There are a lot of times when infrastructure in Bangkok leaves me underwhelmed. But sometimes, the planets align and we have a piece of infrastructure that impresses. Such is the case with the recently-reopened “Sky Lane” bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The 23.5-km (14.6-mile) track opened originally in late 2014 or early 2015 and was so well-received that they closed it for five months to upgrade it, with the corporate sponsorship of Siam Commercial Bank. The track reopened in November and is been a big success. Some highlights of the project:
The track is double-width, striped with a passing lane and distance markers every quarter-kilometer, and paved to international standards
More than 600 light poles allow for after-hours riding. Currently the track opens at 6:00 am and last entry is 7:00 pm; I understand you can ride until 10:00 pm
Four sets of clean, large men’s and women’s restrooms are located in each quadrant of the track
Entry is controlled by snap bands with RFID chips, which can be obtained for free by registering with a photo identification
There is a 1500-space parking lot with security guards, lighting, closed-circuit cameras and plenty of room to safely on- and off-load bicycles and change gear
There is also a shorter 1.6-km training track near the parking lot, allowing families and those who need a shorter route to ride; this track has a parallel jogging track
I have made three trips there so far, all in the morning. Arriving at 6:30 this morning, the parking lot was busy and hundreds of riders were already on the track. Despite this, the facility did not feel crowded.
One thing you discover is that out in the open fields on the outskirts of Bangkok, there is a stiff breeze! Along one side of the track, it was easy to average a speed of 30 km/hour. On the other side, heading into the wind, it was tough to stay much above 20 km/hour!
As the track surrounds the airport, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the planes. There are a few good vantage points, although you are set back from the action, not right up against it. There are a few early morning arrivals and departures of larger jets and I suppose a true enthusiast could time his or her riding with the schedules of the most interesting airlines.
There appears so be some construction near the entry of the Sky Lane, presumably for some shops and hopefully restaurants. I’ve read on the website that bike repair facilities will be coming, too. Bicycle rentals would be an obvious addition, I hope.
All in all, this is a world-class facility that gives the every-growing cycling community a safe space to ride. If you have the opportunity and are so inclined, I would encourage you to check it out.
Well, I’m back and reasonably well recovered. Recovered enough, at least, to start sharing the story of our trip to Kaua’i. First part of the story, our flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. This may be a bit more detailed than you are interested in, but I’m going to cross-post it as a trip report on Airliners.net. I hope you enjoy.
The alarm rang too early, but since the first leg of our four-flight trip from Bangkok to Lihue, Hawai’i departed at 6:30 am, perhaps that was inevitable. A quick shower, a double check of critical documents and must-bring items, and a few minutes to whip up some sandwiches to eat onboard later, and Tawn and I were headed downstairs for the waiting taxi.
As we walked across the condominium driveway, a small toad hopped into the bushes, startled by our approach. On the 25-minute ride to the airport, the taxi driver pandered to us, selecting English songs from his MP3 player. “YMCA” by the Village People, “Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, and “Ice, Ice, Baby” by Vanilla Ice were among the selections. “Do you really like these songs?” I asked the driver in Thai. “Of course,” he responded with all seriousness. “Don’t you?”
Air Asia’s ticket counter was its usual early morning chaos, although once we pushed through the masses of infrequent travelers, we found the online check-in queues had only a few people waiting in them. After our bags were tagged and our travel documents checked, we headed for immigration.
As of late, lots of letters to the editor of the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper have been inspired by complaints of the long queues at Suvarnabhumi Airport’s immigration counters. However, at 4:50 this morning, lines were about ten people deep and it only took a few minutes to clear immigration.
Just beyond immigration is this epic sculpture taken from Hindu mythology of “The churning of the Ocean of Milk.” More about that story here.
After a latte and some duty free browsing, we headed to our gate. The airport is laid out in the shape of a massive letter “H” and our gate was at the far end of the upper right leg. We had checked in close to the near end of the main terminal in the center of the “H”, so it was a bit of a walk.
A lonely, dimly-lit pier stretched out ahead of us as we traversed one moving sidewalk after another. The airport authority has made some attempts to warm the interior and make it more welcoming, especially in a well-publicized desire to rank as one of the top five airports in the world. This jealousy of peer airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul should be a good motivator, but unfortunately the airport authority is run by people who either know little about airports or else pay little attention when visiting the competition. Compare the above photo with one later on from Hong Kong to see a night and day difference.
