Singapore: Changi Airport

Can an airport really be a travel destination in its own right? For at least one airport in the world, yes it can.
  • Entry 1 of 1
  • Wednesday 10th April 2013
  • Singapore

Singapore’s Changi Airport is to long haul air travel what the human body is to a dodgy curry: An easy place to pass through pretty quickly without many hold-ups. And, as far as airports go, I reckon that’s about the highest compliment you can ever give. Though the airport authorities probably prefer the truckload of more meaningful Best Airport in the World kind of awards that have been continuously feted on it by the travel industry for a generation or so.

During my previous visits I had scarcely enough time to stretch my legs between connecting Europe-Australia flights, so there was no need to test out the various time-killing facilities scattered across this pivotal transport hub. And the one trip (so far) that my wife and I did choose to stay in Singapore for a couple of days, this was obviously spent in the city and not at the airport. But this time things were a little different. For one thing, our layover times were a bit awkward – 15 hours (6:00am – 9:00pm) on the way out to Australia and 25 hours (midnight – 1:00am) on the way back to Switzerland. Secondly, we were making the journey with a baby in tow.

But the real clincher that made us decide that our stopover time would be spent without leaving the airport was the existence of the Transit Hotel within the terminals. With a minimum stay of six hours plus a flat fee for each hour thereafter, the price does steadily mount up for stays of more than about ten hours or so. But for the sheer convenience of not being bound by the usual check-in and check-out rules or even having to go through passport control, it was worth the peaceful, solid sleep that all three of us got.

Other than to shower and eat, there hadn’t been all that much awake time during our first fifteen hour layover of the journey in March. But now on our longer stay on the return trip there was plenty of time for both sleep and entertainment. After arriving and sleeping through the night, I awoke and took my daughter with me to allow my wife some more sleep. Unhurried, I roamed around each of the three interconnected terminals as the frequency of flights increased and the airport steadily came to life.

While it was still dark and quiet (and Lainey briefly went off to sleep again) I hung out at the gaming area in Terminal 2 for a while, where they had some PCs linked together for networked games (mainly of the first person shooter variety), some consoles with traditional controllers and an X-Box Kinnect. Once it was daylight I went outside to the adjacent sunflower garden, which although nice to look at proved to be the exclusive domain for restless cigarette smokers. Hoping for outside time with less passive smoking, I headed instead for the cactus garden at Terminal 1. This was much quieter (in terms of both smokers and aircraft noise), and there were some nice wandering pathways through the densely packed and surprisingly tall succulents. There was a cool resort-style bar too, which, when it opened later in the day, would make for a far more atmospheric place for a drink than any other airport bar I’ve ever seen. Even a seven month old was happy out here – Lainey loved the refreshing fine mist spraying down over the central seating area, making the outdoors far more bearable in what was a grey but already sticky tropical day.

While the excellent playgrounds in Terminals 2 and 3 will come in handy in the future, there were plenty of other things that also kept Lainey entertained. She was just old enough to take notice of the fluttering butterflies in the Butterfly House in Terminal 3 as well as the koi swimming around and over each other in the pond of the Orchid Garden in Terminal 2.

But the biggest hit for her (well, for all three of us really), came after lunch when we spent much of the afternoon at the outdoor swimming pool in Terminal 1, which is free for guests of the Transit Hotels. The constant noise of the plane rotations all around us meant we couldn’t forget exactly where we were, but it was still very relaxing nonetheless.

And I haven’t even mentioned the food. Sure, there is enough choice within the terminals for just about anyone to find whatever they wanted (with the normal airport surcharges of course), but the biggest highlight for me involved going through passport control and just outside beyond the Arrivals area at Terminal 1. Most transit passengers don’t know about the Staff Canteen, officially known as the Orchis Food Court, but it’s open to the public and well known even to Singaporeans who don’t work at the airport. To the side of Terminal 1 and then down a set of stairs under street level, it is not something you’d find by accident (there is also another one hidden away somewhere in Terminal 2 which is even more difficult to find, though I didn’t try), but it offered a welcome taste of real Singapore comfort fare.

There are about twenty five stalls offering the full range of Singapore’s influences: Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Indian and Chinese, plus fresh fruit juices and smoothies. And it’s all on offer at real Singapore prices (even without the 15-20% discount that airport workers are entitled to). Suddenly immersed in my idea of foodie heaven, I did multiple laps around the hall trying to narrow down what I was going to get, before sitting down at one of the plastic tables surrounded by airport workers on their breaks and sweating my way through a laksa followed by a tropical fruit smoothie all for about seven Singapore dollars (€4). If only every airport meal could be so joyful.

And then there were all the other free things that the airport offers for transit passengers that we didn’t even have time to do: The movie theatres, the massage chairs and the five times a day Singapore bus tour. I was also intrigued by the massive four storey slide at the car park outside Terminal 3 (if only I could have worked out what kind of barcode I needed to scan to get access to it).

With the excitement of airports wearing off in direct proportion to the number of times I’ve been fortunate enough to fly, I’d never have thought it would be possible to feel that being in an airport itself could count as a holiday. And yet, considering how relaxed and refreshed we felt when embarking on a long-haul flight after already having come off another (even with a baby), that’s exactly how it felt. And with long flights necessary to see family continuing for at least the next few years, I dare say Changi hasn’t seen the last of us yet.


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