine was cut, blocks were placed under the tires, and doors were opened. The copilot turned around and thanked us for flying with them, and then everyone started squeezing their way out of the cabin. Once outside, everyone piled into two even more cramped passenger vans. I hesitated a moment to snap a few more photos, once again getting those funny looks from fellow passengers.
Royal Thai Police Shorts 330-UTT
The vans headed off the apron and around the perimeter of the runways, crossing several taxiways. At the end of the runway we waited for a guard to open an imposing gate. Once through the driver had to stop and sign a log book. We drove across another road – this one being the access to the golf course – and the driver once again stopped to sign. No effort was made to search the vehicle or under it, and the other guard opened the second gate, letting us through.
Gate 2 – notice the golfers!
We drove along the end of the runways, with an awesome view of a China Airlines 747 taking off on 21R. Sadly, the van did not allow for any good photos. We continued past the remote parking areas and pulled up underneath the domestic terminal. We exited the van and entered the building – another chance for a quick snap of a photo or two in horrendous exposure circumstances. Not going to make it as a photojournalist, I’m afraid.
The departure end of 21R with a China Airlines 747 taking off in the distance
Dropped off back at the domestic terminal
Moments later, back inside BKK’s domestic terminal at the baggage claim and back to reality. But what an incredibly fun and unique travel experience. Sadly, no qualifying miles for my Mileage Plus 1K membership!
I'm flying again this weekend so look for another trip report or two soon.
Hope you enjoyed taking the trip with me – any feedback is most welcome. Regards!