Everywhere we go in northern Thailand, it seems people are talking about it.
Our taxi driver in Chiang Mai snorts: "A man goes to see a lady. Six months later he is dead!" Although this man's home, and wife, is several hours' drive away across the mountains in Chiang Rai, he is adamant he can, and will, wait for sex. "Six months - dead!" he repeats, and shakes his head.
We had just been to a church-run orphanage near Chiang Mai, where thirty-six tots were being cared for in immaculate quarters. They didn't have AIDS we were assured, but their parents were dead of it. Either that or the mother still had the disease, or was widowed by it and, unable to cope, had surrendered her children. Tough call, either way.
This was connected in a roundabout way to our trip to the area. And to AIDS, I guess. After several years of supporting a child through Christian Children's Fund (CCF) in a remote village near this ancient city, we were finally in Thailand. And going to meet her.
Or that is what we had thought we were to do.
There was, however, no one patiently waiting at Chiang Mai airport with HAMMOND lettered on a piece of paper when we arrived. No welcoming garland. No smiling faces. Plainly the Australian-made instructions had not survived the language barrier. We waited, we enlisted the Tourist Police patrolling the coolly spacious terminal. We waited some more, then employed Riab an English-speaking taxi driver to be our sleuth and translator, as well as transport. Knowing only the name of her 'village' we set off to what turned out to be yet another large city.
The day was a disappointment. No one knew of the project, although we, via our patient bi-lingual driver, asked everyone who might know. We found orphanages - one with over a hundred ebony-haired inmates protected by guard dogs and a huge walled playground. Why? "We are afraid the children will be stolen for body parts," was the matter of fact answer from the American missionary in charge. But we knew 'our' child was safely at home with her parents and sisters. Somewhere, if we could only find where.
Even here AIDS had played a part in her selection. Years earlier, when choosing to sponsor a child, we opted for a girl in Thailand. That way, we reasoned, if she could be educated - if the family's expenses were lessened - then the potential temptation for her to return with an itinerant recruiting agent from a Bangkok brothel would be less likely. The temptation to gain employment in a city 'restaurant' or 'factory' would lose its intense allure. You can't save them all, we reasoned, but maybe one. That would be something.
Start small. Start with the individual, we argued. Later in Chiang Rai we visited a restaurant with a catchy but unlikely name that operated with the same vision statement. Cabbages & Condoms has been running for several years now, serving out superb great value Thai food to all comers. The decor is whistle-clean, mainstream, almost subdued - that's if you don't count the cabinet of bright and cheeky ties emblazoned with writhing condoms.
That's if you can ignore (which you can't) the posters with ribald depictions of condoms to suit all occupations and personality types. What sort of condom does a cook wear, for instance? One with a frilly toque. What does the cautious type wear? Three at once, of course. The victim? A Bandaid enhanced one. That sort of thing.
The witty spin comes from founder and chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), Mechai Viravaidya, presently a senator, bank trustee, and chairman of the Telephone Organization of Thailand. Not your stereotyped New Asia exec at all, this man has a CV thick with honorary degrees, awards, national and international affiliations, and decorations - and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. All this plus a burning passion in his heart for the future of Thailand. A passion that has increased in the past thirty-something years since he returned from his education in Australia at Geelong Grammar School and Melbourne University.
Viravaidya originally faced the problem of his country's over-population when, as a young man, he was required to travel up-country to assess and report on development progress. "Everywhere I went," he says "there were so many children. I could see that population growth was just eating away whatever progress we made in terms of our development." At that stage population growth was estimated at 3.3 percent, but there was no population policy or program.
In tropical Thailand, cabbages are ubiquitous. Why not, Viravaidya reasoned, make condoms as readily available? Slowly, over the years as his public profile increased, the general awareness of a need for population control increased, and it became easier to drive his mission. PDA was established in 1974, and now has 12 regional development centres and three sub-centres. Today Thailand's population growth rate is just 1.2 percent. But PDA's concerns are wider-ranging than simply limiting family sizes. Integrated rural development involves water resources, forestry and environmental conservation, and income generation and occupational training.
We ate a meal at Cabbages & Condoms in Bangkok. Located in a side street in busy Sukhumvit, next to the lurid pink neon-lit Darling Massage Parlour, you notice instead lettering high on the building above: Non-Scalpel Vasectomy Clinic. For C&C is well into all sorts of family planning, and you can, if your stomach allows you, choose to dine at a table beneath a framed collection of vasectomy instruments, or another where a poster advocates female sterilisation.
Choosing, instead, the garden, we sat outside in the tepid night air near the antique ox-cart, a sleepy breeze ruffling the leaves and swinging the strings of fairy lights looped high among the palms and plants.
"You must have every tree in Bangkok here," we exclaimed to Vivaraidya, but he laughed. "Bangkok has lots of trees, you just have to get high enough to see them."
Judging by the other diners, the word is out in tourist circles about C&C - particularly amongst the young and active - sexually, that is. Anticipating this, there are after-dinner condoms (not mints, you are warned) freely available, with wry signs denoting the relative sizes - Thai and non-Thai. So, yes, this restaurant serving great Thai food, is, if not the propaganda arm, the light-hearted finger, of a very serious business.
