Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Airports

For years when I came to Bangkok, I had arrived at an airport where I could smell Thailand as soon as I got off the plane, that steamy, musty odor that I loved, that carried hints of garlic and chili from whatever meal the cleaning staff had just finished eating. Long, dark hallways led to a big open space with currency exchanges and limousine services, and just beyond that the city began.

I always loved that first couple of minutes when I went outside and was slapped by a giant envelope of warm, moist air and the noise and color of buses and taxis and motorcycles and the immediate knowledge that I had come home. At the front of the airport was my road, Viphawadee Rangsit, shooting arrow-straight to my neighborhood. Across that road were food stalls that looked as though they catered to the Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse and cooked meals that were fragrant and succulent and satisfying, with a never-ending supply of cold beer. After dark, neighborhood dogs came to sleep near the airport’s entrances, lulled by the blasts of air conditioning that escaped into the night as travelers came and went.

For decades politicians had talked about moving the airport from Don Muang to a spot that was known as Cobra Swamp. Don Muang was too small, they said, it was an island stranded in an ocean of traffic jams, and most damning of all, it wasn’t beautiful. Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur all had sleek architectural confections studded with shops and restaurants for air travelers; Don Muang had ashtrays in the arrival area and sleeping dogs as sentries.

A year or so before Suwannaphum, The Golden City, emerged in Cobra Swamp, my friend Rodney missed a freeway exit and for many minutes we sped down an elevated expressway that was curving and new and almost completely empty. “It goes to the new airport,” he told me and I began to mourn the loss of Don Muang from that moment on.

Suwannaphum could be anywhere in the world. A mammoth shopping mall housed in soaring glass and steel that leaks in heavy rainstorms, it boasts miles of duty-free shops that sell the usual liquor and kitsch and nicotine, a long series of moving walkways where a robot voice issues incomprehensible warnings in maddening repetition, and food that’s franchised in airports from Hoboken to Harare. The only thing that ever feels at all Thai in that place are the brightly colored plastic buckets that sprout up during monsoon season, strategically placed to catch the rainfall that drips through cracks in the very beautiful roof.

At Don Muang there had been a footbridge that led across the highway to a hotel with a comfortable, shabby lobby. At Suwannaphum in the bowels of the building there are airport trains that whisk travelers to the Skytrain stations in the heart of Bangkok. With a little luck and good management, it’s quite possible to fly into Thailand’s capital, go to a downtown hotel, spend a weekend there shopping and dining and luxuriating in spas, and then fly away without ever breathing the air of the city for more than a few minutes.

Suwannaphum had the ability to make me miss Bangkok before I even cleared customs.

On the way to my hotel, longing for a place to collapse before I began my apartment search, I stared numbly at miles and miles of concrete buildings planted in flat empty spaces. As the city skyline came into view, the cabdriver gathered his courage and his English vocabulary and spoke.

“Madam,” he glanced back at my bedraggled body clothed in what in another universe I’d chosen as an appropriate travel outfit, austere yet definitive black and crisp white. “Are you a Sister?”

I shook my head in silent exhaustion and misery, wondering what clothing in Bangkok I would find that would fit me while proclaiming to the world at large that I was neither a missionary nor a cloistered nun.

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