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The World’s Most Interesting Airports

I’ve been watching quite a bit of Anthony Bourdain’s new show “Layover,” and so have been thinking a lot about the many airports we spent time in on our around the world trip – 31 in all I counted. They ran the gamut – some big and spectacular like Dallas-Fort Worth, others small like Surat Thani in southern Thailand or charming like Nadi in Fiji, and some just terrible like Mumbai.

Here are the good, the bad and the ugly of the most interesting airports we visited around the world.

The Good

Suvarnabhumi Airport – Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok Airport The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

Bangkok's airport is a temple of contemporary architecture

Bangkok’s new, international airport (don’t even think of pronouncing it correctly) is nothing short of awesome. It’s new, it’s clean, it’s modern. It’s an architectural spectacle. We flew through here several times on the SE Asia leg of our RTW trip and every time this place exuded an impression of “cool.” This, I thought to myself, is what the future looks like.

Like Bangkok, the airport caters to an eclectic mix of people. Standing next to the airport’s Islamic prayer room were Thai ladyboys, and down the hallway in the airport’s slick food court were tubby, gruff Aussies with tiny, Thai women on their arms. It’s hard to decide which is the bigger spectacle – the airport’s clean, cool architectural modernity or the constantly moving zoo of humans it it, where people-watching is elevated to sport. Who knew that flights to Thailand and the country’s main airport were tourist destinations themselves?

Changi International Airport – Singapore

Singapore Airport The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

Singapore's airport tops our list of best places to lay over

It’s got a pool. Enough said. It also has free Wi-Fi all over which, for the long-distance traveler usually spending a long layover here, is a huge plus. We caught up on TV shows, news, Skyped with our families and even caught the exciting finish of the epic gold medal hockey game between the US and Canada at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

For something more low-tech, those on long layovers can actually get spa treatments or take a shower at the facilities in the airport. What really impressed us, though, were the two separate 24-hour napping areas, the six open-air garden areas and the array of shops that read like a who’s who of luxury retailers: Hermes, Prada, Gucci and Bulgari.

Because of our timing – we arrived from Sydney late at night and had an early-morning flight to Mumbai – we decided not to take advantage of the special pass offered to tourists, like us, on extended layovers to tour central Singapore for a few hours. All in all, Changi, for our money…er,time, is our favorite place to lay over.

The Odd

Bhadrapur Airport – Southeast of Nowhere, Nepal

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No irony intended with the VIP sign at Nepal's Bhadrapur Airport

This is what a third world airport looks like. Not pretty. No international food court here, no wi-fi and absolutely zero chance you’ll get a spa treatment at Nepal’s Bhadrapur Airport, just across the northeastern border of India. On the good side, you don’t have to worry about airport car parking. Always looking for the positives when we travel!

Nepal Airport 300x199 The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

Third world airports aren't good for nervous flyers

According to Wikipedia (amazing that this airport even has a Wiki page), “It has one runway with an asphalt surface measuring 1,209 by 29 metres (3,967 × 95 ft).” That’s it, folks. One runway. And one of the crazier security screenings I’ve been a part of. The airport officers pull back a curtain and ask you to step into a bizarrely-decorated “dressing” room, where they frisk you by hand, after which you are then allowed to walk the grassy knoll single-file to board the propeller-engine plane. And we thought Indian bureaucracy was bad!

Once on the plane, the pilot eyes you by height and weight and shuffles the passengers around to keep the plane’s “equilibrium,” always fun to hear any time you’re in a moving object…flying in the sky…through the Himalayas. Needless to say, we made it safely with some spectacular mountain views Nepal is famous for. But this is one memorable travel experience I’m OK with looking back on and not eager to re-live.

Kilimanjaro International Airport – Moshi/Arusha, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro Interntional Airport The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) is dubbed "the gateway to Africa's wildlife"

More quaint than odd, the Kilimanjaro International Airport is dubbed “the gateway to Africa’s wildlife heritage.” This seems fair enough as safari-seekers travel from as far as Frankfurt and Amsterdam to this tiny airstrip in northern Tanzania.

JRO, as its known in airport code, is situated between Arusha, where most visitors embark on wildlife adventures in the nearby Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater or across the border to Kenya’s game parks, and Moshi, where trekkers attempt to summit Africa’s highest mountain for which the airport is eponymously named, Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We first picked up Laura’s dad from here when he met us for some African adventure. He couldn’t believe that the 747 he was on was going to land in what he thought was a field. I got a taste of what he was talking about when I flew to Nairobi from JRO. Because I didn’t receive a wake-up call at my hotel, I was very worried security was not going to let me through to my gate when I arrived 40 minutes before my flight was set to depart, well under the 2 hours suggested for international flights.

