The joy of limbo: Asia’s 5 best airports
IF you have ever lived in Asia, as an expat or a traveling local, then you surely understand the value of a good airport. We end up spending a great deal of our time in the ‘limbo’ of such places, whether we’re traveling home or making our way to other, more exotic, destinations.
Personally, I love a good airport. I even experience a slight thrill upon being greeted with a layover in one of the ‘great’ airports. And sometimes I even show up extra early when I know that the airport I am leaving from has an excellent international terminal. With that said, I have been spoiled with Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. There is a rush through the tips of my fingers as I book my flights out of Suvarnabhumi, a quick tally in my mind of how I can feasibly get there with a few hours to kill, and a satisfied nod whenever I pull up in a taxi having accomplished just this. Suvarnabhumi is just one of several gems in the Asian airport scene. And with so many amazing airports in Asia, why even bother leaving them? I envision a life where we all mill about airport terminals, lost in a haze of great sandwiches and deals on L’Occitane hand lotion. Won’t you join me?
1. Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok
I am probably biased, having lived in Bangkok for several years, when it comes to the glory of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. So much so, that when I learned AirAsia (my favorite budget airline) had moved its Thailand headquarters to the far lesser “old” Bangkok airport, Don Mueang, I shed a silent tear. Life in Suvarnabhumi’s international terminal is a good one. Like a glorified shopping mall, this terminal has the ability to briefly make anyone feel they can afford Chanel or Burberry, while struggling to wheel their off-brand carry-on towards Gate C. Suvarnabhumi is filled with luxury brands, a vast array of make-up and skin care goodies as well as local offerings, like Bangkok’s famous Jim Thompson Silk. But anyone who knows me, knows that I judge an airport on her sandwiches, and Suvarnabhumi does not disappoint. Volare offers the greatest ‘Capri’ sandwich (a mozzarella and tomato Caprese) I have ever known and I am a very discerning Caprese eater. A quick visit to Asia Books for a ‘Vanity Fair’, a Capri from Volare and a Diet Coke? Welcome to a world I never want to leave. A world where I begrudgingly board my flight, having to bid adieu to free samples of La Mer face cream, an endless selection of international magazines, and my beloved Capri. It’s never easy.
2. Kuala Lumpur
Except when I have a layover in Kuala Lumpur! This eases the pain because Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International airport consistently pulls top marks as one of the world’s best airports. And I assure you, she has earned these accolades. Don’t believe me? There is a rainforest in the middle of the terminal! This airport does not mess around. Why bother visiting the actual rainforests of Malaysia when you can push aside a heavy plastic barrier and spend a few awkward minutes milling about in this fake one? It’s a sauna in there, folks, and many excited travelers will get in your way, posing for obligatory peace-sign photographs, as you fumble over a tiny bridge, while blindly trying to reach the exit. Once back in the bliss of air-conditioning, you, if you’re me, will next try to secure your dream sandwich. DeliFrance Express is a “quaint” French restaurant on the second level, whose mozzarella ‘Capri’-style sandwich (I have a problem) is a clear winner. Kuala Lumpur International is basically a high-end shopping mall, with two levels, and a vast array of duty-free shops. One of my favorite spots is the toy store, aptly named Toys Paradise, where you can peruse odd trinkets to your heart’s delight. It takes practice, but you must mask your annoyance when the time comes to actually board and you have to leave this magical limbo zone.
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is another beauty. For seven years in a row, Incheon has been awarded ‘World’s Best Airport’ by Airport Councils International, an obviously important organization of which I should clearly be a part. Gleaming, bright and clean, Incheon is a great place to while away a few hours. With the tagline, “Beyond Expectation”, Incheon has taught us all that airports deserve taglines as much as the next blockbuster movie. What expectations do they go beyond? There is a Bennigans. I spent two years as a teenager working a hapless hostess job in my local Virginia mall’s Bennigans, a US chain restaurant. Incheon Airport is successfully pulling at my nostalgia strings and they know it. Has being cramped in economy class for six hours given you an aching back? Simply head to the second level for a massage. Craving a new Louis Vuitton purse? Please. Incheon has cornered the market on luxury goods. Need a sandwich? Rhetorical question. Go to Air Cafe, Paris Croissant Kitchen or Cafe View. You see, Incheon? You don’t even need a Bennigans to be World’s Best Airport in my heart.
I often fly through Tokyo on my way home to the States. While I have never actually been into Japan, I am very familiar with Narita, Tokyo’s international airport. More specifically, her toilets. If you ever find yourself traveling through Narita, do yourself a favor, and hit the bathroom for a while. It’s glorious! You can kill an entire layover pressing buttons – heating up the toilet seat, “powerfully deodorizing” the area or pressing the “fake flush” button. ‘Fake flush’ is a classic, press it and you will hear the shuffling of feet outside the stalls, gearing up to move forward. Haha, just kidding! You will laugh. I’m still here. And despite the great sushi offerings at Narita, I often find myself at the back of the McDonald’s queue, avoiding eye contact with everyone while gearing up to order my Filet O’Fish. It’s still fish, right? Don’t answer that. The usual suspects in terms of luxury brand duty-free items are all here, beckoning to you and your greasy French Fry fingers. But beyond that, there is an array of bizarre shops stuffed to the brim with hilarious Japanese goodies. Pro tip: If you get bored, just go back to the bathroom.
This small, ‘up and coming’ (in my heart) airport has earned a top spot after my recent trip to Burma. Sure, there are no crazy toilets and the duty-free is literally a small room stocked with about five perfumes spread out to take up space. The sandwich situation is grim. But what Mandalay Airport lacks in material goods, it makes up for in charm. Case in point: On my recent flight from Mandalay to Bagan, all travelers were cooped up in one small waiting area. Oddly, the only music was a loop of the whistling part of the “Whistle” song by Flo Rida. Do yourself a favor and do not Google it. As we all sat there, slowly going crazy, the song would periodically be interrupted by an announcement over the loudspeaker. There were several flights leaving around the same time and every time an announcement was made, we would all perk up, hoping for respite from the endless Flo Rida loop. “Flight 5604 to Bagan, please proceed to Gate 11.” But the beauty of Gate 11 is that it was the only gate. In the entire domestic terminal (one room + Flo Rida), there was only one way out. Wherever Gates 1-10 disappeared to, I couldn’t tell you. It’s best not to question these things, for fear your mind will slip deep into a circular abyss set to the tune of the “Whistle” song. But all I know is that the arbitrarily named Gate 11 was the only salvation for a group of weary, whistle-crazed, travelers. And we embraced it.
Honorable Mentions: Changi International Airport in Singapore and Hong Kong International Airport. Both lovely, both sandwich-stocked.