I was not mistaken; nor was I hallucinating – that was really the name of the restaurant (that adorned the Birds and Bees Resort, appropriately.)
Amid all the idyllic white-sand beaches, tropical islands, Buddhist Pagodas shrouded in incense smoke, spicy street dishes, local Thais warm smiles and plenty of Muay Thai camps where they are trained to knock out someone’s warm smile (I was there for something like the latter – a karate training camp) lies the bacchanalian madness of Pattaya.
But if you scrape beneath the cliché tourist facade you’ll actually discover fragments of a fascinating and meaningful culture, and that was the case when our karate Shihan (instructor/master) and longtime Thailand resident, Judd Reid, brought us to Cabbages and Condoms for our celebratory last meal of the training camp.
It definitely defied easy definitions when we first walked in. A path led us into the jungle like explorers of yesteryear wielding machetes to cut back the bush on their way to an epic discovery. As we meandered deeper into the grounds (which is also a resort with great villas and a beautiful infinity pool) we passed tropical gardens, flower beds, bamboo foot bridges about streams with tropical fish, and saw chickens and even rabbits running free on well-manicured lawns.
Once we reached the restaurant there were even mannequins dressed in garments pieced together with hundred of condoms (sans wrapper) – a bizarre fashion show with prophylactics the wardrobe.
I barely had time to process it all as we arrived at the restaurant and ended up at a series on outdoor decks that staggered down the hill and jutted over the ocean, with a view of locals joyfully playing in the waves on the sliver of private beach below.
What on earth is this place, I thought – both one of the most beautiful and paradoxical settings I’d ever witnessed.
It was originally the brainchild of one man named Mechai Viravaidya, a half-Thai, half-Scottish national who grew up and was educated in Scotland and Australia with a focus on family planning and social advocacy. In 1965, Viravaidya returned to Thailand, where he began working to curb the substandard medical care for women, ignorance as to proper family planning strategies, and traditional norms that were prevalent in the country.
Noting that you could buy cabbages in any market, shop or restaurant, Viravaidya declared that getting condoms should at least be that easy.
“You can go to any shop around Thailand and you will always find cabbages,” he explained years later. “Condoms should be like cabbages which are ubiquitous and accessible to everyone.”
Hence, the origin for the name of his restaurant, Cabbages & Condoms, was born.
But this restaurant wasn’t just a novelty. Cabbages and Condoms was actually the keystone initiative of a non-profit service organization called the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), which aimed to better the lives of the country’s poor. Viravaidya left his civil service job in 1973 to found the organization (called the ‘PDA’) and enlisted some creative measures to popularize condoms and remove their stigma, including condom blowing contests for school kids and gave condoms to taxi drivers to disseminate (pun intended!) to their customers.
Viravaidya gained admiration and respect for his efforts and went on to serve as the deputy minister of industry, minister of tourism, information, and AIDS, and even on the Thai senate in 2004.
In 2007, Mechai Viravaidya was honored with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Gates Award – including a $1,000,000 check - in recognition of his life’s work of family planning, HIV and AIDS awareness, women’s health, and advocacy for the poor.
That explained why there were photos of Viravaidya posing alongside Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet, and other philanthropists, celebrities, and heads of states adorning the restaurant walls; not at all what you’d expect from a restaurant with the slogan, “Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.”