Hello and welcome to the fifth and final installment of trip reports from my recent trip to Thailand. This had so far included flights on Bangkok Airways' ATR72, a healthy dose of domestic segments on Thai Airways and even the rarity of a 747-400 flight. You can read about all of them below:
Back in Thailand's capital, I was faced with a multitude of options to get back to Hanoi. Price was a large factor in my decision, which promptly ruled out the two countries' respective flag carriers as one-way fares on TG and VN typically start high and stay high. Occasionally, a good last-minute deal can be found with TG but it wasn't worth the risk just to fly a sixth leg on their A330-300. The VietJet timings didn't work for me, and sadly the BKK options became a bit less exotic last year when Qatar dropped their fifth-freedom route between the two cities in favour of a second direct DOH-HAN flight.
This led me to explore option's from Bangkok's secondary and LCC-focused airport, Don Muang. I'd never flown from it before and this opened up the possibility of trying a new airline in the form of either Air Asia or Thai Lion Air. With both offering suitable early morning departures, it came down to choosing my millionth A320 flight or first 737-900 one. Naturally, the latter came out on top and I found a reasonable (but not cheap) fare with SL on the day I needed.
After reading seemingly endless accounts of being charged extortionate per-kilo fees for overweight carry-ons, I opted to play it safe and pay 265 THB for 9kg of checked luggage on their website beforehand (you can do this up to 6 hours before departure). SL were the first airline I'd seen to offer checked baggage prices by the kilo, so you can pay for exactly what you need if you're confident of your bag's weight. I also paid to select a "Lion Comfort Seat" which is very unlike me, but more on that later.
With such an early departure time, I opted to stay at one of the many walking-distance hostels from DMK after my free transfer bus from BKK the previous afternoon. Most of these hostels are concentrated in a single area opposite the airport across the highway, with walking times ranging from 10-20 minutes. To cross the aforementioned highway, the only option is the bridge connecting the terminal to the Amari hotel, so it's good to scope this out the day prior if you plan on using it early in the morning.
The bridge is sheltered and welcome relief from the humid heat outside, even at 5:30am. It lets out into the main international departure hall, and from there it isn't difficult to find where I should be going.
Maybe it's my upbringing of summer holidays from Luton airport, but I was dreading the experience of an early morning departure from a LCC hub. I expected crowds, elbows and more inexperienced flyers than you could wave a 6am Easyjet to Faro at. My fears, however, turned out to be unfounded as I located the SL desks with approximately 30 passengers spread across the 12 staffed counters.
I waited in line 5 minutes before seeing a check-in agent. It wasn't just the SL desks that looked empty this Friday morning, this whole part of the terminal felt very relaxed. Maybe the Air Asia zone was a different story…
My seat and luggage allowance were confirmed at the counter, coming in a safe 1.5kg under the weight I'd purchased. Better safe than sorry.
To my surprise I was given a real full-size and SL branded boarding pass. So refreshing to see a LCC not yet succumb to the new receipt-style things.
With 45 minutes until boarding and the terminal still looking very mellow, I decided to get some breakfast landside to avoid any spike in prices once through immigration à la Hanoi. I followed signs to a small food court on the second floor, where I indulged in the local delicacy of McDonald's pancakes with syrup and coffee.
Further signs directing towards a viewing deck proved disappointing, as this was rather a window semi-overlooking one of the gate areas and mostly a large terminal roof. When things go smoothly and I've had enough sleep, the sun coming up over an airport can be one of life's small pleasures.
Proceeding to security and immigration, the silky smooth experience continued. Despite the terminal's dark and rugged appearance, I quite enjoyed the massive departures screen above the immigration checkpoint. It felt and looked like something out of a Soviet railway station with LED lights.
Immigration was a breeze then it was onto a very quick security process. This was the first time I can remember seeing full-body scanners in an SE Asian airport.
Airside felt noticeably busier than landside, although this might've just been to the big reduction in space. So many shops and a single concourse spanning the length of the terminal made for a more claustrophobic feeling, even with the decent sized windows looking over the apron. I grabbed a second coffee and continued my way to gate 1, which turned out to be downstairs in an even darker and more confined ground-level area.