Boarding began about 6:00, an orderly affair. We had purchased “hot seats” – designated as the first five rows and the two emergency exit rows – for an extra 250 baht (about US$ 8.50) per segment, per person. This gets you priority boarding and, in the exit rows, a smidgen more leg room and a fixed (not reclinable) seat in front of you.
A look at the leg room in the exit row. About 36 inches, which is 3-5 more inches than you get in most American economy class seats. In a three-seat row, we reserved the window and aisle seats, betting correctly that few people would choose to upgrade to a middle “hot seat”, thus effectively getting us three seats for the price of two. If someone did come along with that seat, we could always offer them the window or the aisle instead so we can still sit together.
This flight was operated by Thai Air Asia, one of four subsidiary companies that together make up “Air Asia”. The fleet is completely made up of new Airbus A320 aircraft. The interior was clean and the black leather seats look sharp. Flight attendants are friendly and attentive and seem very capable.
As the sun rose over Suvarnabhumi, a final passenger count was done and the main cabin door was closed for an on-time departure.
After a quick safety demo in Thai and English, we taxied to runway 1-Left and since there was no other traffic at this early hour, we started our takeoff roll just ten minutes after scheduled departure time, climbing through the hazy skies of Central Thailand en route to Hong Kong.
Housing developments on the eastern edge of Bangkok, as seen on departure from the airport. The main part of the city is in the haze on the horizon.
Above, a two-minute video of the takeoff from Bangkok and landing in Hong Kong, if you are interested.
The captain greeted us aboard the flight, informing us we were cruising at flight level 350 – 35,000 feet above sea level – at a speed of 815 km/h (506 mph). The flight was smooth, crossing Laos, Vietnam, and the South China Sea on our way to Hong Kong.
Air Asia is a no-frills airline. Other than buying a seat on the plane, everything else from baggage to seat assignments to food has a price tag. While I get bummed when I see formerly full-service US airlines doing this, I have no qualms about Air Asia doing it because that has been the arrangement from the first day. Plus, they provide genuinely friendly and caring service, something most US carriers seem to be missing.
One arrangement they offer is the ability to pre-book your meals from a selection of more than 20 dishes such as pad thai, nasi lemak, chicken rice, and basil fried rice with chicken. Out of Bangkok the catering is done by local restaurant chain Seefah (“blue sky”). Dishes are around 100 baht, about US$3.30, and are reasonably tasty for the price.
While they announce a “no outside food” policy, I’ve found if you keep your dining on the down-low, it seems to be no problem. Before leaving home, I had used the last carefully-selected food items from the refrigerator to make two turkey and provolone cheese sandwiches, complete with homemade pesto-mayonnaise sauce. All in all, I have to admit they were a little dry, but still a tasty way to start the day.
Needing some more caffeine, I ordered two “Old Town White Coffees”, which are the three-in-one coffee, creamer, sugar mixes from the Malaysian chain Old Town Coffee. Maybe it is just all the sugar, but these are a surprisingly tasty treat.
Food and beverage service concluded, the flight attendants plied the aisle with duty free and souvenirs. I can’t imagine why people flying would want to buy some of these things, but it appears they do.
As much as I have had my qualms about Air Asia in the past, more recently I’ve come to respect them. Their once abysmal on-time performance has significantly improved. Their website, which would crash under the pressure of too much traffic, performs more reliably. And they keep their fares low and frequencies high. Kudos for that.
Interestingly, Air Asia is the official airline of the Oakland Raiders, despite Air Asia flying nowhere in North America. The Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes has explained it as something of a preemptive move, building the brand in anticipation of an eventual service to the Bay Area. Air Asia already flies to Paris and London through their Air Asia X long-haul subsidiary, so it would not be a surprise to see them begin flights to Oakland eventually.
Descent into Hong Kong seemed to begin quite quickly, less than two hours after takeoff. I’m reminded that there was a time in my life when a 2-3 hour flight seemed long. Now that I cross the Pacific several times a year, two hours passes in the blink of an eye. We touched down on runway 7-Left about twenty minutes ahead of schedule under skies as hazy as they were in Bangkok.
The north satellite concourse (with gates numbered as 501-510!), which seems to serve carriers heading to and from Mainland China. I like the design of the roof, which reminds me of a bird in flight.
