Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is in the news again this week, and as usual the reports are not very positive. A survey conducted by the Airports Council International in the “customer satisfaction” category, found that Suvarnabhumi dropped from 24th place in 2009 to a ranking of 45th in 2010. According to an article in Saturday’s Bangkok Post, “airport cleanliness and immigration clearance efficiency” were big factors in the drop.
Suvarnabhumi first opened in September of 2006 and almost immediately the facility has been beset with a non-stop series of glitches and bad press. Where did the problems with this airport all start? Maybe the fact that an area previously known as “Cobra Swamp” was chosen as the location for the huge new airport was an omen. The term “snake-bitten” springs to mind. Then they saddled the airport with a name, Suvarnabhumi, that is virtually impossible for foreigners to pronounce correctly (if you want to be understood, say: “Soo-wanna-poom”).
Then there is the design of the airport. Sure, the exterior looks sleek and modern. I’m sure the architects are proud of it. But as soon as the taxi has dropped you off at “the curb,” the bad vibe begins. The first thing you notice is that you haven’t really been dropped off at the entrance: you still must cross another busy lane of traffic to enter the terminal. There is nobody around to stop the traffic or to signal pedestrians that it’s safe to cross, nor are there any lights. Basically, it’s an “at your own risk” situation. But this hazardous spot is typical of Thailand: pedestrians are forced to become very alert. Look both ways, and then again. Take nothing for granted, especially the silly notion that vehicles will stop — or even slow down — when pedestrians attempt to make a crossing.
If you have made it safely to the entrance, step inside and remain alert, just to make sure that you aren’t run over by a long train of luggage carts (the ones that haven’t been stolen) that some employee is attempting to “steer” around the check-in area. Look around and marvel at the interior of the terminal: very futuristic … and very sterile. The facility is incredibly flawed, and nothing flows. There is no logic to the layout. Check-in counters are positioned so badly that long lines quickly develop, creating one big obstacle course in the terminal. The ceilings are too high, which makes it nearly impossible to cool the place adequately, and the lighting outside of the check-in area is too dim (supposedly they are going to solve this problem by repositioning the light fixtures).
Immigration lines are notoriously much too long. In fact there has been a recent spate of letters to the editor in the Bangkok Post complaining about this issue. Sometimes, the immigration process requires agonizing waits of nearly an hour, or longer. That’s beyond ridiculous. No other airport in Southeast Asia forces passengers to wait so long. Of course “immigration lines” fall under two types: the lines you wait in to exit the country, and the lines you wait in when entering the kingdom. The lines at Suvarnabhumi are almost always longer for those leaving Thailand, and in recent months the problem has become much worse. Just because it’s high season right now is no excuse. Whoever is in charge of organizing (for lack of a better word) the immigration process is asleep at the wheel.
Once you have escaped the eternal immigration queue, and have passed through the annoying security area (where you have to remove your belt and anything in your pockets — but at least you don’t have to take off your shoes), you must then navigate the maze of shops that clutter the corridors in order to find your departure gate. It’s extremely difficult to spot gate signs amidst all the clutter of merchandise, advertisements, and other crap that sprout like gaudy stalactites and stalagmites from the floors and ceilings. Is this a shopping center or an airport?
Another frequent complaint is about the taxi/limo touts who roam the arrival area, hoping to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists looking for transportation into town. Why these freelance creeps in their slick suits and sinister smiles are even allowed in the building in the first place is enough to raise eyebrows. Another problem is the way they make finding the public taxi stand (which has been moved three times since the airport opened) such a challenge. Once again, poor signage is the main culprit. And at the hidden taxi stand they still force passengers to pay a 50 baht surcharge on top of the meter fare. And just hope you get a taxi driver who isn’t bitter that he’s had to wait in the queue for several hours already, and isn’t going to make a killing by taking you to Pattaya. Others have also complained about the lack of wi-fi at the airport, but I think that’s going beyond picky. Who cares if the laptop-toting slackers can’t have their precious wi-fi for an hour or two? Boo-hoo, get a life! Go drink a latte at Starbucks and maybe they’ll let you “hang out” and peck away on your laptop for free. Otherwise, read a book and shut up.
It took nearly five years, but the rail link to the airport finally opened late last year. At this point, I don’t think many people are very excited or are flocking to use the trains. And even this “convenient” new rail system is laden with problems. It’s overpriced and the stations (hey, poor signage once again!) are not well positioned to other rail links or major roads. The train itself is fast (at least the non-stop train; the cheaper train that stops at several stations is much slower), but the problems arise once you reach the stations. They don’t all have escalators yet, forcing anyone with multiple bags to do a lot of lifting. Finding the correct exit in the cavernous stations is the next dilemma. And once you have escaped the building, finding transportation to get home is the final obstacle. Where are they hiding the motorcycle taxi stands?
Now that the New Year is here and they’ve raised the ticket price of the train (say goodbye to those cheap opening specials), the cost is about the same at taking a taxi, at least from my side of town. And if you factor in the additional cost of taking a taxi from the train station to your home (unless you live close enough to walk), you’re probably better off just skipping the train altogether and taking a taxi all the way from the airport.