These were indeed the bus gates - no jetways for you today. All six of the gates down here had flights departing from them in the next 1-1.5 hours, and so the crowds only continued to grow in this very confined space. I was fortunate to find a seat, largely thanks to numerous gate lice standing up at the sight of an airport employee walking past the gate area.
At 6:29am, an actual Lion Air employee announced boarding of rows 1-20 only. This included my seat in row two, but the sheer quantity of people that stood up to queue at this announcement put me off wanting to be anywhere near this process. I stayed seated and let the first bus leave, only making my way to the gate with the last few queueing passengers about 20 minutes after boarding first being announced.
With half of my coffee remaining, I was told it's not allowed on board by the gate agent. This sounds absolutely ridiculous and the first time in 10 years of independent flying that I've seen or heard of such a thing!
This coffee-chugging delay meant I was stood right in the doorway of the bus and would be one of the first off. We set off on a lengthy drive across the airport, made even longer by needing to circumnavigate every gate concourse rather than going straight under them. Being an Air Asia hub, their A320s were by far the predominant sight en route.
At 7:07am our aircraft finally came into view: HS-LTK, a 4.7-year old Boeing 737-900ER. This was in fact my third attempt at logging the -900 variant of the 737, with both others being downgauged to -800s with Turkish and Malindo respectively. SL to alternate between the 738 and 739 on the DMK-HAN route, so I was relieved to see it consistently operated by the latter in the days and weeks leading up to this flight.
The bus doors opened right at the foot of the aircraft stairs and I was greeted by a smiling FA in colourful traditionally-patterned uniform. Turning right I immediately found my pre-selected seat; 2A. Why did I choose to spend 350 THB on this seat? Well:
SL have a reputation worse than most for dreadful legroom, so I was happy to pay something extra for some more space despite not even being that tall. These 737s really are squeezed in like sardine cans and 28' pitch sounded awful at 7am. Seat 2A caught my attention when looking at seat maps on the SL website:
Presumably, the 739 is packed so tight that they couldn't fit a full 6 seats across the first row due to curvature towards the front of the fuselage. This gives 2A practically infinite legroom as there's neither a seat nor bulkhead right in front of it, making it easily the best seat on the plane (plus the whole two windows to your side).
This seat easily justifies its price tag, but what angered me is that SL charge the exact same 350 THB (most expensive on the plane) for the seats 2B and C, despite both of them having the exact same pitch as every other seat on the place. The only benefit of these seats is being towards the front for quick boarding/de-boarding, but it's very cheeky to charge the highest premium on them.
Seats in row 1 have predictably good legroom, but the bulkhead is quite close to the chairs so you wouldn't be able to stretch out anywhere near as much as in 2A.
It's worth noting that only the 739s have this seating quirk, and on both SL's 738 and MAX fleets (when/if they return to the skies) it's just a normal seat carrying the same high surcharge. So if you're flying a route that regularly interchanges the 738 and 739 you might be better off spending your money on an emergency exit.
Boarding was completed shortly at 07:16, with no one joining me in row 1 or 2 this side of the plane. Surprisingly, no one tried to either.
Pushback commenced at 07:21, with the tow truck pushing us all the way off the apron in a peculiar U-shape. A company A330-300 was also leaving its gate to start its short domestic hop down to Hat Yai. I had no idea SL sent their heavies to HDY, and might've been tempted to sample their infamous 3-3-3 seating on a shorter hop like that.
From there the engines wound up and we began our taxi past DMK's brutalist architecture on the way to runway 21R. The airport seems to be somewhat of a dumping ground for airlines, with the likes of TG A340-600s, A300s and 737s in storage as well as the 747s and 767s of defunct Orient Thai Airlines left to rot on the apron. One of their 767s was even parked up to a jetway?
After a short pause, it was our turn to line up at 07:41 and make a powerful takeoff southbound. I was shocked to see a golf course seemingly integrated between the parallel runways - is this a unique feature in world airports!?
