After a while most travelers would find themselves as an intercontinental grasshopper passing through random airports in unknown cities. A few hours in Johannesburg in the way from Hong Kong to Sao Paulo. Incheon as a break between Bangkok and Los Angeles. Can these short, insubstantial stops be transformed into something meaningful?
Here planning ahead is essential, not as much as how to enjoy the brief stopover, but regarding which stopover to choose. Some airports allow travelling around, while others - like Bangkok - are an exciting destination by themselves providing a meaningful view of their culture. Others - like Hong Kong - are a kind of international bubble providing a bit of everywhere and a lot of nowhere. Reality is that the largest and best airports in the world are in Asia, providing thus one more reason for visiting this wonderful continent.
The Hong Kong International Airport is a bit difficult to define, simply is too vast, nobody knows how many languages are used within it. Inaugurated in 1998, the airport was built on the island of Chek Lap Kok on reclaimed land. The airport has one of the world's largest passenger terminal buildings, operates twenty-four hours a day and is considered to be one of the best and largest in the world. An airport that has defined itself as "a destination in its own right" requires a long visit, though not necessarily for shopping, just walking around its highly attractive and large space is fun.
Food is a very strong point of this airport. One of my favorite coffee shops in Hong Kong - Pacific Coffee Company – has two large branches near the check in area, designed in an "open-space" fashion. Despite the relatively expensive coffee and foods, it is worth to approach them due to the coaches, the excellent background music, the warm lighting and smart furniture, the courtesy internet and newspapers, and other treats.
The airport includes a 4-D movie theater, where the fourth "D" is for the scents, smoke and artificial snow. The Aviation Discovery Center shows aviation related exhibits, including a cockpit simulator and a full-motion plane-cabin ride simulator, while Asia Hollywood provides visitors with the opportunity to experience the local film industry. Another attraction in the endless list of those featured by the airport is i-Sports, where simulators of soccer, basketball, golf, boxing, skiing, car racing, and other sports can be enjoyed. But, what really caught my attention were the ready meals sold at a tiny branch of 7-Eleven, which included even eels on rice. A bit of everything for everyone.
Unexpectedly, the reactions to Suvarnabhumi Airport are strong; some love it, others don’t stop criticizing it. The last mention secondary issues of short delays and difficulties moving within this vast structure; however, does anybody expect a Thai enterprise to behave with the exactitude of a Swiss watch? Instead, don’t we prefer the Thai smiles? In any case, it is clearly one of the most strongly characterized airports in the world; Thai art and culture is in graceful display everywhere, offering to the traveler a delightful experience.
I quickly forgot the unclear signs and was overwhelmed not only by the size of the building, but mainly by its elegance. It was shaped as a series of huge oval tunnels and it imparts mainly a feeling of being a lightweight, floating, well-lighted structure. Wooden pagodas adorn its interior adding a touch of local culture and in one of my visits, traditional Thai puppet shows were performed at one of the main junctions. Larger than life representations of Thai mythology can be enjoyed in the boarding area.
The shopping and entertainment options are overwhelming. It seems every brand in the market has an especially dedicated shop here; exploring everything while waiting for the flight is impossible. A surprising and delightful touch is the small dining areas resembling traditional Thai markets located amidst designers’ shops. Arriving early before departure is essential for enjoying what is with no doubt one of the best experiences of Thai culture in Bangkok.
Bypassing the Stopover
Inaugurated in 2001 on land reclaimed from the sea, the Incheon International Airport is huge. It’s size isn’t all; it has been several times rated as the best airport in the world and received a 5-star ranking by Skytrax, an award shared only by Hong Kong’s International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport. Few airports of this size manage to keep uncluttered, functional and friendly surroundings. Incheon does that due to its simple design; its three main buildings fulfil distinct functions, and navigating within the complex is straightforward.
After passing through a few airports, the scene becomes clear: a shopping mall, security checks and fast food. What can an airport add? Local culture! Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi offers wonderful touches of the Thai culture, including traditional teakwood structures and Thai dancing. Incheon Airport in Seoul offers a rich display of Korean art and craftsmanship but added also an unusual touch: tours to the surroundings for the benefit of transit travelers.
However, the trips demand passing through the immigrations and thus passing all the tedious security checks again upon return. The trips are arranged according to their length; the shortest ones are operated several times during the day while the long ones depart only in the morning hours. They include attractions like the Yonggungsa Temple, the Korean Wave Hall - the biggest shopping center in the country – featuring the Traditional Korean Cultural Exhibition, Incheon City Tour offers a visit in Incheon’s Chinatown, the Namdaemun or Dongdaemun markets in Seoul, and if the stopover is especially long, even a visit to the DMZ between South and North Korea, allowing experiencing two countries (though one only by sight) in one stopover.
A stay at an airport is usually unpleasant. Crowds, security checks, immigration stamps, custom forms, ticketing and checking in or out transform the experience into a questionable one. Visiting one of the biggest airports in the world could hardly hold a promise of joy. Despite that, I found the reason why Incheon has been repeatedly voted the best airport in the world. Simply, it was enjoyable.
How to choose among these and others for short stops? Except for Incheon’s tours, most airports are bubbles. Short stops in between destinations allow a fun break and experience of another culture. As such, they should better not be taken too seriously. Choosing each time a different one holds the promise of maximising our experiences as Grasshopper Travellers.