We parked at gate N28, just a short walk from the main terminal. Next to us was this Qantas Boeing 747-400, which has a color scheme similar to Air Asia’s, I think.
Here is the transit check-in and duty free area just before immigration. Earlier, I wrote about how Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok fails to reach the same level as other regional airports such as Hong Kong. Compare the above picture with the fourth one from the top of this entry. While the chairs in Bangkok might be more comfortable, the whole setting here in Hong Kong looks more attractive and warmer. Maybe it is the use of – gasp! – carpeting. In either case, Hong Kong remains one of my favorite airports and sets the bar which Bangkok will have to reach.
We exited customs and immigration with minimal delay and entered the spacious and well-organized arrivals area, another distinction between Bangkok and Hong Kong.
Since we had exactly twelve hours between our arrival and the departure of our next flight, we decided to check our bags into the lockers and head into the city for lunch. An attractive atrium leads from Terminal 1 underneath the Airport Express train station and to Terminal 2, where the lockers are located. We were able to store our two large check-in bags plus a trolley bag for 80 HKD (about US$ 11) for up to 12 hours, quite a reasonable price.
Within an hour of touching down on the runway, we were boarding the Airport Express train for the 24-minute ride into the city. I’ll write about our day in Hong Kong in the next entry. Stay tuned!
In June I wrote about my first ride on the Bangkok Airport Rail Link (ARL), which spent the past few months running a limited test service. The line has both a local and express service, the express promising to move you from the airport to the center of the city in fifteen minutes. The trial run for the past few months, though, only featured the local service. Two weeks ago the express portion was brought on line and the system was officially opened, so I went for another ride to check it out.
Now that all the stations were in operation, I decided to ride the express from the Makkasan terminal station (located near Asoke between Rama IX Expressway and Petchaburi Roads) nonstop to the airport, and then ride the local service back to Phaya Thai station, where the ARL connects with the BTS Skytrain.
Back in June one problem I noticed was that the ARL station (on the right in the picture) didn’t physically connect with the BTS station (on the far left). In fact, there was a gap of a good 5 meters, meaning that you had to walk down the stairs from one station, along the road, across the train tracks, and then ascend an escalator into the other station. Not convenient at all – especially for someone with suitcases!
I’m glad to report that on opening day, they had a connector bridge just barely finished (work was still underway but a narrow walkway was opened through it) that takes you from the paid area of the BTS station (in the background) to the public area of the ARL station (in the foreground). The operator of the BTS has added fare gates and a ticket window so you can enter and exit the station conveniently, walking directly to the ARL station.
Amazing, but true – there was some amount of advance planning and coordination between the agencies!
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the Makkasan Station, a beautiful, modern facility that is meant to offer the convenience of checking in for your flight at the station, checking your bags, and then being able to whisk off to the airport without the worry of lugging your suitcases with you.
The station is set back some 200 meters (650 feet) from Asoke Road, a heavily congested north-south artery, and some 500 meters from the Petchaburi MRTA subway station exit. Despite more than three years of construction, there is no direct pedestrian access between the MRTA and ARL and no vehicular ramps connecting the station to the southbound (inbound to the city) side of Asoke.
Illustration as to why this is a problem:
As I was walking from the subway station to the ARL station, a very pedestrian unfriendly route, I came across a family of travelers, pulling their suitcases from the ARL station. I asked where they were heading, ready to give directions, and they were looking for a taxi. Of course, the driveways weren’t open and no taxi queue was up and running, so they had to walk the 200 meters to the street and try to flag a taxi down. To top it off, the taxi would be going the opposite direction from where they were headed.
Open building but no taxis or any other traffic allowed up to the facility.
A week after the ARL opened, the State Railways of Thailand, which owns and operates the system, announced they would build an elevated pedestrian walkway to the subway station and would build ramps so cars could access the station from all directions. Give them two years and then things might work better.
The State Railways owns a huge tract of land around the Makkasan station, what used to be their main switch yards and maintenance facility. Their grand vision is to eventually develop all of this – enough room for 20 or more skyscrapers – into a large mixed-use facility of offices, hotels, convention center, shopping, and maybe some residential. At that point in time, it would be conveniently located. Until then, it is not really near much of the city.