What a laugh. Airports like these are my favorite – small, easily manageable and which represent the destination itself. Like Tanzanians, the airport was warm, welcoming and laid back. The security guard was one of about 15 people total in the airport and didn’t fuss about my late arrival. He calmly scanned my bag in seconds, leaving me plenty of time to enjoy the fruits of this quaint, aeronautical operation.

Mount Kilimanjaro The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

On a clear day after a storm, it's possible to get a view of snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro

I perused intricate rosewood carvings and banana-leaf dolls at the two airport gift shops. I even had time for a cup of Kilimanjaro coffee the area’s plantations are famous for producing, even if it cost me $1 more than it would at a Starbucks several thousand miles away (odd how that works…). Finally, my flight was called and walking out onto the tarmac, I was struck by a now rare sight – snow-capped Kilimanjaro in the distance. Even a stubborn Hemingway would be made proud.

The Ugly

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport – Mumbai, India

Mumbai Airport The Worlds Most Interesting Airports

Mumbai's airport doesn't do much to contradict negative stereotypes

If you want to experience and understand the difference between the emerging countries of China and India, visit the countries’ major airports. Beijing’s airport is a slick nod to China’s infrastructural modernity and its place as a 21st century power player, basically leapfrogging a generation of technology. India, by contrast, continues to struggle with woeful infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent than Mumbai’s airport.

The place is a dump, to put it bluntly. A disorganized, bureaucratically corrupt dump. Laura and I walked out of baggage claim to find filthy, squat toilets in one of the world’s busiest airports. An airport official charged me 300 rupees to hire a taxi, which I realized shortly after was not an official price but an arbitrary one. The terminal hallway was dusty, old and prison-like. We were, at 6 a.m. local time, quickly shocked into “we are in India now” mode.

In all honesty, I didn’t really expect anything different from Mumbai’s airport. India is still a very poor nation, after all. It’s just that through traveling so many of my expectations had been subverted by the reality of a place. Yet, here I finally was in India, and the stereotypes generated through email chain pictorials with subject titles like “Is your country this crazy?” were proving truer than the impressions painted by Western media of a burgeoning economy on the cusp, along with China, of becoming the world’s next great superpower.

To be fair, in doing some research, I learned that over a billion dollars has been spent already to modernize Mumbai’s international airport, with pictures to prove it. It’s likely then that we arrived to an old gate in an old terminal. Still, double digit annual GDP growth India might have, but it has some serious PR problems on its hands if this is what half of the country’s main airport looks like.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Laura says:

    I agree, airports like Arusha’s are great – so laid back! Recently we were quite surprised with the international airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – much better than Nairobi’s (where we currently live) and a breeze to get in and out of.
    Laura´s last [type] ..horseriding in ethiopia, part one

  2. Jessica says:

    What a great concept for an article – there are so many interesting airports around the world and Changi International Airport is an amazing place!!!

  3. Glad you included JRO as we will be flying there later this year for our trip to Tanzania. Based on your description, it seems like it shares similarities to the airport in St. Thomas, USVI, which has a small air strip, completely laid back TSA agents, and a quaint feel.
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans´s last [type] ..Búzios: Positive Energy

  4. Shane says:

    London City Airport is probably my best airport ever because it’s such a painless process from going from the check in counter to gate. You seriously can be at the gate in 15 minutes from the minute you get out of your cab!!
    Shane´s last [type] ..Mass Transport Systems around the world [Infographic]

  5. I agree, we loved Singapore, especially when you travel with kids. Our son Niko loved it! In terms of one of the most interesting, I would add Koh Samui in Thailand, it is a very welcoming cozy outdoor concept.
    Martin Pietrzak´s last [type] ..Malaysia Part 2 – Langkawi NYE on our Around the World Voyage with Niko.

  6. The airports are often as interesting as the place you are travelling.

    I remember taking a flight from the Great Barrier Island off the coast of Auckland. The terminal was just a shed. The check-in desk clerk, baggage handler and pilot were the same person! Classic

    Love the blog, kind regards, Si

  7. roundwego says:

    @Brock. Indeed – I guess what I always find interesting is when airports (or border crossings) are not very representative of the places we visit. For instance, Miami’s airport is a total dump in an overly developed state but then some underdeveloped countries and cities have great airports. Just goes to show that you can’t judge a country’s book by its cover I guess.

  8. It’s crazy how different airports can be! Some are as nice as 5-star hotels, and some are… not so nice.
    Brock – Backpack With Brock´s last [type] ..One Moment In Time – A Tribute to Whitney Houston From a Backpacker

  9. Chris Dowling says:

    Ah, yes, it seems like just yesterday that my plane dropped out of the sky to land at JRO- where I was able to meet up with my world travelers. Very apt description of JRO, quite a change from the airport I had departed in Amsterdam.