Overnighting in Changi Airport

The first leg of my flight from Singapore to Shanghai was scheduled to depart at 6.40am. That meant checking in at silly o’ clock, and it left me cursing the lack of 24-hour public transport.

One option – if I wanted to catch that flight and sleep in my bed – was getting my dad to drive me to Changi Airport. I’m twenty-eight; even if he wanted to there was no way I’d let him. The alternative was a $25 taxi ride. $25 for a nap at home and perhaps an awkward conversation with the cabby along the way.

I decided to trade my bed for a cold airport bench.

*****

The last public bus for the night pulled into Terminal 2. The air-conditioning was welcome in the sweltering heat, and I hadn’t slept in freezing conditions since I left Melbourne. Midnight was approaching, but the terminal was still a hive of activity.

Check-in was still at least 4 hours away, but maybe there was a chance I could get my boarding pass and enter the transit lounge, that paradise on earth for travellers. Think lounge chairs, clean carpets, game consoles, massage chairs, 24-hour shops and even a swimming pool.

Fat hope. The check-in counter wasn’t even open for my carrier.

I made my way to the viewing gallery, the one quiet spot in the building that I knew. From here I could see the chaises lounges in the transit area. How cruel! There were only two of us, and the other occupant took to sleeping on the floor at the other end. The hard contoured benches were a pain to sleep on but I persisted, turning my bag into a lumpy makeshift pillow. Usually, if I close my eyes and relax long enough, I can fall asleep anywhere. But not here, not tonight.

“Hi, may I have a look at your passport please?”

A couple of airport security officers were making their rounds, and they arrived as I was about to drift off. I was startled, then I realised they were not the military patrollers with rifles. They were very polite and hardly intimidating, and there was no reason to be uncooperative when they were just checking on vagrants. Our banter was pleasant, if minimal and limited to flight times and the lack of transport.

Minutes after they leave, a man bumps a luggage trolley into my bench. He has a suitcase but looks dishevelled, like any of the old men on the Singapore’s streets, but I got the feeling he wasn’t flying anywhere tonight.

“You can smell that chemical smell in the air or not?”

It’s coming from your own clothes, champ.

Upon learning that I was a local, he proceeded to talk at length about the anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam, the recently disappeared MH370 and the Senkaku Islands dispute. It didn’t seem to matter to him that I didn’t look even vaguely interested. According to him, this was the common thread: “They’re not Chinese, they don’t think like us.”

Riiight…

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he wandered off to the corner where the lass was sleeping. I heard tinkling.

Is he doing what I think he’s doing? There goes Changi Airport’s reputation for being clean.

She got up and grabbed her bags. As she passed me she said, “I don’t feel safe around that guy. He just peed in the corner.”

“Let’s go to another terminal. The benches are more comfortable there.”

I learnt that her name was Xav and that she was a long-term traveller on her way to Mongolia. I still found it funny that we chose to trust a stranger after one just spooked us. Perhaps it was just one Couchsurfer sensing the presence of another.

Luckily the sky train linking the terminals was still in operation, and that saved us a sweaty walk outside. The gallery in Terminal 1 couldn’t have been more different from the one we left behind. The benches were flat, cushioned and far more welcoming. There were bodies sprawled across every available bench and even the children’s playground was occupied by three souls and their luggage. It’s a pleasant surprise that there wasn’t even a single snorer.

We found a couple of benches that were back-to-back, and our chatter went on until sleep got the better of us. Despite the benches, the experience still wasn’t entirely comfortable for this amateur. The air was chilly, and the occasional boarding call was downright jarring in that silence. None of the airport staff bothered us after the earlier encounter with security though, and we didn’t see Mr Chinese Pride again.

I ended up with something that resembled a period of semi-consciousness more than a nap, but that was $25 saved, a friend gained and an experience earned.

Not sure where to go after roughing it out in Changi Aiport? Then take a look at my Singapore itinerary.