Up-country, we visited with Alberto 'Bert' de la Paz, PDA's newest recruit, a Philipino import with the keen eye of an outsider, but with Thailand in his heart. Married to a Thai bank manager, his two sons face growing into a Thai society that Bert wants to see safer, and saner.
The Chiang Rai branch of PDA oversees a number of elements including the TBIRD community projects that give status and employment to local hill tribe people, allowing them, particularly the girls, to stay in their own village while earning a living wage. Culturally it preserves age-old crafts such as weaving techniques, strengthening the fabric of local society as grandmothers are encouraged to pass on their craft skills to future generations. AusAID has offered vital assistance to many schemes, and companies worldwide are encouraged to become partners in TBIRD projects.
Yet all is still not rosy. Since 1993, the Word Health organisation estimates that south-east Asia has the world's fastest spread of HIV with infections now around three million. Of these, many are young women, many children. De la Paz and Vivaraidya know they are up against grim poverty, smooth-talking pimps and corruption at the highest level.
Further north again, and another project established with the seal of the Princess Mother herself fights the tyranny of drug use and profiteering with similar weapons. Here on the northernmost green tip of Thailand we climbed to the clouds, to Doi Tung perched over a rippling sea of trees and agriculture. If the clouds had parted we could have gone further to Wat Pra Thart Doi Tung, a temple at an elevation of 6000 feet and looked down on the Myanmar border which, we were told, is easily distinguishable. In stark contrast to the Thai side, the land is cleared right to the line. That is how it is now. Until 1994 the two sides would not have appeared much different.
Opium use has been endemic in this area for generations. Its abuse in villages rendered a person useless, a lounging, red-eyed wreck, unable to work and, if both partners were affected, the family unit crumbled unheeded. Of course the world-wide craving for the derivative of opium meant that suddenly the red waves of poppies, washing across the hillsides, were worth gold. Lots of it. The area where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet became known as the Golden Triangle, and the name ultimately evoked sinister overtones.
Laboratories to manufacture heroin soon were set up, illicit trade routes began (and continue despite regular road blocks and inspections) and the villagers slashed and burned vast tracts of the peaceful slopes to plant poppies, and further their gains.
Of course most locals never saw the real money. That went to those much further down the drug-chain. These simple hill tribe people, many of whom do not qualify to be counted in Thailand's 60 million population, toiled hard and long, suffering to keep up the quotas. The countryside suffered too.
So it was in 1987 when King Bhumipol's gentle and aged Princess Mother decided to live fulltime in Thailand, instead of dividing her time between her beloved Switzerland and Thailand, she set her sights on Doi Tung, not as cold as Switzerland of course, but high enough to be cooler. They built her a lovely yet unpretentious chalet-style Royal Villa, magnificent gardens were set out, and a helipad installed. She was by then over ninety, and always arrived by helicopter, so the local hilltribe people nicknamed her 'the mother from the sky'.
When she first flew over what had once been a lush paradise, she was horrified by the devastation that poppy-power had brought about. "I will reforest Doi Tung," was her decree. Experts were brought in, money raised, and work began. No one could refuse the wish of this much loved lady, the one who had stood by the side of kings, husband and son, for decades.
We stood at the wall in front of the Royal Villa, where today the scars are covered by lush vegetation, and wondered at such swift transformation. Yet just below us, the changes were even greater. A cluster of buildings house four cottage industries - rug making, paper making, a weaving factory and a coffee factory - employing people from 26 villages. Just below the royal compound, a village school is equipped with the latest computers. Nearby, Australian know-how has established a thriving macadamia plantation.
Yet in all this, the hilltribe culture is acknowledged, not submerged with modernity. At an Ahka village nearby, it is Mother's Day at the local preschool, and the mums are in full force, dressed in their striking silver and red head dresses and smart woven leggings. No need to ask who belongs to which child. Like mothers anywhere, each one's eyes are glued to the neatly uniformed tiny who is to present her with a spindly bouquet.
There's no way to ask them if their lives are easier now that they grow bougainvillaea instead of poppies; no way to ask if limiting their family size has relieved their personal stress; no way, even, to ask if they know of AIDS and its implications for those small children.
And yes, we finally met up with our sponsored child, ten-year-old Kannika, at the airport, in Chiang Mai, just as we were to board our plane. Gravely she accepted our gifts with a polite wai, that so-Thai gesture of hands together, fingers touching her little nose. Solemnly she presented us with woven gifts.
As we flew out of the area, high enough now to see the trees, we could tell that finally the Golden Triangle is reshaping. Mechai Vivaraidya, Bert, and hundreds of others are bending it carefully, firmly, sensitively into a new shape. A better shape for the future.
The hilltribe mothers would understand. It's no longer a sharp-angled triangle. It's softening into a heart.
Cabbages & Condoms is at 10 Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok, 229 4610. Open 11am to 10pm daily.
Guests are welcome to visit and tour the Doi Tung project and stay in guest accommodation. Details, The Collection for Discerning Travellers, 03 9826 5199.