Surviving Bangkok Airport, and how to get downtown without being ripped off

You've arrived! Now, how best to get to your hotel?
Surviving Bangkok Airport, and how to get downtown without being ripped off

Officially opened on the 28th September 2006 to replace the aging Don Muang airport, Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi international airport is actually in the nearby Samut Prakan province about 25km to the east of Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi was named by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and means "the golden land" in Thai, although it's English spelling is certain to lead to mispronunciations by visitors as it's actually pronounced like 'su-wan-na-poom'. Though Don Muang airport had three terminals, Suvarnabhumi has only one (very large) one that handles all international and domestic flights. At a size of 563,000sq m, Suvarnabhumi's terminal building is the second largest in the world.

Over 40 years in construction and eventually opened shortly Thailand's 2006 coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra from power, Suvarnabhumi has had a controversial history of extensive delays, corruption allegations, political meddling, media reports of flawed construction and massive budget overruns - and that was all before the airport even opened.

The final bill for Suvarnabhumi stands at over US$3 billion and while it's undoubtedly a very impressive and modern structure, for a time the Thai newpapers would new problems with the airport with embarrassing regularity. Issues ranged from the most serious of cracks on the runway and other construction problems to complaints from passengers of poor signage, long queues and inadequate facilities. In the initial period after opening these problems were compounded by up to 100,000 Thais coming to visit and picnic(!) in the shiny new airport each day. The problems led to Don Muang airport re-opening to serve international and domestic flights by the low-cost airlines, which relieved some of the pressured from Suvarnabhumi and and the situation has much improved since.

Suvarnabhumi is organised into 4 separate levels:

Level one is the bus and taxi lobby where you can go to get downtown.
Level two is the arrivals area.
Level three is the "Meeting Center" level, where the majority of Suvarnabhumi's facilities are.
Level four is departures.

In addition, there's the separate Public Transportation Center (PTC) building which is about 10 minutes from Suvarnabhumi terminal. Free shuttle buses regularly ply the route back and forth between them leading from level one. If you want to get a public bus downtown or to a destination other than Bangkok, you need to head to the PTC first while if you're getting a taxi you can get one either from the terminal building itself or the PTC.

ATMs (with Cirrus/Maestro, Visa, Mastercard, Plus and others) and currency exchange are available at the airport 24 hours a day. The exchange rates available at the airport are generally not that much worse than in the city itself, and so you you won't lose out too much by changing money here. Internet access is available, but at a cost of 500B an hour it's up to 20 times (!) the price of internet cafes in Bangkok itself.

Other facilities at the airport include bars, restaurants (mostly fast food with Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King etc... but there's a good and cheap Thai foodcourt on the walkway between the International and domestic terminals), a couple of decent 24 hour bars, duty free and normal shops, a small branch of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Hotels Association, and car hire. Trolleys are available but can't be taken past immigration. The THA can get you better rates at mid-range and expensive hotels than you would get as a walk-in, but you still pay more than the going rate. Make sure you have some idea about where you want to stay and what kind of prices you should be paying for it. Different hotels pay them different rates of commission so don't be surprised if they suggest other hotels to one you decided on - they aren't impartial by any means.

The airport has one attached hotel, the 4 star Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel which is only 5 minutes away via an underground walkway. It has all the facilities you'd expect and rates start at around $90 a night.

Getting downtown is cheap and not too much of a problem, and there's no lack of options either: Taxis, airport buses, normal buses, limousines, boats, the train and even a helicopter are all available.

When leaving it is also possible to claim back VAT on certain goods you have bought in Thailand - the forms for this can be got at shops displaying "Vat Refund for Tourists" signs in the city. Take the forms, the goods themselves and your passport to the tax refund counter (which is in the departure hall), pay the 100B service fee, and you will be given the refund. Note they require to see the goods bought, which can be very inconvenient if they are packed away in your baggage. It's a bit of a cumbersome procedure overall, which discourages many from taking advantage of it.

Taxis

The original plan for Suvarnabhumi was that you wouldn't be able to get a taxi from the terminal building itself, but would instead have to go to the Public Transportation Center (PTC) to get one. Public complaints forced a rethink, and so today there's a couple of options: to get one direct from the terminal or first take a (free) shuttle bus to the PTC and then catch one from there.

