Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Holiday home market looks appealing

03.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

The top end holiday homes market is seeing movement after the overall market effectively closed down during the crash period, say experts. A real return to action in the middle market is not expected for another three to five years, but prices have bottomed-out, meaning now could be a good time to buy.

Executive director of CB Richard Ellis James Pitchon says that the market for large developments of purpose-built holiday homes in the Pattaya/Jomtien and Hua Hin/Cha-am areas dried up by the mid-90s, with little movement since then. However, he says that over the last two years there’s been a boom in luxury villa accommodation on Phuket, in particular for long-term leases selling for up to US$1 million, primarily to overseas purchasers. "Obviously, this is not a mass market. Overall [the mass market] is not a liquid market – liquidity is lower than in Bangkok."

Managing director of Cushman and Wakefield Apisit Limlomwongse says he’s seen some increase in mid-market activity since 2000, with Hua Hin, Cha Am, Pattaya, Rayong and Khao Yai being the more popular places. "Increasing numbers of both Thais and foreigners are now looking to buy a weekend home due to inexpensive prices," Mr Apisit says. "It’s a good time to buy, as prices of good properties have bottomed out. Hua Hin is currently at the top of the list for a weekend home because there is not much oversupply, compared to Pattaya or Khao Yai."

With the expansion of Hua Hin airport and the opening of more international hotel brands, Mr Apisit describes the upside potential of Hua Hin as "very good".

Prices vary based on location and quality of development. Current prices of Hua Hin and Cha-am condos ranges from Bt20,000 to 45,000 per square metre, depending on the development’s quality. For Pattaya, prices start at around Bt15,000 and range up to Bt35,000 for better quality condos.

Other costs also need to be factored in. Firstly, a payment into a sinking fund – of around one to three per cent of the sale price – is usually required when purchasing a condo, and is used for repair and maintenance of common areas. Buyers should also expect to pay an average monthly maintenance fee of approximately Bt20 to 30per square metre for these condos – so the maintenance cost for a 35 square metre condo, for example, would be Bt8,400 to 12,600 per year – excluding cleaning costs. The costs of annual repairs, such as repainting and replacing fixtures like water heaters, should also be considered. Allow Bt1,000 to 1,500 per square metre per year.

According to associate director of Colliers International’s research and consulting division Mr Suttipan Kreemaha, the prices of good quality villas on Phuket are selling locally for up to Bt10m each, although this rises to around Bt18m if the property has a docking bay for boats. Maintenance fees on such properties are not insubstantial – expect to pay around Bt15,000 per month for a top end villa with docking bay.

Cushman and Wakefield’s Mr Apisit advises potential buyers to initially consider how frequently they plan to visit their weekend home: if it is not often, it may be better to stay at a hotel.

Other recommended actions he suggests are:
* Check to see whether the management provides quality services. Central services such as fitness centres, restaurants, laundry and swimming pools provided in a weekend home are usually not as good as in a quality hotel.
* Check the state of the resale market in the case you find yourself needing to sell.
* If the property is not located on a public road, ask for a legal document confirming that the property can be accessed from the public road.
* Ensure there is a fire protection system in place.
* Avoid buying off the plan unless there is a system to protect your deposit. This may be an escrow account, where the buyer deposits money with a middleman, usually a bank, but the developer cannot withdraw that money until they have completed their duties as stated in their contract.
* Check the finished product. For instance is it furnished, semi-furnished?
* Before buying a piece of land, ensure that the law allows you to build on it. In some areas like Hua Hin, construction is forbidden in designated areas.

Buy art for art’s sake and it just might pay off

03.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

Investing in the Thai art market is not for those wanting to make a quick buck. For most collectors, buying art is driven by a love of particular pieces. Financial gain is secondary, and in most instances collectors will rarely sell pieces they like, even if their market value increases. Nevertheless, there can be good and bad periods to buy – and now could be a good one.

Christie’s Bangkok representative Yaovanee Nirandara says that if you have a taste for Thai art, this could be an opportune time to buy. "Prices haven’t gone up for two years, and the economy is now picking up," she says. However, Ms Yaovanee, an art collector herself, advises against entering the market for purely financial reasons. "You really have to like the paintings you buy. If you like, understand, and appreciate them, then they’ll be something you keep for a long time."

Collector Thomas B Van Blarcom agrees. "I only buy pieces that speak to me," he says. One of his favourite pieces is an abstract painting by Vietnamese artist Tran Luong, bought four years ago. "This piece yelled at me. I bought it for Bt12,500. Today that would be a bargain for a piece of this artist’s work, but I only bought it because I liked it – it’s just nice if it turns out to be a good investment as well."

