Past a teeth-whitening clinic, a nightclub called Insanity, a dicey-looking karaoke joint and a hostess bar called The Den — where the mamasan appears in the doorway and helpfully explains, in broken English, “We have room. You can take lady” — a giant figure of a condom points down a long, dimly lit driveway on a small sidestreet in the heart of Bangkok called Soi 12.
It’s a beacon for Cabbages & Condoms, one of Bangkok’s oldest and most popular restaurants, the flagship location of the international chain and a shrine to all things prophylactic. A giant condom-themed roulette wheel and life-sized mannequins wearing full-body condoms line the restaurant’s entryway. There is a dining room that seats 350 people, an outdoor garden, a bar and private rooms upstairs. A gift shop sells condom-themed shot glasses, coffee mugs and 4-gig hard drives called “Memory Dicks.” After dinner is served — high-end takes on Thai favorites, including sweet curries of lamb and beef and shrimp satay — a condom on a plate is served with the bill, in lieu of an after-dinner mint.
This is the intersection of condoms and gastronomy, and it’s all the work of Mechai Viravaidya. A longtime social activist, two-time Thai senator and onetime government spokesman, Mechai opened Cabbages & Condoms in 1974. In a country where, people like to say, governments come and go faster than a rainstorm during monsoon season, Mechai has remained a constant public presence — a widely admired do-gooder who has combined a sense of humor with passion for public health and food.
Mechai’s efforts to popularize condoms — first, for birth control, and later, to prevent HIV — earned him the U.N.’s Gold Peace Medal and a $1-million prize from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help fund Population and the Community Development Association (or PDA, Thailand’s largest nongovernment organization, which he founded).
But for all the worldwide recognition he’s achieved, nothing speaks to Mechai’s impact on the culture here more than his nickname — “The Condom King.” In fact, his decades-long safe-sex campaign is so pervasive that condoms in Thailand are now commonly referred to as “mechais.” Yet, somehow, many don’t even realize there really is a man by that name.
At 74, the once-lanky, bespectacled Mechai now sports a paunch, walking with more of a shuffle than a gait. But he hasn’t lost the mischievous twinkle in his eyes or his love of a good joke.
“They used to call this Soi Darling,” Mechai says at the restaurant, gesturing toward the little side street near us and explaining how, during the 1970s and 1980s, it was best known for the massage parlor down the road. Customers would pick up young women in what was known as the “fish tank” before heading upstairs for a full-body massage and “extra services.” I asked whether it was a bit incongruous having a condom restaurant preaching safe sex right next to one of Bangkok’s most notorious spots for an erotic encounter. “It probably provided a lot more safety,” Mechai responds playfully. “It’s like living next to a fire station — your house is less likely to burn down!”
But the restaurant popped up in this location by accident. Located next to PDA’s office, “Cabbages” was originally just a space for excess shipments of cabbage, kale, garlic, onions and other produce. Eventually, however, local residents started lining up to buy the vegetables; to ease their wait, Mechai began a condom-themed gift shop, peddling T-shirts, keychains and rubbers alongside the veggies. Sensing a bigger business opportunity — and a chance to add a new revenue stream for his NGO — Mechai decided to turn his produce stand into a restaurant, first as a small outdoor canteen whose clientele consisted primarily of PDA employees.
“I realized after one year we cannot expect to live off the generosity of others forever,” he explains. “If you want to be sustainable and be able to expand and do other things, then you have to have an enterprise.” Today, there are now 19 Cabbages restaurants in Thailand and two in the U.K. — the first opening in Oxfordshire in 2012 and a second in Cheltenham in late 2014. Keeping true to the brand, they all serve up condoms and condom kitsch along with the meals.
“We haven’t been able to compete with McDonald’s yet,” Mechai says with a laugh. “But one day, who knows?”