In fact, that is probably the reason they chose to make Makkasan station the in-city terminal. They stand to make a lot of money (and maybe, for the first time in 50+ years, turn a profit?) from land development. The obvious place for the in-city terminal would have been Phaya Thai station, adjacent to the BTS Skytrain. Better synergy with the transit systems.
The express train to the airport is quite nice. The station is air conditioned and well signed, if lacking in taxis. The trains run every fifteen minutes and the cars are comfortable with forward and rear facing seats, luggage racks, and overhead storage for small items. The train is also very fast – top speeds supposedly of 150 kmh, but I think it is more like 120 most of the way.
A view of the roads leading from the highway to the airport as we zoom past, arriving exactly fifteen minutes after leaving Makkasan.
My assessment: The system is a very welcome addition to the transit network here in Bangkok. The local line, which connects from the airport directly to the Skytrain with six intermediate stops, is very useful and will probably do a lot of business, what with the rapidly-expanding suburbs to the east of the city. The airport express itself isn’t useful as you pay more and wind up at a station that isn’t convenient to anything. My advice – if you are arriving in the city and want to use the train, use the local line. Or, if there are more than two of you, take a taxi. In another two or three years, once the connections to the Makkasan station have been built and it is more convenient, I might revise my opinion.
For you civil engineering buffs, here’s an update on some of the work happening at the Suvarnabhumi Airport Rail Link construction site. First, a little background:
The Airport Link is a 28.6 km (17.7 mile) mostly elevated train way that will serve as the eastern half of the “Light Red Line” in Khrungthep’s master transit plan. The western half of the line is a planned extension north to connect to Don Meuang domestic airport, with no specific time frame in which that will occur. Started in 2005, construction of the eastern half is expected to be finished sometime in late 2008, with recent news reports puting the construction at a 70% completion rate as of this point. Both local and express services will be offered on the line.
Above: “We apologize for any inconvenience as we build the maintenance complex for the airport train.” The picture is of the delivery of the first of nine Siemens Desiro class 360/2 trainsets arrives in Thailand.
The express train will run from the Makkasan City Air Terminal (at the corner of Phetburi and Asoke Roads, where you will be able to connect with the MRT subway Blue Line) to the basement level of Suvarnabhumi Airport in 15 minutes. It is expected that you will be able to check in for flights at the Makkasan CAT, receiving your boarding pass and handing over your checked baggage, just like at the Airport Express terminal in Hong Kong.
The local train will run from the Phaya Thai station, (where you will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit Line), stopping at Ratchaprarop, Makkasan, then at four additional stops before arriving at the airport. The total trip time for the local service will be 27 minutes. The initial plans had several additional stops along the lines, including one at Royal City Avenue, a popular nightlife and entertainment district. It appears that those stops will not be built at this time but just based on my own visual assessment of the construction in the RCA area, it looks like the tracks are being constructed in such a way that a station could be added in the future.
The Airport Link’s maintenance yard and depot will be in the Soonvijai district, an area on the north side of Phetburi Road from roughly Thong Lor to Ekkamai. Bangkok Hospital is located just to the west of this area and Tawn’s parents live just on the other side of Ekkamai Road, to the east of this area.
Sunday morning while running errands I stopped to snap some photos of the construction:
Above: From the Ekkamai Road flyover, looking west. On the left is the Soonvijai train station with a train stopping momentarily before continuing on to Hua Lamphong Station. On the far side of the buildings that face the train station is Phetburi Road. Bangkok Hospital is the white building on the right hand side of the picture, behind the construction site. The elevated track is clearly visible on the left and the ramp where trains will exit and enter the main line is being built along the elevated track in the center of the picture. The maintenance sheds are under construction in the center and right side of the picture.
Below: Taken from the other end of the above picture and looking to the east, you can see the construction of the exit/entry ramp where trains will connect with the elevated line (right) via the ramp (center). The Soonvijai station is on the right side of the ground-level rail line, now occupied as the train has left the station.
Below: Turning around from the above picture and looking west along the tracks, towards Makkasan Station. The Royal City Avenue sign that is blocked by construction is a bit deceptive. Before construction started, there was a frontage road along the rail tracks that you could drinve from the area where the picture was taken (which is essentially the entrance to Bangkok Hospital) to the entrance of the RCA entertainment district about 300 meters to the west. That road is gone and, I assume, will not reopen.
Above: A look inside one of the mainenance sheds, where you can see the rails have been laid and the catwalks that will run along the side of the trains have already been installed.