For beginners to the market, Yaovanee advises studying old auction and gallery exhibition catalogues, available from places like Silpakorn University library and the National Library. Regional publications like Asian Art News and Art Asia Pacific are a further reference. Sotheby’s Bangkok representative Rika Dila suggests meeting with gallery owners. "Chat with them, get a feel for the work of different artists. Get to know prices, and then go for what you like."

According to Rika, collecting Thai art isn’t something many Thais actually do. To keep abreast of the top Thai names, she advises keeping an eye on those artists beginning to attract international attention. "It’s not like New York, where artists sign up to galleries – you just can’t tell who’s going to become famous here."

Around three years ago, for instance, Japan took an interest in Thai artists, such as Chatchai Puipa. The average prices of their work quickly rose from Bt180,000 to around Bt300,000 to 400,000. Artists who have achieved broad international recognition include Thawan Dachanee, Montien Boonma, and Tawee Nandakwang. Tawee’s Calm Against Roaring Winds sold for Bt2 million at Christies July 2000 auction.

The gallery system that works in places like the US is yet to develop any depth here, which makes it difficult both to predict which artists will become successful, and for the Thai market itself to really develop. Galleries with established reputations, according to various sources, include Numthong Gallery, Surapol Gallery, Gallery 55, Tadu Gallery, Project 304 (for cutting edge work) and Thavibu Gallery.

Another option is to buy from a reputable auction house.

Prices vary, but Rika says you should expect to pay around Bt40,000 to 50,000 for the work of established artists, or as little as Bt20,000 for younger artists.

It can take a substantial amount of time for the value of a painting to increase – if it increases at all. "You shouldn’t buy art because you think it’s going to become famous, and will be a good investment," Rika says. "Enjoy what you buy – but there’s no guarantee it will be marketable in 20 years."

Christies
Unit 138-139, 1st floor
The Peninsula Plaza
153 Rajadamri Rd
Tel: 02 652 1097/9

Gallery 55
2nd Floor Home Place Building
238/33-35, Sukhumvit 55
Tel: 02 712 7148

Surapol Gallery
Tisco Tower, North Sathorn Rd
Tel: 02 638 0033/4

Project 304 and Numthong Gallery
Both located at the Co-op Housing Building
109 Thoet Damri Rd
Tel: 02 279 7796

Tadu Contemporary Art Gallery
Royal City Avenue, Rama IX Rd
Tel: 02 203 0926

Thavibu Gallery
Silom Galleria Building, 3rd Floor
Suite 308, 919/1 Silom Rd
Tel: 02 266 5454
www.thavibu.com

Thailand’s paper industry: Predictions difficult, potential there

01.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

If you want to take the pulse of Thailand’s pulp and paper industry, the Thai economy is the wrist to grab for a beat. “There is some lag, but Thailand’s GDP is really like an index for how the paper industry is doing,” says Price and Pierce (Thailand) project manager Nillachai Damrongkijudom.

Unfortunately, the Thai economy has seen little growth this year, with falling demand spurred by the slowing US economy having an impact by the end of 2000. For Q1 2001, a 0.1 per cent decline in GDP was measured by the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), while Q2 saw quarter-on-quarter growth of 0.9 per cent, contributing to year-on-year growth of 1.9 per cent. The NESDB recently downgraded its forecast for 2001 from two to three per cent, to 1.5 to two per cent, while the Bank of Thailand forecast is for 1.6 to 1.8 per cent.

The world is now focused on the global aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, which could see anything from war to at least recession occurring. In case of either, the inevitable rising oil prices, declining exports and falling tourist arrivals would have a direct and dire impact on Thailand. Bangkok Bank has already revised its growth forecast downwards following the attacks – the only institution to do so at time of going to press – to 0.7 to 1.5 per cent.

The impending global gloom comes just after Thailand’s pulp and paper industries seem to have clawed their way out of the Asian crisis. From 1990 to 1997, the Thailand Pulp and Paper Industries Association (TPPIA) estimates that the industries saw annual capacity expansion of six to 10 per cent and operations close to maximum capacity. With the devaluation of the baht in mid-1997, pulp and paper companies saw their debt repayments escalate, while domestic consumption for paper fell – from 38kg to 31kg per head from 1997 to 1999 – and world prices stumbled.

Now, at least in isolation, it seems the worst is over. Domestic pulp and paper consumption for 2000 was estimated by the TPPIA to have grown five per cent from 1999 to 2.8 million tons – close to the 1996 consumption level of 2.9 million tons. Capacity expanded by six per cent to 4.6 million tons, comprised of pulp mill capacity of 956,000 tons (with a utilisation rate of 80 per cent), and paper and board mill capacity of 3.7 million tons (with a utilisation rate of 63 per cent).

