How to disorientate a PhD student

AKA: Thailand Week 1

My first ever solo long haul flight was actually pretty easy, as flights go. I was never painfully uncomfortable, nor bored. I spent most of the flight watching movies, and wishing I was watching the movie people in front of me were watching, instead of mine. I had about one hour to change in Hong Kong, before jumping on a half-empty ‘Dragonair’ flight (coolest airline name ever), almost all three hours of which seemed to be spent filling in their enormous customer feedback form. On stepping out of the doors at Chiang Mai International Airport (probably one of the smallest ‘international’ airports in existence) I was greeted by 25+ degrees of sticky air, and I soon realised that bringing two jumpers was probably unnecessary.

The view from Hong Kong Airport

The view from Hong Kong Airport

After a worrying half an hour waiting outside before finding my friendly Thai contact, I was on the way to a hotel for the first night, where I would catch up with my supervisors Vik and Stu, and the two other ULTRASPEC team members for the first week, Paul and Tom. I was given a swanky room with an enormous bed (see photo – I later discovered this is the norm here), and just about had time to brush my teeth before we were whisked out for dinner at a posh restaurant next to the river.

Easily enough space for three in standard Thai 'double beds'

Easily enough space for three in standard Thai ‘double beds’. They are also rock solid. I’m not sure I will ever be able to sleep on a soft bed again.

This was my first encounter with real Thai food, and I had been nervous about it for months, knowing that eggs, fish and peanuts were an integral part of Thai cooking. Unfortunately, my worries were fairly appropriate, as Vik and the others quickly agreed to order a number of plates to share, almost all of which had some form of fish or seafood involved. I managed to find a fairly harmless looking grilled beef dish, but quickly became aware of the normal sort of restrictions I would face at most restaurants here – approximately 75% of most menus are off-limits, unless I can convince the chef to leave out eggs in the frying process, which is tricky with my very limited ability to speak Thai.

Dinner on the first night with other ULTRASPEC team members

Dinner on the first night with other ULTRASPEC team members

After dinner some of us headed into the Old City to explore the Sunday Night Market, also known as ‘Sunday Walking Street’, a famous weekly event in Chiang Mai. The first stall we came to was selling some kind of bracelets, which were currently housing a possum! The stall owner was quite upset when I took a photo, forgetting to turn off the flash, though, so we quickly moved on. This first encounter did a good job of setting the scene for the rest of the market. There were stalls selling anything from bizarre smelling foods to dodgy electronic gadgets, touristy t-shirts, mango wood bowls, decorated notebooks and freshly fried bugs, including crickets, giant water bugs, and what I can only describe as maggots (we were later told these taste quite like chips, but for obvious reasons I wasn’t keen to test this claim).

Possum relaxing in a box of beads.

Possum relaxing in a box of bracelets.

It took at least an hour or two to slowly meander through the entire market, and having missed an entire night’s sleep, I was very pleased when it was time to head back to the hotel. What better way to make the trek back across the city then in the traditional tuk tuk? The four of us split between two, and paid 100 Thai Baht for each (around £2) for the ten minute journey.

After nowhere near enough sleep, and a slightly sickening breakfast of plastic toast and pork pasta bake, we found ourselves in a minivan heading straight over to the Doi Inthanon national park, and the home of the Thai National Observatory. It took around 2 hours to get there. Apparently it was then already lunch time (Thais like to eat early, it seems), and after much deliberation I managed to order something sensible, if tasteless (watery chicken soup with garlic and noodles). This restaurant (next to our mountain lodgings) was to be my main source of food for the next 10 days, and by the end I had studied the menu so carefully I could probably recite most of it. I soon discovered a number of fairly tasty variants, and now have a favourite standard breakfast: khao pad gai mai sai kai (chicken fried rice without egg). I’m not sure why the restaurant staff always laugh when I ask for it. Perhaps it’s my pronunciation, though I’m 100% certain I’m saying it exactly the same as the Thai people say it. In any case, 90% of the food here is fried, so it took a few days to get used to the heavy feeling in my stomach.

After dropping our bags off at the lodge, we then headed further up the mountain. The telescope is located 15km further along the road, and 1000m higher than the lodge, just 3km before the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand (around 2500m). On the way we passed a truck full of monks, some of whom had ipod headphones in. I found this highly amusing. We were soon at the Thai National Observatory, and were quickly at work testing systems and preparing ULTRASPEC for its first astronomical observations in Thailand.

Hi-tech Monks

Hi-tech Monks

TNT

2.4m Thai National Telescope

Getting going in the TNT control room

Getting going in the TNT control room

After two full days of preparations, we began our first night-time observations with probably the best observing conditions I’ve seen since arriving. We managed to complete almost all of the on-sky commissioning tests, as well as some nice PR shots, in the first two nights. This was incredibly lucky, because after this we were sitting in a pile of cloud for almost the entirety of the rest of our observing time. The following day Vik was keen to go walking in the afternoon, but having missed two whole nights of sleep within a week, it would have taken a lot to get me to wake up earlier than necessary. It took two or three nights to finally start to feel ‘normal’ again.

Stuart prettifying our PR shot of the Nautilus Galaxy

Stuart prettifying our PR shot of the Nautilus Galaxy

On the last afternoon of Vik, Stu and Paul’s time at the telescope, we did manage a walk along a nature trail through the jungle. It was very beautiful, and near the end the jungle opened up to alpine grassland and a great view (when the clouds offered the occasional gap). Thanks to Nu for showing us!

Start of the Nature Trail

Start of the Nature Trail

CIMG7771 CIMG7832

Just to prove I was there

Just to prove I was there

Finishing with a nice glimpse of the Royal Pagodas

Finishing with a nice glimpse of the Royal Pagodas

That will do for now. More photos and stories next time.

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