Off one of Bangkok’s main streets, down a tree-lined lane, is Cabbages and Condoms (C&C), a nonprofit restaurant that serves up good food and a healthy dose of sex education. The restaurant was founded by Thailand’s “Condom King,” Mechai Viravaidya, who also heads the Population and Community Development Association. He is often said to be personally responsible for lowering the country’s birth rate and rate of HIV infection and, through C&C, he hopes to continue to help empower the poor and fund safe sex and AIDS education in Thailand.
Conservatism has no place in this popular eatery. Mannequins wearing costumes constructed out of condoms and birth control pills greet the restaurant’s patrons. Safe-sex posters decorate the walls, along with a picture of the Mona Lisa holding a packet of birth control pills. Notices inform the clientele that the food “is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy” and offer free condoms as after-dinner treats. Fake flowers made from condoms hang from real trees, and ceiling lamps are covered in expired birth control pills. At Cabbages and Condoms, laughter and learning go hand-in-hand with haute cuisine.
The creator of these quirky masterpieces is Thongleum Damviengkum, or Thong, the restaurant’s resident gardener. Thong has no formal art training, but he was inspired by Mr. Viravaidya’s efforts to use humor to spread important health messages. Thong has been making decorations for the restaurant for years.
Thong’s creations have a short shelf life. After a while, the condoms wither in the intense heat and humidity. And these whimsical pieces are constantly being manhandled. Everyone who visits, including me, wants to touch everything. When I pointed this out to Thong, he smiled and replied, “That’s good. It means we have a constantly evolving show. It means people can come over and over again and take pictures and there will always be something new to see and photograph. Just like a menu changes, the artwork changes.”
In the early nineties, in response to the country’s climbing HIV rate, the Thai government launched a “100 percent condom use” program, in which free condoms were distributed to sex workers, who were then required to use them. (In 1990, it was found that 97 percent of HIV cases in Thailand were linked to the sex industry.) The program was a great success: between 1989 and 1993, condom use by sex workers increased from 14 to 94 percent, and the number of new HIV infections fell from 143,000 in 1991 to 19,000 in 2003. But late in the decade, financial instability in Asia caused funding for HIV prevention in Thailand to dwindle. Today, roughly half a million people in Thailand are infected with HIV, and 28,000 died from AIDS in 2009.
“It is important to have a safe place for people with AIDS,” says Thong. “This is a sanctuary, a haven. There are people working here who have AIDS and everyone knows it and it creates no problems. Outside, however, there is much prejudice and stigma. Maybe my work will help get rid of the stigma. Maybe my work will make people think seriously about using condoms. It is important to get the message across, making people see that condoms should be used and that we should all talk openly about sex and AIDS and family planning. Humor is important if you want people to listen. Maybe someday people will be able to talk as freely about condoms as they do about cabbages.”
Parts of this piece appeared previously in “The contraceptive café.” Gastonomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 9, 66-69 (2009) and in “Satay and safe sex.” New Statesman (July 23, 2009).