Rising domestic demand contributed to a fall in exports for 2000 of almost 20 per cent. Thailand’s main export markets are China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, USA, Philippines, Taiwan and Australia.

Over the same period, paper imports – from Indonesia, Japan, US, Sweden, Taiwan, Finland, Korea, Russia, New Zealand and Singapore – rose by 21.4 per cent to 420,179 tons, due to a domestic shortfall in newsprint and high quality printing/writing paper.

Looking ahead, the TPPIA expects pulp consumption to increase from 868,000 tons in 2000 to 1.2 million tonnes in 2004, while paper consumption is expected to reach 2.4 million tons by 2004.

In regards to pulp, prices for the first half of 2001 prices “were quite poor” according to a former analyst, falling from US$500 per ton in January to US$400 per ton in June, due to excess capacity and dumping by Indonesia. “Most companies expect a turnaround in prices next year, so they’re delaying any capacity expansion,” he says.

Phoenix Pulp and Paper’s chief financial officer Mr Banthia As concurs with this opinion, saying that the Thai companies that had been planning for expansion are reconsidering in light of falling prices. “Self-sufficient companies [ie those that have overcome crisis period debt problems] had expansions planned, but they’re watching for something concrete to emerge before they go ahead,” he says. “Thai companies will have no problems surviving, but their capacity is limited because if their old debts are continuing, then commitment to new funds is difficult.”

Jakarta-based UBS Warburg analyst Mr Ray Anthony agrees that one key for Thailand’s pulp and paper industry expansion is affordable financing to allow a reasonable return on investment. “But I’m not entirely convinced the Thai banks are in a position to lend that kind of money immediately.”

Regionally Mr Anthony says that Thailand’s pulp industry fares relatively better than its paper industry, as it uses predominantly single-species wood fibre. “Indonesians and the Chinese use a varied mix of either tropical hardwood fibre or bagasse. Advance Agro [Thailand’s largest pulp producer] and Phoenix [the second largest] have been able to cultivate eucalyptus wood for the majority of their wood fibre needs, and thus they produce a better quality pulp.”

On the paper side, Mr Anthony isn’t as sanguine. “Thailand is at a disadvantage regionally mainly due to the size of its machinery. With many regional companies building 350K-plus ton per annum paper machines, the unit cost per ton of paper favours the large producers. In any event, much of Thailand’s paper production is sold domestically and thus their focus has not yet been towards the export markets – yet.”

But it is to this front that Thai more producers are now turning their attention.

“Over the next two years I think companies will review their spending on technology,” says Price and Pierce’s Mr Nillachai. “The big players will aim to export more – they’ve started to change their strategy to focus on exports over the past two years while recovering from the crisis, and while world paper prices were up [throughout 1999 and 2000].”

Mr Somboon Chuchawal, president of the TPPIA, and [Sahana, please check caption sent with photos] of Siam Pulp and Paper Public Limited Company (PCL), says that to export more, companies need to improve the quality of their products. “That’s a must,” he says. “Secondly, they need to develop good distribution channels. And thirdly, they need to be big enough.”

The importance of size leads Mr Somboon to speculate that the industry will undergo a consolidation period in the future. “There are opportunities for good companies within Asia overall to grow larger – but problem companies need to restructure. The way to survive is to consolidate, so they can take advantage of size, scale and scope.”

For Thailand, consolidation already appears to be starting, as earlier this year Siam Pulp and Paper PCL considered taking a stake in Phoenix Pulp and Paper PCL to bolster their own supply – but a final outcome hasn’t yet occurred.

Mr Pattanapong Cholvanich, secretary general of the TPPIA, and [please check caption] of Siam Pulp and Paper PCL, says Thailand’s export opportunities are enhanced because the country has its own forests and thus pulp. Then there’s relative regional quality. “China has a lot of paper mills, but quality- wise they’re not up to world standard – Thailand’s quality is better. They have many old machines still in operation that they’ll need to shut down.”

Specifically, he identifies growing demand for brown paper from China and for printing and writing paper from Europe and China. The US – where the focus has been on virgin pulp and paper facilities rather than recycled pulp – could also be a growth area, as could the Middle East.

The essential challenges, then, are to keep costs down but quality up. “We are pretty sure that with our costs in Thailand, we can compete with other countries,” says Mr Pattanapong. “But a number of Thai producers do need to improve in terms of cost and quality. New investment needs to focus on quality improvement – not just capacity expansion.”

