The Old Don Muang Airport – I Miss It So Much
Since the old Don Meuang Airport has been revamped I have never been back there (except to pass it on the way to Rangsit) because it will never be the same for me as I remember it. The photos look slick and everything looks new with new layouts but I have no desire to visit there now. The old Don Meuang International (and the adjoining Domestic Terminal) were friendly places where I felt very much at home – unfortunately, I do not have those same feelings for Suvarnabhumi.
My very first introduction to The Kingdom was a late-night Qantas flight arrival, taxiing to a hard-stand from where we were bused to Terminal II. Prior to that, as we threaded our way through the slip roads to the hard-stand, I could see the outline of the terminal buildings silhouetted by the orange lights, flight-side, against the background of the glow from buildings in the Don Meuang district behind. It was an eerie feeling as thoughts raced through my head of the stories I had heard of many who had come to grief at this very place, by foolishly carrying prohibited substances into a place that was renowned for the harsh penalties that were often imposed on those who did so. I had no reason to be concerned but I could imagine the feelings experienced by those who did.
Qantas did not issue in-flight Immigration arrival cards, so I had to fill out one of these at a counter in the Immigration Arrivals Hall before joining the queue for clearance – being given 90 days, since I had a Non-Immigrant '0' Visa that allowed me 3 further 90-day renewals by crossing one of the adjacent borders and returning the same day. What impressed me mostly was the efficiency of baggage retrieval and the ease of clearing Customs. Meeting with a Thai lady was something I had previously arranged and she was flying in on Thai Airways from my hometown and arriving through Terminal I, after which we proceeded to her house. That was the beginning of a long and very frequent association with the airport that I came to love very much.
However, there could be the occasional bureaucratic hassle that could test one's patience to the limit. I had sent an unaccompanied piece of baggage, containing a small cassette / CD player, a pair of shoes and a couple of pieces of clothing that had to be picked up at the Freight Terminal – some distance south of the Domestic Terminal. First, we had to go down to the Freight Terminal with an Official to identify that it was, in fact, the correct item. It was the only item sitting in the middle of a large pallet. Then it was back to the Main Terminal, where we were required to do the specified paperwork and declare the value of the goods. I didn't have a clue what it was worth, so I put something down that sounded reasonable. From there, we were required to have the services of a Customs Agent to accompany us back down to the Freight terminal to give him permission to open the bag for him to inspect the items inside. That being attended to, it was back to the Main Terminal where all the paperwork had to be stamped umpteen times by three separate Officers in three different locations. Finally, there came the matter of duty to be paid. Fortunately, my Thai lady was able to haggle the price down to next to nothing – and we were on our way with the "precious" cargo. I wondered whether it had all been worth it – with the whole exercise taking around 2 hours.
Still, airports have always fascinated me – there is always something happening – people on the move, aircraft docking and pushing back or landing and taking off. So many lives in transit that you look at the faces and wonder what stories they have to tell – but not all of them are happy stories. I find it interesting to watch them and to wonder where they have come from and where it is they are going to.
Sometime after the first year of flights to and from The Kingdom, I switched from Qantas/BA to Thai Airways International and I have flown with Thai ever since. The service is always reliable and I like the staff, the food and the service that is always pleasant. In that first year, I flew many times with Qantas / BA and adopted the habit of purposely always arriving way too early for the flight, then checking my baggage into "Left Luggage" so that I could be free to spend a couple or three pleasant hours upstairs at the "Hofbräuhaus" bar franchise, where one could have a selection of beers and good meals served in very pleasant surroundings. There's nothing that I know of like that in Suvarnabhumi – very cold, businesslike and impersonal.
In old Don Meuang you could watch the flight-side movements of tugs, luggage tractors and aircraft from the departure lounge windows – but you cannot do that easily from Suvarnabhumi because of the modern architecture curves in steel and glass. Waiting for a departure there is a very boring routine – particularly at night. Many times in old Don Meuang I would stand at one of the large windows in the departure lounge of the day while waiting for BA to arrive for the home leg – and there was so much to see that was far more interesting than sitting in the rows of plastic chairs with the rest of the waiting passengers.
If one wanted a better view of the flight-side activities, there was an upper observation level where one could go to while away a bit of time watching the proceedings below. There were bench couches where many people chose to sleep (sometimes overnight while waiting for a connecting flight).
Remember the 500 baht departure tax that had to be paid before you could pass through into Immigration Clearance? One evening I was killing time in Terminal II after a couple of pleasant hours up in the "Hofbräuhaus" when this young Farang came up to me in quite a distressed state. He looked to be your usual backpacker and did not have the 500 baht to pay the departure tax, so I took him to Thai Airways Information Help counter and explained the situation to them. They were unable to offer any solution to his problem so I handed him 500 baht and he was so grateful, offering to send me the money if I gave him a contact. I told him that was not necessary – just to be careful managing his money – and never to forget the departure tax.
Then there was the Domestic Terminal, connected to the International Terminals by a lengthy walkway, along which I pushed my luggage trolley (both ways) many times. It was air-conditioned but that sometimes made no difference with the sun beating down in the afternoon onto the metal and glass cladding and making you feel as if you were walking through a sauna. Thai Airways changed their departure times on a number of occasions – formerly departing my home city at 11.59 PM. – but that changed sometime in 2005 to be replaced by a departure at 2 PM. from my home city. This was most inconvenient because, by now, I was making regular trips back and forth to Chiang Mai and a 10 PM arrival in BKK meant that I had to overnight in the airport for my early-morning flight to Chiang Mai. So here I was, pushing my luggage trolley through the connecting walkway to the Domestic terminal (closed, of course, by now) but grateful for the fact that the walkway had lost some of the heat from the afternoon – even though the air-conditioning was turned off by now. It certainly was an uncomfortable wait for dawn to arrive to check in and get on TG 102.
I liked it much better when my flight arrived at Don Meuang around 6 AM or earlier – giving a comfortable time-frame to get down to the transit lounge for the onward flight to Chiang Mai. Of course, as usual, I allow plenty of time for the transit and I quite enjoyed hanging around the transit lounge which, at that hour of the morning, resembled a "dormitory" for tired ground staff employees, trying to grab a few hours of sleep on some of the vacant seats, after their night shift.
Chiang Mai is only a short hop from Don Meuang and there was always the reward of my Love waiting at Chiang Mai Airport for my arrival – a trip I did so many times I have lost count.
Times change and progress is supposed to make life better for us all – but I'm not so sure about that. I wish I could have those times back again to do it all in old Don Meuang. I have a video clip I saved from YouTube – "Last Day Of Bangkok International Airport" – by Oak Srichawana and accompanied by the music of Beau Sunita singing "Mai-Mee-Eek-Laew (Chun-Kow-Jai)". I watch this clip often but it makes me sad to see what used to be but is now just a memory – and there are some who will recall it fondly but others who will never know what that place meant to so many people who passed through there.
I will never forget Don Meuang – The Gateway to Bangkok.
While I have good memories of passing through the old airport, I don't have any positive thoughts of either of the car parks. Each was way too small and there simply wasn't enough capacity so you could find yourself stuck in there, unable to get out!