Bangkok’s Surprising Aviation History
For a city that acts as one of Asia’s – indeed, the world’s – most important transportation hubs, you would think that Bangkok would have a large number of airports. However, despite the city’s long love affair with aviation, Bangkok only has two. And up until 28 September, 2006, it only had one – the legendary Don Mueang Airport, the oldest operating airport in Asia.
Don Mueang’s history goes back to March 1914, when it was opened as the Royal Thai Air Force Base (for a bit of scale, this was four months before the start of World War I). It started commercial operations in 1924, when a Dutch KLM airplane touched down in what was then Siam, and hasn’t looked back since.
Don Mueang is well known in aviation circles, partly because of its interesting history, and partly because it seems to be the airport that just won’t die. In the years since it opened, it has played a major role in many of Asia’s most important events. It was a key strategic location during the destructive Boworadet Rebellion in 1933; it was bombed by the Japanese army during their occupation of Thailand in WWII; used by the British Air Force as a staging area when the Japanese were driven out; again by the Americans during the Vietnam War; and served as one of Asia’s busiest – some say best – airports during its 82 year history. In March of 2014, it celebrated its 100th year in operation.
“So long, Don Mueang!”
But in September 2006, most thought that it was time to shut the doors for good. This is when Bangkok’s massive new airport, Suvarnabhumi (pronounced soo-wanna-boom) opened. But when Suvarnabhumi proved that it wasn’t quite ready for prime time, it was decided that Don Mueang would serve as the home airport for domestic flights, with Suvarnabhumi handling international ones.
Don Mueang was shut down again in 2011 when Bangkok’s outlying areas were hit with major flooding. Dramatic images were splashed across the papers of its two runways completely underwater, sad-looking planes sitting alone on the tarmac. Luckily, Suvarnabhumi wasn’t affected and, always the badass, Don Mueang was back in business in no time once the waters receded.
Both airports are still operating at peak capacity today, doing their best to shuttle millions of people in, around, and out of Thailand every year. In fact, it’s a common friendly debate among long-time expats about which airport is the better one – Suvarnabhumi with its high-tech glass and steel construction, or Don Mueang, with 100 years of real world service under its belt.
Although Don Mueang is the oldest still operating airport in Bangkok, it’s not the oldest. In 1910 – three years before Don Mueang opened, and only 8 years after the Wright brothers mastered heavier-than-air flight – pilots were using Sa Pathum Airfield to test their brand new flying machines. In 1911 a Belgian pilot named Vanden Born landed on Sa Pathum with his Farman biplane (named Orville Wright, of course).
Among the audience was HRM King Rama VI, who was so impressed that three army officers were sent to France for a year to learn how to fly, and in 1913, the Royal Thai Air Force was created. You can still see Sa Pathum today – although now it’s Sa Pathum Horse Racing track on the grounds of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, right in the middle of the city.