Despite the overcast day, the high cloud layer meant there were still some stunning views to be had of downtown Bangkok. Having only ever departed from BKK previously, this was a completely new perspective of the city.
The air was so much clearer than during the dreadful smog of my last visit to the city in February 2019.
From there it was a smooth climb through fluffy clouds up to FL35. The cabin crew shortly initiated the buy-on-board service at 07:56, which I had no interest in having forced half a coffee down my throat not half an hour earlier. I'm not sure the service was all too popular as the crew were soon back in the galleys, receptive only to call bells. It was a largely sleepy cabin.
This young-ish bird carried the Boeing Sky Interior with pleasant blue mood lighting and larger overhead bins. The spaciousness supposedly added by these features was a little redundant due to the advertisements plastered over nearly every available surface.
This one might prove funny amongst Spanish speakers…
Thai Lion Air do have their own inflight magazine which had a decent amount of content focusing on some of their destinations in both Thai and English. A single page is dedicated to their fleet and route info, which impressively now reaches as far as Japan and India.
Beyond this, there was little else by ways of entertainment. Without a seat in front, 2A has its tray table stored in the right-hand armrest.
In fairness, SL have not eliminated reclining seats. There were a few inches of recline in this seat that I didn't feel too bad about using as the passenger behind me was very much in dreamland.
Nothing else to do but stretch out and enjoy the combination of views and legroom.
Patchy clouds remained below us right up to the Vietnamese border, opposite to what usually happens. This sadly obscured views of northern Thailand and Vientiane, however as we overflew the Annamese Mountains things started to take a turn for the spectacular.
In nearly two years and plenty of flying in Hanoi, I was yet to actually have a clear, daytime approach into Noi Bai. Such is the predominantly grey and cloudy climate of the region, not to mention the smog. Today it was looking like the stars would finally align as the jaw-dropping landscape opened up below.
Sheer peaks dropped into green valleys, which in turn are dotted in bizarre limestone rock formations that look like something from another planet. This was the Vietnam that first motivated me to see this country.
Another major heatwave was underway throughout northern and central Vietnam, which typically has the side-effect of clearing up the skies and giving those on the ground a rare spell of blue above. What a day to be part of that blue.
Descent into Noi Bai began at 08:45 and brought us even closer to the tips of the mountains below. Air traffic regulations likely necessitated a longer approach this morning, giving us this wonderful winding route down towards HAN.
Banking sharply over these peaks made it feel like like you could reach out and touch them, and the photos really don't do the scenery justice.
The impressive terrain soon gave way to the flat Red River valley in which Hanoi sits. The green peaks were quickly replaced with agricultural land and haphazardly clustered villages.
Finals brought some final views out over the greenery before making touchdown on runway 11L at 09:13, bringing to a close an 1:28 flight.
Taxiing past the domestic terminal provided some splendid views of VN's widebody fleet as they serve the morning rush hour of flights between Hanoi and Saigon, many of which use the A350 and 787.
The international terminal was largely tending to VN's mid-morning movements, but Aeroflot's daily 777-300ER was also prepping for its flight back to Moscow.
We swiftly pulled onto stand and were stationary again by 09:24. No need to stand up to beat the visa line rush sitting this far forward.
And that brought my experience with Thai Lion Air to a close, as it did my trip to Thailand's skies. HS-LTK would soon turn back around to DMK before heading out on the long shlep up to Jinan, China. Well done to whoever booked 2A for that one.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read my reports, I hope they prove useful in planning your own trip to this wonderful part of the world. You can see the entire route of this final flight here:
My experience on Thai Lion Air was a very enjoyable one. The general consensus seems to be that they're a perfectly acceptable LCC if you know what you're getting in to and purchase the relevant add-ons accordingly. I'm sure this flight would've been miserable were I stuck in a middle seat and charged upwards of $200 for my heavy carry-on, but knowledge is power in the LCC game. I think their prices for checked luggage are fair and seat 2A is great value, if only to avoid the horrendous pitch at every other seat. DMK was a pleasant surprise, but I get the impression the place is a ticking time bomb for when it gets busy.