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Singapore's Changi Airport a welcome departure

The international airport features hotels, a spa with skin-eating fishes and plenty of entertainment options for adventurous travelers with extra time on their hands.

March 06, 2011|By Susan Spano, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Transit Hotel at Terminal 1 in Singapore's Changi Airport has a pool that overlooks the runway. A six-hour stay costs about $50.
The Transit Hotel at Terminal 1 in Singapore's Changi Airport has… (Susan Spano/For The Times )

Reporting from Changi Airport, Singapore — It was Oktoberfest in Singapore. "Eat Pray Love" was opening at the movies. The results of a survey had just been released revealing that 63% of Singapore adults have sex at least once a week.

I was headed here from Kuala Lumpur; only my destination wasn't exactly Singapore. It was Changi, the Lion City's international airport, where I planned to spend 24 hours before flying to Indonesia. I wanted to take full advantage of Changi's celebrated amenities, which include on-site hotels, a swimming pool and a movie theater. I was going to miss seeing the city, but giving it a pass meant I wouldn't have to go through customs and immigration, claim my luggage, change currency or undergo any of the other indignities to which air travelers are subjected.

Granted, most people would rather have gum surgery than spend time in an airport. But is that fair? Aren't the hassles associated with flying caused more by airlines, security regulations and clueless travelers than by the hubs themselves — increasingly state-of-the-art operations designed by hot-shot architects, with shopping, dining and entertainment options that steal a page from the Vegas Strip?

OK, most airports resemble the Department of Motor Vehicles rather than Vegas. But they shouldn't be tarred by the same brush. Especially not Changi, otherwise known as SIN — don't you just love the code? — repeatedly rated the world's best airport (most recently in 2010 by the transportation consultancy firm Skytrax).

Changi, opened in 1981 on a half-billion square feet of reclaimed land at the eastern tip of Singapore Island, is the flagship of the city-state known for high-pitched development, order and economic vigor. It is now one of Asia's biggest and most efficient airline hubs, serving 42 million passengers a year (LAX served 59 million in 2010), with three major terminals connected by a train and in a constant state of renovation aimed at anticipating needs before they surface.

In fact, when I booked a room at the Ambassador Transit Hotel in Terminal 1, I was warned about the possibility of construction noise. I thought briefly about getting a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, connected by a walkway to Changi. But technically, that would have meant leaving the airport.

Remember the beautiful song "I Remember Sky" from the 1966 Stephen Sondheim teleplay "Evening Primrose," about people who live in a department store 24/7, never venturing outside? That's what I was aiming for.

Fortunately, Changi Terminal 1 construction was no problem. The expansion of its exterior bays will accommodate gigantic new A380s first used commercially by Singapore Airlines in 2007. Someday I'd like to try one of them. But in October I made the 35-minute trip from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on the budget carrier Air Asia; it cost $35 one way, which works out to about $1 a minute.

Most airports are out-of-time netherworlds with artificial lighting, stale air and tacky décor. But when my plane landed and I stepped into Changi, I had to blink a few times to adjust my eyes to the golden sunlight streaming in from the windows. The concourses are wide enough to accommodate crowds, luggage carts are provided at disembarkation, and right away I noticed computer kiosks where you can check your e-mail for free. Local calls at Changi phone booths don't cost a Singapore penny either, and the bathrooms are spotless, with plenty of stalls and fast hand-dryers.

Unlike me, many poor souls getting off the plane were clutching disembarkation forms, headed toward immigration. I watched for a minute, lost in a crowd of people from everywhere. That's another thing I like about airports: They are places where citizens of the world brush against one another and find that we all drag around the same wheeled suitcases, talk on the same cellphones and need the same Starbucks cappuccinos on arrival.

Many of them, I noticed, were stopping at a place called Fish Spa & Reflexology at the end of the concourse leading into the Terminal 1 transit mall. At first it looked like one of the foot spas you see everywhere in Southeast Asia. But along with rows of padded recliners and manicure tables, this one had three shallow pools of water filled with swarms of sardine-size fish. This specially bred species first used at spas in ancient Turkey feed on dry skin, exfoliating while they nibble.

"It feels good. Try it," the attendant said.

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