Tall Tales and Tasty Temptations

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June 4th 2020
Published: June 4th 2020
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The tall have it easy.

Through no effort of their own they’ve won the genetic lottery and spend their lives quite literally looking down their noses at the rest of us.

Their elevated status gives them multiple advantages: instant respect, a better chance in the marital stakes, improved job prospects and the best views in any crowd, much to the annoyance of those poor sods stood directly behind them.

Even so, once in a while they'll have the cheek to pipe up about how tough it all is, constantly asked how the weather is up there, made to feel like some enormous freak. But really, how hard can it be?

Boo hoo, poor you… given the chance, few would choose, I suspect, to swap with someone who was short.

Cos being short is no fun at all.

This I can be certain of, as while I’ve never been truly tall, back as a kid I was certainly very short. Luckily adolescence saw me belatedly grow more than most and pass through average, and on to moderately tall, with memories of what a pain it was to be a short arse fading by the year. Courtesy of age, I’m now just beginning the return journey in the reverse direction, casting nervous glances at my Dad, now in his mid-eighties, who has been cruelly reduced to something of a midget where once he stood proudly tall.

From this I’ve gleaned that your self-worth and social standing markedly differs depending on your stature. As such, I was always slightly miffed that I’d never made it to the ranks of the properly tall.

At least, that is, until now.

It’s an old cliché that South-East Asians tend not to be massive, but for some reason I’ve never noticed before just how true this is. Suddenly, here in Burma, I was comfortably within the top percentile. And I have to say that other than standing head and shoulders above the crowd, being properly tall turns out to be a right pain in the neck.

In fact, for me this was quite literally true, as increasing age has seen the flexibility of my back go right out of the window, and these days being crammed into any sort of restrictive space has become, well, restrictive. And when you’re tall, it’s suddenly apparent the world is made for shorter people. Each moment becomes an obstacle course avoiding everyday objects into which you no longer comfortably fit: beds that are too short, bus seats with no legroom, ceilings with low beams, hammocks you can’t fit your shoulders in, and even low tree branches along pavements, which seemed to have been deliberately trimmed to the perfect height to smack me in the forehead as others strolled effortlessly below.

As soon as we’d reached the border from Thailand it became clear that I’d transitioned from merely fairly tall to pretty much the loftiest guy in the country. This did allow for treatment like royalty, whisked straight to the front of the immigration queue, directly into the hands of the local Mr Fixit, the resplendently named Mr Beauty. He more or less kidnapped us, smoothing our way through the rest of the Burmese side of the border and straight onto his office, shared with his business partner, who was disappointingly not called Mr Beast. Instead he was known as the humble Mr 2, which at least showed he knew his place, just that little bit shorter than his partner. I’m presuming these were pseudonyms and not what they were called at home by their wives, but then again you never know.

This classic couple of wheeler-dealers seemed to have stitched up tourism in the entire region purely by means of being the only ones who spoke enough English. Mr Beauty himself was quick to point out the importance of this, glad to hear I was Australian: Australians spoke good English, he reported, not like the bloody Chinese, who he reliably assured me were rank amateurs and no good to deal with at all. Oddly he made no attempt to conceal his disdain, but I’ve no doubt that being the smooth operator he was, he’d have a similarly disparaging line to feed them about the bloody Australians. I wisely chose not to dwell for too long on which of the many obvious alternatives it might be.

Entering a new country for the first time is always an interesting experience, but also a confusing and at times discombobulating one. There’s the need to rapidly get a handle on geography, both local and national and figure out exactly where the hell you’re supposed to be going. Then you’ve got to get your head around a new currency and figure out what’s cheap and what’s not without getting ripped off. In Burma things are particularly difficult as the country is changing at such a pace that guidebooks are obsolete as soon as they hit the shelves and the internet abounds with conflicting opinions. Until very recently the military leadership had a very firm hand on the tiller and there was a strictly limited agenda. These days they seem to have turned a blind eye it’s open slather, but there’s a hint it might be easy to get into grief by doing or saying the wrong thing. Sadly, nobody seems exactly sure just what these might be.

You’re also exposed, as usual, to one of the greatest mysteries of all time. It’s right up there with who killed JFK, what became of Amelia Earhart and who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong; why the hell does it cost an arm and a leg to get money out of a foreign ATM? You pretty much know you’re going to be robbed as soon as you put the card in the slot, but you’ve no idea of by how much, or exactly why. Choosing between the rival banks is a bit like going to the worst casino in the world where all the fruit machines pay out much less than you put in. Actually, when I think about it, that’s what happens even in the very best casinos, but at least they’re good enough to throw in the odd free drink or cheesy show. I could understand it if there was a little man somewhere back home who had to count out the cash, stick it in and envelope and pop down to the post-office to buy a stamp, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what happens. No, what we all secretly know is that this is a case of who put the scam in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong, each bank at both ends taking a nice little cut safe in the knowledge that you’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere and in no position to do anything about it. The amazing thing is that we all just roll over and let them get on with it, what we’ve come to expect from a profession that rhymes with wanker.

It turns out the tariff in Burma is not as high as in other parts of the world, and this is a pretty good guide to the rest of the country. They’re more used to being ripped off by outsiders than the other way round. A hefty portion of the workforce are migrant workers in foreign lands, who are generally overworked, exploited and mistreated in equal measure. In the pecking order of Asian countries Burma is still very much on the bottom rung, with an economy to match. While the long-suffering citizens are at last seeing some changes, they still lag a decade or three behind their neighbours on almost every scale, including, it would seem, height. And while that leads to a tough life for many, at least you can still breathe the air, and most of the land remains covered in natural green rather than man-made grey.