To get one from the terminal, after clearing customs and walked into Arrivals you simply go down one floor and wait at the taxi counter and they'll handle it for you. You can't fail to notice the taxi queues which at present are pretty horrendous, often snaking back from the taxi counter outside the terminal to a long way back inside the terminal area. Airport officials blame the queues on teething problems associated with the airport being newly opened, so hopefully they'll abate in time.

Shuttle buses to the PTC also leave from the first floor near the taxi stand, so if the queue is too long at the terminal and you haven't got too much luggage then it's worth the 10 minute journey to the PTC where there's an abundance of taxis waiting.

At either place when you do reach the taxi counter with it's English speaking officials, you tell them where you want to go and they'll organise a taxi for you. They will also give you a piece of paper, which has the taxi drivers registration details on it and is your complaint form in (the fortunately fairly rare) case of any problems. Do not give it to the driver, though they may occasionally ask for it. Taxis should always use the meter, though some will try and quote a fixed price. Thankfully this is an increasingly rare practice and if you do encounter one who refuses to use the meter just get out and find a different one.

The journey downtown will take from between 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the traffic and where you're going. The closest popular tourist area to the airport is the Sukhumvit road district, which on a good day will take around 30-45 minutes to get too. Silom, Sathorn, and Siam Square will take about 45 minutes to an hour to reach while if you're heading over to Khao San road it could well take over an hour. Heavy traffic can make this journey a lot longer though, and so you have the option of using the expressway downtown for an additional charge of 25B to pay. This is paid for by the passenger, though the driver may pay at the time and you'll be expected to pay at the end. The expressway is substantially faster at any time during the day, though if you're arriving late at night it's not usually necessary to go on the expressway as the traffic is light on the main roads. To tell the taxi driver to use the expressway, you can say either "kuen ton-way" (from 'tollway') or "kuen taang duan" in Thai, although he may well use it without being told anyway.

The passenger also has to pay a 50B airport surcharge on top of the metered fee. Just like at the previous Don Muang airport, it's possible (though officially prohibited) to get a taxi from the departures area which has just dropped off passengers instead and save the 50B surcharge and the queues. This avoids the official safeguards too though, and so if you're not experienced with Bangkok yet it's best to stick to the official channels. Unlike at Don Muang though, this airport is somewhat in the middle of nowhere so it's no longer possible to walk to the main road and hail a taxi from there.

With all the fees included, the total cost will be around 250B for Sukhumvit up to 350B - 400B to Khao San.

Try and get some change at the airport of 1000B notes to 20B, 50B and 100B ones, don't be surprised if the taxi driver hasn't got (or claims not to have) any change. If you do get caught in this kind of situation, you can always get out and get smaller notes by buying something from the nearest 7-11 store. This tactic often leads to the driver suddenly remembering where his change is kept.

A properly licensed taxi in Bangkok is recognisable by the yellow-and-black number plates and the 'Taxi-meter' sign on top of the vehicle. Unlicensed taxis are hardly seen, if at all, in Bangkok nowadays but should you be approached by one you should always refuse for safety reasons.

If you want to hire a taxi to Pattaya, it'll take 1.5 to 2 hours and the advertised fare is 1050B. Whether taxis will be willing to go for that fare is another matter though, and the actual cost may be more along the lines of 1200B - 1500B depending on your bargaining skills. Taxis are always hired on a flat fare basis if you to hire them to go out of Bangkok.

By Train / Skytrain / Metro

The popular BTS skytrain and MRT metro lines do not go to the airport. There is an alternative though, which is the Airport Rail Link system takes about 40 minutes for a journey into central Bangkok. Almost all visitors will want to get off at either Makkasan or Phaya Thai stations, which have onward connections with the BTS and MRT systems. If you're carrying little luggage, this is a convenient and easy way to get downtown. If you have a lot of luggage though, making onward connections at the subsequent stations requires quite a walk. Be warned that commuters heavily use the airport link line for travelling to and from work in central Bangkok, so it gets very crowded during rush hours.

