When I first met Mechai Viravaidya, Thailand's "Condom King," 15 years ago, it became clear that he places a high value on action and impact, even if it means making some people uncomfortable. Never afraid to challenge the status quo, he's a refreshing change in arenas too often concerned about consensus and not rocking the boat. Mechai, a longtime Senator and cabinet minister, has little patience for committee meetings he's more at home leading a rural Thai community in a condom-blowing contest, handing out kitsch souvenirs promoting safe sex, or greeting guests at his Bangkok-based chain of restaurants, Cabbages and Condoms, where free condoms take the place of after-dinner mints. His brash, quirky style makes people laugh about sex and has forced the topic of sexuality into the open.
At a time when most of us were afraid that the aids epidemic would explode in Thailand, with its buoyant sex trade and problems of drug addiction, Mechai spearheaded an aggressive national campaign to promote the use of condoms, and was pivotal in creating the vision that dramatically slowed the spread of HIV in the country. Over the course of the 1990s Thailand became the first country to see a drop in infection rates, setting a powerful example for other nations battling the same threat.
The Condom King wore his crown even before he took on HIV and AIDS. His activism revolutionized family planning in Thailand, helping to reduce its population growth from 3.2% a year in the 1970s to 1.2% in the mid-'90s (now it's 0.7%). He was so successful at changing the culture that, today, mechai, in Thai slang, means condom. Already a legend in two fields, it's hard to guess what he'll do next. Whatever it is, I know I'll be inspired and, as always, in awe.