These Men Are Mad That I Packed A Thousand Condoms

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Apparently drinking “just beer” is not enough to satisfy my very thirsty fellow diners. Larry, Dan, Pete, and George (names have been changed) insist that I try their acclaimed Sangsom and Red Bull combo, a lethal mixture of Thai rum with a version of energy drink elixir that tastes sweeter than what I’m used to back home.

It is the third night since my arrival in Pattaya, Thailand, in the heart of a ruthlessly hot June, and my two best girlfriends, Sam and Becky, and I have made our way to the bar. Although I don’t like the looks of the place, I will give in to eating here more times than I’d like to admit. After my first Southeast Asian tuna fish sandwich with lobster-flavored potato chips, Sam decides to go back to her room to rest, while Becky joins me in getting to know the local company.

The liquor flows as Becky gets sucked into conversation with Dan, a 60-something former bird breeder from Hawaii. Now retired and a permanent resident of Pattaya, he boasts a mop of light gray hair, matted from ocean water, and a bulging belly, which peeks out from a strategically unbuttoned tropical-print shirt.

From across the table, Larry, a 37-year-old Brit, fixes his gaze on me, his eyes flashing. I glance in his direction, curious. “Sharon, dAHling,” he implores, in his proper British accent, “TELL me.” He takes another pull from his cigarette for dramatic effect. “What AHre you doing here?” The volume of conversation around the table drops considerably, and I can feel an uneasy weight settle in the air.

Without waiting for any reply, he continues, “Word has gotten around that you’ve brought over a thousand condoms from America. Is this TRUE, love?” I gulp and stare at him in surprise. “I am curious to know WHAT in the HELL you think you’re doing bringing over that many condoms to a country that obviously has a large supply of its own. I mean, what are you, a cultural missionary or something??”

What he says is true: My bag back at the guesthouse holds 1,000 condoms, a donation from my college’s Health Services office. In my pre-travel research, I had googled Pattaya, and instead of finding the natural wonders and panoramic views that initially attracted me to Thailand, the search revealed alarmingly trashy websites proclaiming the city as the “brothel of the world.”

Most of the men seated at our table are teachers, like Becky and me. But while we came to Pattaya for a cultural immersion experience, we soon learn that many of our foreign male co-teachers work at the school primarily to fund their weekend “habits.”

“Well,” I begin slowly, feeling heat rise to my face, “I got this donation from…” But Larry isn’t finished.

“LOOK, love, all I’m saying is that everybody here knows about safe sex, and prostitution is NOT going to end with your coming here… But even so, don’t come over here with a supply like that and just let it sit in your bag!” He is yelling now. “Go out and DO something with them!” he exclaims, his eyes bloodshot and glassy. “And what are you DOING anyway??”

I battle with every muscle to maintain composure and to respond to the assault directly and evenly to the table of onlookers. My rebuttal comes out in soft sputters instead.

“First of all, Larry, I just got here…” He is examining me menacingly in between gulps of vodka in his glistening glass. “How can you expect me to have distributed so many condoms already when I don’t even know my way around the area?” I continue, “That’s why I need people like you, who know, to help me get connected.”

Pete, a 22-year-old high school drop-out from Sydney, chimes in. “There are prostitutes everywhere,” he declares. “Where are you from again? Oh yeah, don’t you think there are prostitutes in Pennsylvania?”

“You know,” Dan growls, “I have sex every single day, usually with a different woman, and I LOVE it. I don’t need condoms. Do you know how it feels to walk down the street and hear, ‘I want you’ from women hanging out the doors of every bar and nightclub?” His eyes are wide and wild. “It is the BEST feeling in the world.”

I am still trying desperately to regain my footing, or perhaps gain a little clarity on what I assume must be a tragically misunderstood situation. But I can no longer sit, sweating and squirming, as the group of men crafts arguments that defy every value I’ve grown up with or acquired in my education. Unsteadily, I raise myself up from the cramped table and turn away before bursting into sobs.

Obviously my presence in these men's adopted country has struck a sensitive chord.

After all the fuss, I end up finding the right place for my condom donation after all—with condom activist Mechai Viravaidya, manager of the Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant at the Birds and Bees Resort. I learn that condoms are often referred to as “mechais” in Thailand, thanks to his remarkable contributions to the sex education movement.

In some ways, I can consider Larry the prime motivator in prompting me to take action. Given that there are nearly 600,000 adults and children living with AIDS in Thailand, I know my donation is only a tiny drop in a vast ocean of need, but it’s a start.

Having now spent more time in Pattaya, I see that the perspectives of Larry and his drinking buddies represent many Western opinions throughout the central to southern regions of Thailand, and are sometimes representative of indigenous views toward women as well. I know I didn’t win them over, but the drunken debate at the restaurant bar has unlocked a world that I never imagined existed.


Posted on 8/27/2009 by

Amie Comeau

Amie Comeau

I now feel completely prepared for the trip to Thailand. Thank you.

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