The Chiang Mai International Airport

Table of Contents

Introduction

The Chiang Mai International Airport is the main air hub , which links northern Thailand with China, Laos, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Domestic destinations include Bangkok, Phuket, Surat Thani, Krabi, Udon Thani and others. A second Chiang Mai Airport has been planned in the Sankamphaeng-Ban Thi area, about 15-20 km outside of the city. At this moment it looks like that will not happen in the near future due to the current Covid-19 crisis. Airport authorities have constructed a huge parking building to accommodate demand so it looks like the current airport will be the only one for the time being.

Airports of Thailand Company Limited manages the Chiang Mai International Airport. Currently it is the fourth busiest airport in the country, after Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports in Bangkok and the airport of Phuket. In 2018 31 airlines operated flights to and from Chiang Mai International Airport, transporting 11 million passengers and handling 14,612 tonnes of cargo.

International terminal Taxi booths at Chiang Mai International airport
International terminal Taxi booths at Chiang Mai International airport

History of the Chiang Mai International Airport

The foundation date of the airport, or rather airfield, was in the early 1920s. Wikipedia states that the airport was established as Suthep Airport in 1921 but that might have been the year in which the first airplane touched down in Chiang Mai. According to our information a wealthy Muslim businessman of Chinese descent, by the name of Khun Chowng-liang Lue-kiat, donated land to the establishment of the airport in 1924. It is not easy to find information about the history of the airport. After some research I can deduct that until the late 1950s it was more an airfield than an airport. The runway was a grass or dirt surface and there were almost no structures.

Picture of runway Chiang Mai International Airport
Chiang Mai Airfield in 1944. Picture from the Williams-Hunt aerial photo archive

A Japanese air base in World War Two

On December 8, 1941 Japanese forces landed on the beaches of South Thailand. After brief resistance the Thai government decided to collaborate with Japan and allowed Japanese forces into the country. After that Thailand and Japan signed a military alliance. Then Thailand declared war on England and the United States in January 1942. The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) probably used the Chiang Mai airfield on and off before the war. After the beginning of the war Japanese planes arrived in Chiang Mai and were stationed there for the duration of the war.

Chiang Mai airfield thus became a strategic target for Allied Airforces. According to Edward Young’s book Aerial Nationalism the first Allied air raid took place in February, 1941. Lysanders of the British RAF attacked the Chiang Mai airfield. Then in March planes of the American Volunteer Group, based in Burma, bombed the airfield. Until April 1944 Chiang Mai airfield was the target of Allied air raids but by this time the tide of the war had turned. The airfield seems to have lost its use for the remaining and dwindling Japanese and Thai air forces. It therefore also lost its strategic importance for the Allies.

Runway of airport Chiang Mai International Airport
Chiang Mai airport in the 1950s. Photo by Boonserm Satrabhaya.

The post World War Two history

Until World War Two only mail service planes probably land at and took off from the airfield. There were no scheduled passenger flights until 1947. That year saw the foundation of Siamese Airways Company Limited. The company operated its first flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai via Phitsanulok and Lampang in 1947. The airline merged with another company in 1951, establishing Thai Airways Company Limited aka TAC. The earliest domestic flight schedule of TAC  I could find is the one, published on October 1, 1952. Some time in the late 1950s they probably paved the runway.
Radar truck with mountain
Portable radar truck at Chiang Mai airport during the SEATO deployment of British Hawker Hunter planes at Chiang Mai airport

The deployment of Hawker Hunters at Chiang Mai Airfield

The British Royal Air Force stationed ten Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft at Chiang Mai airport, roughly from May until November 1962. Fighting between Pathet Lao communist and Royalist forces in Northwest Laos threatened to spill over to Thai territory, on request of the SEATO. The RAF sent an advance party to Chiang Mai to check on the facillities of the Chiang Mai airfield.

