Thailand: The land of the eternal stomach ache

Thailand. Where some things smell fantastic but most things smell awful, and where ants will climb 8 floors and search your entire apartment just to get into your porridge oats.

AKA: Thailand Week 2

After 5 nights of commissioning, Vik, Stu and Paul jetted back to the UK and were replaced by two PhD students. Martin just started his PhD with Stu in Sheffield, and Madelon is in her third year of a PhD with Tom. And so the team grew smaller and less experienced. No matter, the weather was terrible most of the time anyway, and we only managed a few hours of observations spread over the last 5 nights.

Sunrise over Thai highlands

Sunrise over Thai highlands

The only real newsworthy event of those nights was that on the very last night, Madelon and I spent a long time musing over the possible cause of one the problems we’d been having with the ULTRASPEC. For some reason, the CCD chip was not clearing charge correctly when the light level was particularly high. A “clear” is used when we want a short exposure time, but have a long read out time. Whilst the current image is being read out, the chip is left exposed to light and collecting charge (we have no camera shutter like your digital camera, or in fact like most other astronomical cameras). After read out, this “dead frame” of collected charge is simply thrown away when we want to expose the next image. This turned out to be a problem with high light levels, and the charge could not be cleared properly.

After several hours we managed to come up with a possible explanation for why we were seeing the effect we did (see image below). The answer is not trivial, and may in fact be completely incorrect (the detector expert at the Astronomical Technology Centre in Edinburgh is currently mulling it over), but it was actually really enjoyable exercising my brain and using logic and reason to build a viable hypothesis. Perhaps I’m not so demoralised by science after all! Small victories are important, right?

Under high light levels, ULTRASPEC exhibits strange saturation behaviour when trying to "clear" a dead frame. I postulated this is a problem with matching the clocking limit to the full-well limit.

Under high light levels, ULTRASPEC exhibits strange saturation behaviour when trying to “clear” a dead frame. I postulated this is a problem with matching the clocking limit to the full-well limit.

Since the weather at the observatory had been pretty terrible for most of our nights, we’d been going to bed relatively early. On our penultimate day Nu offered to take us on an “awesome” walk for the afternoon. It really was awesome. I’ll tell the story in pictures…

The walk started on a little tribe track off the main road.

The walk started on a little hill-tribe track off the main road.

We soon descended into the "jungle", where the wildlife rules the land. Here are ten million ants taking over the path.

We soon descended into the “jungle”, where the wildlife rules the land. Here are ten million ants taking over the path.

The first waterfall we came to was nice, but a little underwhelming. I had hoped this wasn't the centerpiece of the walk Nu had boasted about for days.

The first waterfall we came to was nice, but a little underwhelming. I hoped this wasn’t the centerpiece of the walk Nu had boasted about for days.

We continued along the river, conquering precarious bridges and rickety ladders.

We continued along the river, conquering precarious bridges and rickety ladders.

Of course, the pinnacle of the walk, the "awesome" waterfall, was indeed pretty awesome.

Of course, the pinnacle of the walk, the “awesome” waterfall, was indeed pretty awesome.

ULTRASPEC Team B looking fantastic

ULTRASPEC Team B looking majestic (well, Tom was anyway).

We continued alongside the river until the jungle opened out to reveal rolling terraces of rice paddies.

We continued alongside the river until the jungle opened out to reveal rolling terraces of rice paddies.

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Nu shows us how to make a whistle from the rice stalk

Nu shows us how to make a whistle from the rice stalk.

More dodgy river crossings

More dodgy river crossings.

Rice harvesters at work

Rice harvesters at work.

The walk finished at a hill tribe village where this guy grinds fresh coffee beans and makes you a cup for free

The walk finished at a hill tribe village where this guy grinds fresh coffee beans and makes you a cup for free.

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After our final night at the telescope, when we were able to open for a couple of hours only, we packed up and headed down to Chiang Mai. We were dropped off at a little hotel/guesthouse on the East side of the city, right by the river. The river, it later transpired, was to be the prime location for the Loi Krathong lantern festival that weekend. The choice of hotel was no coincidence. We quickly headed out to find dinner, then enjoyed exploring the night market, and watching the festival kick off with lots of sky lanterns, and hundreds of teenagers throwing fireworks at each other on the old ‘Iron Bridge’.

Sky lanterns released from the riverside

Sky lanterns released from the riverside

Tom left early the following morning, but Martin and Madelon were sticking around for a few days. On Friday I spent the day searching for somewhere to live for the next month – more on this later. On Saturday we rented some old, heavy Dutch bikes for a tour around the city. We had a look at Chiang Mai university, and cycled up the hill to a nearby waterfall. The evenings were spent enjoying the night markets, the cheap food, drink and ice cream, and watching each night of the Loi Krathong festival grow in size and ferocity.

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Bike selfie

Bike selfie

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Night market

Night market

Sky full of lanterns

Sky full of lanterns

Next time more photos and my first week in the NARIT office.

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