It’s not often that you see a life-sized Santa sculpted entirely from condoms, let alone at the entry to a restaurant. But that’s exact what greets you when you enter the garden of Bangkok’s “Cabbages & Condoms” restaurant.
Our friends Denis & Peter have come up to Bangkok to meet a visiting friend, and we have a few hours to spend with them before they need to rush off to the airport to fetch her. I suggest this restaurant, whose name has been calling to me since I came across it in a guidebook months ago. I had given up hope of dining here, however, until my new friend Tee mentioned it earlier this evening. “If you want authentic Thai food at a good price,” he suggested “you should try Cabbages & Condoms.” Okay!
We meet Denis & Peter at their hotel and they’re up for trying a new place. We pile into a taxi and zoom across town to Sukhumvit 12 Alley in the Khlong Toei district.
Well, we don’t zoom. We crawl, the taxi driver not sure where to find the restaurant, the streets blocked first by a scooter accident,1 then by some city workers doing something with a rat’s nest of electrical lines you will find along any street in any city in Thailand.
But we get there, the taxi pulling into a relatively boring-looking hotel parking lot, the only indication that we’ve reached our destination a smallish sign with the restaurant’s name and a christmas tree decorated with condom ornaments.
A security guard gestures down a path between two shrubberies, and we enter a different world. Trees arch overhead, dripping firefly chains of light. Chandeliers hang randomly down from the tree limbs, illuminating tables with large parties of diners drinking Chang and Leo beers in the warm night air. The intoxicating scent of thai cuisine is everywhere.
We’re seated at our table and order a bunch of dishes. They come out quickly, and everything is delicious. They bring us a plate of Larb Kai, a wonderful combination of ground cooked chicken seasoned with chili and toasted rice flour and wrapped in wild betel leaves. After adding some sauce I pop the whole thing in my mouth, and it’s as delicious as it sounds, the flavors unfolding one by one and dancing together, salty and nutty, sweet and spicy and bitter.
Soft-shell crab with black pepper and chili. A stir-fried beef that dissolves in my mouth. A perfect green curry chicken, spicy and complex. The best green papaya salad I’ve had in Thailand. Both sticky & dark rices. 2
The restaurant is run by PDA, the Thai Population and Community Development Association, a group formed to promote family planning, especially in rural Thailand. The group was founded in 1973. Twelve years later AIDS arrived in Thailand, and the PDA added HIV prevention to their mission. They continue to promote family planning and safe sex throughout Thailand.
They also have established projects to reduce rural poverty, improve water quality, give microcredit loans, and improve nutrition. They’ve opened the Bamboo School in rural Buriram Province to give poor children a private, high-quality education.
Our entire meal costs 2300฿ (or about $70). That’s four people, two large beers, a few bottles of water, and a mango smoothie. The meal is one that I will always remember, not only for the charming company but also for the magical secret garden and the amazing food.
And this meal was not only inexpensive, but it helped support an organization that by all accounts does amazing work. They’re saving and improving lives every day, and doing so with a sly sense of humor.
After Denis & Peter leave, Bobby and I talk about how this was the perfect last night before returning to the States. Amazing food, good friends, smiling Thais, laughter, the warm night air, twinkling stars, and the sound of fountains. Neither of us wants to leave, both of us know we’ll be back soon.
We reluctantly walk back to our hotel, savoring every last moment of our time. It’s only midnight, and the street vendors are just starting to think of going home. They greet us with a friendly “sawatdee krap!“
A little later we jostle a trash container and two fat rats drop onto the sidewalk, scurrying a short distance away to watch us. We wāi to them with a happy “sawatdee krap!” Their whiskers twitch, and I imagine that they’re pressing their hands together, greeting us and inviting us to stay and share the rich banquet that is Bangkok.