For most travellers, the prospect of having to spend any length of time at an airport, especially a crowded international hub, is a miserable one. But, Singapore has created a bright, enjoyable, welcoming way station on an otherwise bleak tarmac of inefficient and numbingly boring airports. Even the name is fun to say: Changi!
The many charms of Singapore's Changi Airport do not hit you at once. There are three seemingly standard terminals, with no grand architectural infrastructure or trendy art installations. But then you start to notice, with a raised eyebrow, the little things. Is that a koi pond? Is that a free foot massage chair? Is this pod of computers available to anyone who wants to get online? The answer to every question is "yes". All three terminals have free wi-fi and multi-device charging kiosks (under lock and key so you can leave them unattended). Every plant is real, tended by an in-house horticulture team. The food is fresh, bars have live music and the children's areas have playgrounds, cartoons and woodblock colouring stations.
Should you have trouble locating any of these amenities, youth and senior ambassadors roam the terminals to help with anything from gate information to shopping suggestions. Directional signs tell you how many minutes it will take you to walk there. Even the bathrooms ask for instant electronic feedback so airport personnel can quickly respond to any toilet paper outage or complaint of dirtiness. And those are just the basics. The more you explore, the bigger the surprises.
Grab a map at one of the many information kiosks and make a scavenger hunt out of it. One of the airport's published guides even has a handy chart with suggestions on what to enjoy depending on how much time you have. Only 20 minutes? Take a refreshing shower. Have two hours? Hop on one of the two free (you see that word a lot in the airport) bus tours around the city.
The majority of the amenities are in the secure areas of the terminals, and since they are connected by monorail, you can still enjoy the fun in all three, And the security threshold itself is merely an immigration check (with Singaporeans having an automated option that removes them from the main queue-not that there was ever a queue for anything at the airport, in my visits). The ordeal of baggage and body scanning, every airport's worst clock-gobbler, happens quickly and efficiently at the boarding gate with just your plane's passengers, eliminating the bottleneck of many people catching flights at various times, slowing everyone down collectively.
The first thing I wanted to try out was Changi's newest attraction - a four-story slide in the public area of T3. For a S$10 token, which comes free when you spend that amount in the airport (about the price of a sandwich and drink), you get a twisty 30-second thrill ride. Next to it is a free one-and-a-half story slide.
After clearing immigration, I walked past a meditation room and through a two-story butterfly garden, an open-air enclosure filled with tropical vegetation, a waterfall (I learned that butterflies actually need flowing water) and a glass pupa podium with caterpillars displayed in mid-metamorphosis. Each terminal offers an outdoor space such as this. T2 grows a sunflower garden and T1 has an al fresco bar surrounded by cacti. Just outside the topfloor entrance of the butterfly habitat is a free moviehouse-sized theatre, playing recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Just a short monorail ride away T2 is a bit more sedate than its newer sibling, but in a good way. There are multiple gardens filled with ferns, orchids and sunflowers, and illuminated fake rocks make a nighttime visit to the outdoor sunflower garden nearly as lovely as a daytime one. Near a long strip of bamboo is a quiet rest area with reclined chairs, ideal for napping. (I cannot recall ever being in an airport where sleeping in public spaces was encouraged.) Next to another, smaller, movie theatre are free computer game terminals and Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 stations, which may be someone else's idea of relaxing.
Each terminal has a Transit Hotel (http://harilelahospitality.com/), where you pay as little as S$35 for six hours in a decent-sized room with a TV. There are also pay-per-use gyms (with gym clothes provided) and transit lounges. These lounges, where you pay S$30 for five hours of buffet, drinks, office services, showers and other amenities typically reserved for airline business class lounges, is, like so much of Changi, the future of airport hospitality. You can also get (for additional fees) a massage, pedicure, haircut and time in a nap room.
Inside T1 I found an impressive diversity of dining and shopping options catering to international palettes and wallets of varying sizes. The restaurants and shops (everything from 7-Eleven to Cartier) are the financial engine of Changi and even locals are lured by a tax exemption extended into the public areas and a price guarantee that doubles the refunded difference of any lower price found in downtown Singapore, part of an effort to combat airport price gouging.
It was in Terminal 1 where I decided to avail myself of a pedicure. Not a typical one, of course, but one serviced by a wading pool of flesh-eating fish. At the Fish Spa & Reflexology, in the Transfer D corner of T1, you can remove the dead skin of your travel-weary feet by immersing them in a series of pools filled with hungry fish of increasing sizes. I started with the largest size.
Though others seemed to be enjoying this novel form of public grooming, seconds after I dipped my bare feet and felt the collective suction of the swarm, I yanked them back out. The woman running the spa had seen this behaviour before. "Don't be afraid," she said. "In Turkey they have this massage, and they go in up to their necks! Try the smaller fish." Plunging my feet into another pool, small black fish with the taste for human, obscured my feet. If I had just closed my eyes, it would have felt like a million tiny fingers were massaging me. But I did not close my eyes. "Don't look at them! Don't look at them!" another employee admonished. I could feel a girlish scream rising in my lungs and saved myself that indignity by swinging my legs out - a single, committed critter still hanging from my big toe. Towelling off in defeat, I watched two other customers quietly enjoying their fish pedicures. "I find it quite relaxing," one of them said to me. To each his own at Changi.
I went in search of my own blissful moment and decided to end my visit in what is perhaps Changi's most unexpected amenity: an outdoor pool. For a mere S$13.91, I was given a towel, non-alcoholic drink at the pool's otherwise alcoholic bar, and access to a large pool and deck. It was not the best of facilities - my locker door was busted, the shallow pool was excessively chlorinated and there was nothing hot about the hot tub - but floating in a rooftop pool before getting on my flight capped off what was the most fun I have ever had in an airport and led to a deep, relaxed sleep on the plane. Next time I am in Changi, in addition to my bathing suit, I will add a pair of goggles to my carry-on.