An Accessible Travel Review by Andy Wright
Don Muang or Suvarnabhumi?
Coming to Bangkok by plane, you’re likely going to land at one of two airports. If your departure city was London and a direct flight with an airline such as Thai Airways, you’ll end up at the main airport – Suvarnabhumi. In the past, the main airport was Don Muang but it was surpassed in importance when the permission for expansion of runways was denied. To be fair, I hate hearing “no” too, and knowing Thailand and it’s people quite well, the reaction to go and build a whole new airport would have been my decision also.
To land at Don Muang you’ll probably be arriving from a smaller departure airport, with smaller planes rather than the A380 or Jumbos of long haul. For example, if you stopped over in Singapore or Japan perhaps you could re-route to this smaller Bangkok airport.
I have used both, and to be fair they both have their plus and negative points. If I could, I would go to Don Muang by choice because my final desination of Khon Kaen has a lot more airlines servicing it than from Suvarnaphumi, perhaps in the same way as comparing Heathrow with Luton.
I like both airports, but Don Muang feels very 80’s and has a laid back approach to everything. I suppose it can, because it deals with the majority of internal and local destination flights, so the need for international passenger services (customs, etc) is less.
They are worlds apart in terms of architecture and size. Suvarnabhumi is very modern looking with striking arches and huge expanses of walkways. Gates are divided into the ranges of A-C being domestic and D-G being international destinations. There is a fast track for some destinations within Thailand because the final destination has “international” airport status, meaning you can check in all the way for all flights.
Going to Khon Kaen presents me with added complications in that I must firstly arrive in Bangkok by going through immigration where I am issued the 30 day visitor visa. I can then go through check in and security again for the second leg.
I can tell you the first time I found myself doing this I was completely taken aback. I did not understand the process because my very first trip was Udon Thani, which is an international airport (along with, for example, Phuket) and the hassles were somewhat less because Udon is a smaller airport along the lines of Don Muang.
Assuming London is where you came from, you’ll be travelling 11-12 hours straight run. It usually goes quickly, and once I get past the 5-6 hour mark it’s a lot more bearable. Landing is simple and nearly all planes go to the stand with the walkways making disembarkation a lot easier.
If you’ve asked for assistance in London the Customer Service Assistant will be waiting for you. They will take you to the immigration section where you present your passport and then onward to baggage reclaim. The (usually) young men, (I’ve never seen women in this role), collect your bags and take you to either transport (taxi, bus, etc) OR as in my case, the 4th floor where I can check in for my next leg.
Sometimes the assistants swap over and another takes you through to domestic gates. A common theme is most have very little English. There is no requirement to tip them, however I nearly always do so make sure you have low denomination notes. 20, 50 or 100 baht is quite enough, where 100 baht is probably 1/4 their days wages. Average pay is low compared to Western countries, I am not sure of Bangkok but Khon Kaen 300 baht is usual for a 10-12 hour day. That’s around £6.
Usually if you book your entire itinerary at the same time there is a lady who awaits your disembarkation (so look for your name), and they make sure the assistant knows you need to check in again and with whom. My last trip I booked my flights separately myself and so it was left to me to tell the assistant I needed to check in again. Having your e-ticket handy is useful so that you can point to the airline name.
While staff might not speak good English most can understand English words or phrases, especially when they work around the airport for a long time. My first and second trips were interesting because I had taken my walker with me. My first time I was lucky it went all the way to Udon and I didn’t have to worry until later. But for my second trip, London had put it in as “special baggage” and as I sat awaiting my bags on the reclaim belt, looking at a sign on the belt side that informed passengers special baggage was to be collected elsewhere, I was trying to work out how I would tell my assistant. In the end I resorted to pointing at the sign and saying “one more”. I had already said I had two bags and he was experienced enough to know what I meant!
I must mention a couple of incidents. One was the return trip on my second time. Coming in from Khon Kaen I had a good 5 hours to wait. I did not have any concerns until we got to the gate, and obviously with 5 hours to go there was no sign of people or plane. They normally return later to help you go to the plane door and board. I was happy with waiting because I usually go off walking (using the chair as an aid).
I was about to tip him 50 baht for being particularly helpful but as he told me to wait for him to return later he also suggested quite strongly, I give him more. I thought, hmm, ok, this is strange, he did a reasonably good job and 100 baht is only £2.
What concerned me was he rejected the 100 baht and demanded 200. I felt the atmosphere and attitude change. I felt obliged to up the amount, as I was not sure of protocol or if he would come back later if I didn’t pay. There was no one around and I spoke no Thai, his English was minimal so I paid him reluctantly.
At the opening time of the gate (a very long time later) I decided that I would not wait for anyone to return but go down the ramp to the gate by myself. I don’t believe he came back for me anyway.
The other incident was my last trip in April 2016. After 11 hours from London I was picked up and taken through towards immigration but for some reason after he suggested “toilet” and I said “I’m okay”, we still headed towards a disabled toilet. Again, to save time, I often go along with what is suggested because it is usually harder to translate your answers than just do it. My worry was he had my rucksack on his back, and while I had my camera and tripod and small bag with me, my concerns were either he’d disappear with the bag or put something into it. I have a suspicious mind I suppose, but then you do hear stories and we are in Thailand where people are locked up for drug smuggling and other serious offenses.
Having decided to risk it I spent the minimum time I imagined it would take to pee (I didn’t actually need to or even bother trying) and emerge back out. I played along with the charade and was relieved to see the rucksack unmoved from his back. When it was returned to me in the baggage hall I did have a sneaky check of all the compartments (pretending to look for my mobile) and the contents (tablet, camera lenses, etc).
In the baggage hall I managed a sneaky photo just in case stuff did kick off. At least I’d know his face again. Okay you’re probably thinking “paranoid” and over the top, right? But, having the previous demanding money incident, can you blame me?
Don Muang is extremely similar, although the lift arrangement is out of the way so you can’t go with any of your party – they go separately and use escalators. Personally, I think the assistants are friendlier. On one journey back to Khon Kaen my wife and I wanted to eat, so he took us up to the restaurant. He waited for us to eat (he was on his phone the whole time – Facebook or Line), and when we’d finished some 20-30 minutes later, took us down and to the gate.
Here’s an important tip – especially if you decide to do all the check in’s yourself. There is a desk marked “DISABLED/MONKS/CHILDREN”, go there. Do NOT queue in the regular queues, you can simply cut through or ask a staff member to help. Anyone in your party can join you at this check in desk.
As a disabled traveller, they will stick a MAAS sticker on your shirt or jacket, signifying you are a special needs passenger. My luggage also has a MAAS label on it. I am pretty sure it means “Meet And Assist”.
For those going through and able to take advantage of the final destination being an immigration zone airport and having been issued with a boarding card for all legs for destinations such as Phuket, Hua Hin and Pattaya, the journey from International to Domestic departures is direct via a short cut, which you’ll see signposted as “transfers”.
For the return journey, same conditions, it’s marked C.I.Q.
If you have time in Departures take a look around, there’s some great artwork and statues.