This is what they reported:  “This airfield had been built three years previously and since then remained unused. It consisted only of a runway and a small dispersal area. Buildings were almost nil, with only one main airport terminal building recently finished.” The Hunters only made training flights and never saw action. It is however a fairly unique episode in the history of the Chiang Mai International Airport. King Bhumibol Adulyadej flew over to Chiang Mai with his family to meet the commanding British officers and have a look at the planes.

Row of airplanes at an airport
Hawker Hunters at Chiang Mai airport

The expansion of Chiang Mai International Airport

Much research will have to be done about the period between 1962 and now. The airport has gradually become busier and busier. The AOT expanded the terminal which has domestic and international arrival and departure halls. They probably made adjustments to the runway and other facilities. Recently the AOT constructed a multi story parking facility to accommodate the growing demand for parking space for vehicles. In 2014 they expanded both terminals, enlarged the apron area and extended operating hours to 24/7.

In the second decade of the 21st century the growing popularity of Chiang Mai and North Thailand specifically for tourists from China and South Korea resulted in a much busier airport than ever before. Before that time most international flights were handled by small airlines such as Lao Airlines and Air Mandalay. The electronic boards with arrival and departure information listed flights from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoel, Kaohsiung, Beijing and many other destinations. Low cost airlines such as Nok Air and Air Asia appeared on the stage as well. The year 2019 was the busiest the airport had ever been and then Covid-19 struck.

Chiang Mai International airport taxi booths
Taxi booths at Chiang Mai International airport

View on Chiang Mai International Airport

From Wat Prathat Doi Suthep you have a fantastic view over Chiang Mai and its airport. Of course you have to be lucky with the weather but if you are, the view is really wonderful. Phil Bradbeer was a British biology lecturer at Chiang Mai university from 1964 until 1970. During his journey from the UK to Thailand he bought a camera in Singapore and made many photographs, which his son David put online. In 2020 I made a comparative photograph.

Panoram over valley
Panorama of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep in 1966. The runway of Chiang Mai airport on the right. Photo by Phil Bradbeer
Photo of a valley
Panorama of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep in 2020. The runway of Chiang Mai airport on the right.

Where is Chiang Mai International Airport?

The Chiang Mai International Airport is only about 3 km from the old walled city, which is pretty unique for an airport of a major city in Southeast Asia. It is very easy to find transportation in Chiang Mai to get to the airport. The traditional public transportation is the red songtaew, a converted pickup truck with two benches. There are also tuk tuks, a three-wheel vehicle, but they have less space for luggage.

 

Tango Squadron Wing 41 Air Museum

Chiang Mai International Airport is also the home of the Tango Squadron Wing 41 Air Museum, which is located located on Royal Thai Air Force property. The museum exhibits 28 vintage aircraft. Entrance to the museum is on request. I have been there twice, in 2012 and in 2018. For airplane enthusiasts the museum is worth visiting but the museum lacks funds to maintain the aircraft.

One of the exhibits is the World War Two wreckage of a Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft from the American Volunteer Group aka the Flying Tigers. The plane was shot down in North Thailand on March 24, 1942. The pilot, William McGarry, survived, spent time in an internment camp in Bangkok until the Free Thai movement helped him escape. It’s a great story.

Iron wreck in a hangar
McGarry's wreck at the Tango Museum
Old airplanes in a hangar
Vintage aircraft at the Tango Museum
Propeller plane
C-47 Skytrain at the Tango Museum

Where is the Tango Wing 41 Museum?

The Tango Wing 41 Museum is at the Chiang Mai International Airport but you need a special pass to get to the entrance. Please contact us if you are interested.

Sources for the Chiang Mai International Airport

1 – Wikipedia

Article about Chiang Mai International Airport

2 – Airline Timetable Images

Old timetables and flight schedules

3 – Japan in Northwest Thailand during World War Two

The best website about Chiang Mai and North Thailand in World War Two

4 – Picture Lanna

Website with photographs of the late Boonserm Satrabhaya

5 – Thailand pictures by Phil Bradbeer

Website with photographs of Chiang Mai and other places by Phil Bradbeer

6 – Edward Young, Aerial Nationalism: A History of Aviation in Thailand, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994