By Bus

Suvarnabhumi has a dedicated bus terminal at its Transportation Center with plenty of services both within Bangkok and to provinces in Thailand's north-eastern and eastern regions.

Within Bangkok

The local buses to downtown Bangkok cost a flat fare of 35B a person, so they're certainly cheap if somewhat slow and crowded The Airports Authority of Thailand advertises the following public bus routes as being available from Suvarnabhumi:

   Bus no. 549 Bang Kapi - Minburi - Suvarnabhumi
   Bus no. 550 Happyland - Suvarnabhumi
   Bus no. 551 Victory Monument - Suvarnabhumi (via Pratunam)
   Bus no. 554 Rangsit  - Suvarnabhumi
   Bus no. 552 Onnut Skytrain Station -  Suvarnabhumi
   Bus no. 553 Samut Prakan -  Suvarnabhumi 

Of these the most useful to tourists looks like being the route 552 with its connection to On Nut skytrain station.

Out of Bangkok

Thailand's Transport Company has quite a few public buses leaving from the bus terminal at Suvarnabhumi which cover most of the major destinations in Thailand's eastern and north-eastern regions. 3 of them, routes 389, 390 and 825, are new routes from Suvarnabhumi while the others are existing services that leave throughout the day from Mo Chit and Ekamai bus stations and stop at Suvarnabhumi en-route.

Many of these routes are very useful to tourists. The most popular are routes 9905 and 389 going to Pattaya, 9906 for Ko Samet (Rayong), 9908 for Ko Chang (Trat) and route 825 for its connections to most of North-Eastern Thailands largest cities

   Route 55: Ekamai - Suvarnabhumi airport - Chachoengsao province

   Route 9905: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Laem Chabang - Pattaya

   Route 9906: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Rayong province

   Route 9907: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Bang Khla (Chanthaburi province)

   Route 9908: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Chanthaburi - Trat province

   Route 9909: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Si Racha - Laem Chabang

   Route 9910: Mo Chit - Suvarnabhumi airport - Chachoengsao province

   Route 9916: Ekamai - Suvarnabhumi airport - Sa Kaew

There are also additional services direct to Mo Chit and Ekamai bus stations direct from Suvarnabhumi. The new services are:

   Route 389: Suvarnabhumi airport - Laem Chabang - Pattaya
Departures at 09.00 , 11.00, 15.00

   Route 390: Suvarnabhumi airport - Aranyaprathet (Sa Kaew province, on the Cambodian border)
Departures at 08.00 , 11.00

   Route 825: Suvarnabhumi airport - Saraburi - Nakhon Ratchasima - Khon Kaen - Udon Thani - Nong Khai (on the border with Vientiane in Laos)
Departures at 06.00 , 22.30

Limousine

This is booked from a taxi booth inside the terminal when you're leaving arrivals - their representatives may try and lead you here claiming it is the public taxi stand. 'Limousine' is a flattering description, these are really just somewhat newer and more comfortable taxis. Costs vary from 600B or so up to 1500B depending on your destination downtown. There are only two official limousine services allowed to operate with the terminal, though of course any private company can arrange to pick up at arrivals too.

 

 

Popular with single travellers for being hassle free and their relative cheapness, the airport bus goes from Suvarnabhumi on 4 seperate routes into the main tourist areas of central Bangkok. At 150B a person though, it's a 50% increase on the charge from the previous Don Muang airport and it's only likely to be better value than a taxi if you're travelling alone. In in a group of two or more a taxi is going to be quicker, more comfortable, more direct and either cheaper or roughly equivalent in price - so no contest really. The airport buses run from approximately 5am to midnight.

Bus routes and numbers:

Route AE-1 goes on the expressway from Suvarnabhumi to Silom road. You can connect to the Skytrain or subway from Silom.

Route AE-2 goes on the expressway to Banglamphu. This is the one to get on for Khao San road.

Route AE-3 goes to the Nana (soi 3-4) part of Sukhumvit road.

Route AE-4 goes from Suvarnabhumi to Hua Lamphong, Bangkok's main train station.

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