It also makes for a much less developed tourist scene, especially here in the south, and apart from the handy Mr Beauty, we were pretty much ignored and unmolested for the rest of the day. Next morning we rendezvoused back at the office and were ushered onto a minibus which, other than offering zero legroom, was surprisingly modern and comfortable. This would have all been fine and dandy were it not for the fact that the entire length of the highway, from just outside town all the way to Rangoon had recently been dug up for a much-needed upgrade. I’m sure it’ll be great when it’s finished, but for now we were left to bounce along a giant orange dustbowl from one police checkpoint to the next, where our passports were studiously pored over, as if we might somehow have forged them in the 20 bone-shaking kilometres since the last one.

Luckily we weren’t going to Rangoon at all, so after only about 3 hours of rattling and bumping we hooked a left and headed off on a much more minor but thankfully surfaced road across the paddy fields on our way to Mawlamyine.

Apart from being almost unpronounceable, Mawlamyine turns out to be a fascinating mix of faded colonial grandeur and ageing Burmese temples. In its heyday it was very much an outpost of the British Empire, both Kipling and Orwell have written of it with fondness. That heyday is long past, as one glance around town will quickly show. Everything in the lower part of town looks like it might well collapse with the merest hint of a nudge, having the appearance of a spooky old ghost-town despite being still thronged with people. The effect could only be enhanced by covering the whole place with an enormous blanket of cobwebs.

Up above on the overlooking hill the magnificent old temples have been looked after a little more carefully. In fact, a few have been looked after a bit too well, as is often the case in Asia, and actually look brand new. They stand replete with gaudy paint jobs and neon lights despite having been there since antiquity, leading to a slightly faux aura, more casino than cathedral. Fortunately, the crown jewel of Kyaikthanian Paya right at the peak is pitch-perfect, still looking resplendent, but with just enough of the rigours of time shining through to maintain its authenticity and gravitas. As you stand, gazing from the temple out over town as the sun sets over the river, you can feel the history and spirituality seeping into every pore. It’s easy to imagine tipping your hat to a young Kipling standing right next to you a couple of lifetimes removed, who no doubt would be keeping his head while all around were losing theirs.

The effect is only slightly spoiled by the electric lift which these days whisks lazy tourists to the top of the hill without so much as breaking sweat. In so doing they are rewarded by missing out on one of the most charming aspects of town, as for those that can still find it, the crumbling old covered stairway past the monk’s quarters and temples is a mesmerising step back through time. There you can take in every crack and chip, every alluring shadowy corner and fading wall of paint as a glimpse of the life of the past few centuries, much of it largely unchanged as the monks go about their daily rituals, other than the need to pose for the odd selfie. It was right here that Rudyard fell hopelessly in love at first sight with a young Burmese girl, only to be whisked away on the steamer to Rangoon the next morning.

Having had your day’s fill, the one downside of town is the nightlife, or rather the lack of it. Once the sun has set there are but a scant few eateries along the river to choose from, none of which look particularly appealing. In true Burmese style seating is in the form of ludicrously tiny stools, the kind they might put out for 3-year-olds back home and still have no danger of dangling legs. These make even the locals look fairly ridiculous, while us western giants are forced to fold ourselves up and eat with our knees round our shoulders.

The typical Burmese menus are also, shall we say, interesting. For me this remains one of the true joys of travel in South-East Asia, restaurant menus providing the joke that never gets old. The Burmese proved a particular delight, with even more amusing misprints or mistranslations to keep you entertained. You may be offered such delicacies as clung peppermint soup, beef hot place, drunkard seafood, fried forcemeat with rice, alcoholic curry, fish affiction or indeed smooties, which sounds like the kind of thing young Rudyard might have caught from the local hottie. And then there’s the list of dishes which you wish were misprints, but kind of know deep down probably aren’t: pork bowel, chicken feet salad, merged pork knuckle curry, dried white fungus salad, air-bladder fish soup, jellyfish salad or perhaps rice with minced raw pork, which sounds distinctly un-halal and more than likely to cause a nasty dose of the shits.

I can rarely get enough of this stuff, though more for comedic effect than nutritional value. And yeah, I know, it may be immature, culturally insensitive, and borderline racist, but it’s so much fun I can’t help myself.

Fortunately on this occasion we were saved when we stumbled upon a modest little South Indian restaurant who were wise enough to have no written menu at all. The waitress simply rattled off the admirably short list of options from which to choose. We ended up being served up a sensational vegetarian thali which we wolfed down in short order, pleased to find the whole bill coming to less than you’d pay for a single cappuccino back home.

There was a slight air of frisson at evening’s end, as tomorrow we’d perhaps have the chance to actually meet someone taller than ourselves, having booked a trip across the waters to Ogre Island. Here the locals no doubt feast their single swivelling eye on menus featuring eye of newt and toe of frog, with the occasional dessert of deep-fried suckling babe.

One can only hope, for their sake, they’ve managed to lay their hands on some more appropriately sized stools.


7th June 2020

Size matters
You are absolutely right about the shady deals with banks and accessing OUR money overseas - we know we are being shafted but grin and bear it! :( As a short arse who lives and travels with a reasonably tall person, I can reliably advise that there are pros and cons to both physiques; however the odds are definitely stacked much higher in my favour on planes and in Asia :)
8th June 2020

Top Tip...
For those based in Australia I'd highly recommend the Citibank Plus Transaction account for ATMs, and the 28 Degrees credit card. Both charge zero fees at the Australian end, and (especially outside Asia) often no fee at all... obviously traitors to their banking colleagues!

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