The flagship Soi 12 restaurant still gets good reviews, including four out of five stars on TripAdvisor and four-and-a-half stars on VirtualTourist. “Still can’t believe that full-size sculptures and figures were made from condoms. There are condoms EVERYWHERE! Even the light fittings seem to be made from them,” wrote one reviewer on TripAdvisor. “Don’t panic — they all are unused hehehe.” The restaurant also gets a mention in nearly every backpackers’ guide to Bangkok, which might explain why most of the patrons are foreign tourists.
How does Mechai, um, keep it up, in a city where restaurants come and go and where fast-food chains in shopping malls seem to be replacing many of the old-time dining spots? “The food has to be good, or the people won’t come,” he tells me. “The price has to be reasonable. And the atmosphere has to be good.”
And, he adds, a good dose of humor is an essential ingredient: “That’s very important. Westerners don’t quite expect that people in this part of the world understand their sense of humor.”
Mechai traverses both worlds, Thai and Western, as the product of a Scottish mother and a Thai father, both doctors, who met at Edinburgh University and married in 1937. (In a nod to Mechai’s Scottish roots, the table cloths at Cabbages are Scottish tartan.) His interest in condoms came about circuitously, as a young development worker just out of Melbourne University, evaluating projects in rural areas for the government’s National Economic Development Board. In the authorized biography of Mechai, From Condoms to Cabbages, the author describes how after visiting poor rural areas, Mechai became “increasingly convinced that controlling population growth was a prerequisite and logical entry point for economic development.”
Working at the development board “opened Mechai’s eyes and widened his horizon,” the author wrote. “And what he saw, and what impacted him, was the enormous number of people, that had to be housed, fed, clothed and employed. … If development was to succeed in Thailand, the population problem must be solved first.”
Mechai’s biography also recounts his early experiments in using humor to promote safe sex. At a training session for sexual health educators, the teachers sat uncomfortably somber, “like a lecture hall during a philosophy class,” until Mechai put a condom to his lips and started blowing it up like as balloon. “It was like magic,” Mechai says in the book. “One minute, the audience was silent, moribund, self-conscious.” In the next, “they were roaring with laughter.” He then started a condom-blowing contest.
The stunts have only grown more elaborate over the years: Helium-filled condoms floating over Bangkok. Traffic cops distributing condoms to motorists, a campaign dubbed “Cops and Rubbers.” A “birth-control alphabet” to be used in schools, starting with A for Abstinence, B for Birth Spacing, C for Condoms — all the way to V for Vasectomy. He took his condom roulette wheel to Bangkok’s red-light districts for carnival-like condom-awareness parties. His ever-changing slogans have included “A condom a day keeps the doctor away” and “In rubber we trust.”
The results are undeniable. In the 1970s, Thailand and the Philippines both recorded about 36 million people. Today — thanks in no small part to Mechai’s mechais — Thailand’s population is a little more than 65 million people while the population of the heavily Catholic Philippines is more than 100 million. And while Mechai began as a crusader for smaller family sizes, by the time the AIDS epidemic hit in the mid-1980s, Thais were already conditioned to his pro-condom refrain. He cites World Bank statistics estimating that the condom campaign here prevented as many as 7.7 million people from becoming infected with HIV. “I’m happy that it worked,” he says modestly. “It’s a sense of happiness and relief.”
But Mechai isn’t done yet. Next up — a series of schools, a rural development bank giving out micro-loans to poor villagers and a wheelchair agricultural program to help people with disabilities grow crops. Much of the funding still comes from the revenue generated by Cabbages & Condoms and all of its condom-themed souvenirs, a seemingly endless list of memorabilia.
There are condom posters, neckties with condoms, condom mousepads and, for patrons leaving the restaurant, a dish of condoms. “Sorry, we have no Democracy,” reads a big sign next to the kind of dish generally reserved for candy or toothpicks. “Please take a condom instead.”
There are four sizes to choose from, in separate marked boxes — military size, politician size, coup d’etat size and, finally, “Democracy size,” with the added notation: “Sorry, out of stock.”
Keith Richburg is a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong, author of the book Out Of America and a Washington Post Bureau Chief in China, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa.