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.
Suvarnabhumi Airport – Bangkok, Thailand
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
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.
Bhadrapur Airport – Southeast of Nowhere, NepalThis 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! 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
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.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.
Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport – Mumbai, India
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.