UBS Warburg‘s Mr Anthony believes Thailand has an opportunity to become a major presence in the region. “Much of the investment in Indonesia has ebbed due to various increased risks. Malaysia has problems with sustainable wood resources. China has yet to commit to building up a modern pulp and paper industry – outside of investment from Asia Pulp Paper,” he says. “The growth area for capacity could certainly be focused in Thailand for the next few years, while other regional players wait for their domestic economies and issues to improve.”

Other factors could affect Thailand’s pulp and paper industry growth. In line with the Asean Free Trade Agreement, import tariffs for paper products are to be reduced to between zero and five per cent, depending on the grade, by 2003. Although this initially raised concern among the TPPIA, they are now less vocal about the potential impact.

A more persistent – and highly important – bugbear are the environmental concerns that continue to be raised domestically, and are at least partly affecting decisions to expand pulp- producing capacity. Advanced Agro PCL had recently been considering adding 700,000 tons per year capacity to support demand from China –which would close to double Thailand’s overall production – while Phoenix Pulp and Paper was considering adding 150-300,000 ton per year solely for export. Both companies have suspended plans in light of environmental considerations, plus falling prices and difficulties in procuring funding.

At a more general level, Dr Thanwa Jitsanguan, head of Kasetsart University’s department of agricultural and resource economics, argues that the polluter pays principle be followed more closely. “Varied incentives, such as emission charges or pollution management fees, should be strictly enforced, both to conserve the public environment, and to encourage the sustainable production of this industry.”

In response to the particular debates over the negative impact eucalyptus plantations are having in Thailand, Dr Thanwa believes research should be done to help consensus be reached. “Research and development is one of key factors needed to be invested in the paper industry, especially in increasing tree plantation for pulp industries,” he says. “Data and information should be collected to make clear the environmental impact from eucalyptus trees.”

Besides environmental management and control, Dr Thanwa believes other factors are important to the pulp and paper industry’s future, such as stimulating domestic market demand for paper products, and growing more pulp domestically to replace imports. “More importantly, policy makers should understand clearly that paper is an important foundation for many value-added products,” he says. “Paper is obviously a necessary ingredient to increase the value of many other products and services in the economy.”

The economy and paper each, therefore, affect the other.

With recent developments in the US at the forefront of people’s minds, Price and Pierce’s Mr Nillachai reflected the sentiments of most when he said the industry will just have to wait and see what the future holds. “The industry is coping with the economic recovery – they’ve climbed out of the bottom and are doing better. But really, it’s difficult to predict anything now.”

Hope diamonds: Beyond sparkle

01.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

A branded diamond: It’s a new concept in the world of diamond retailing. And Thailand was chosen as the first country in which to launch the first-ever branded diamond targetted towards consumers.

The name of the diamond is Hope. Launched in August, it will hit shelves at six selected jewellery retailers later this month.

So what makes this "brand" of diamond distinct from all those other non-branded diamonds?

It’s the emphasis on the quality of the diamond’s classic round cut, according to Hope’s Monakan Kiatikajornthada. While colour, clarity and carat are all-important determinants of a diamond’s ultimate value, Monakan says that it’s the cut of a diamond that contributes the most towards making it sparkle.

"Some diamonds are cut in a way to preserve their carat value (that is, their weight), rather than to bring out the diamond’s brilliance," she says. "But the Hope diamond is cut to make it as brilliant and sparkling as possible. It’s the sparkle, after all, that makes a diamond truly beautiful. And a diamond is the only thing that will sparkle forever."

The South African company responsible for cutting and polishing the diamonds is the renowned Krochmal and Cohen. "Each stage of the cutting is done by a specialist," says Monakan. "For instance those who specialise in cutting the table of a diamond will only cut that part on a Hope diamond, before it goes to somebody else, who specialises in cutting the next part."

Each stage of the cutting process – and there are 57 facets of the diamond that need to be cut – is computer checked for perfection, with the final stone having to be graded at a top level before earning the name Hope.

The Hope diamond comes with a certificate issued by the Jewellery Council of South Africa, which describes the history of the diamond: where it came from, what the original rough diamond size was, and how the stone’s size changed during each stage of cutting and polishing.

Furthermore, each diamond is laser-inscribed on its girdle with an identification number – so tiny that it’s not discernible by the naked eye – which matches that printed on the certificate. While individuals have in the past inscribed personal messages on diamonds ("I love you" and so on) this is the first time it’s been done to uniquely identify a diamond.

"No two diamonds are alike, but with the naked eye you can’t tell this. With an identification number, however, women can be confident that they can always identify a stone as their own," Monakan says.

And why is it that only now a branded diamond is being launched on the retail market?

It’s a result of some profound changes that have occurred over the past few years in the diamond industry. Kannikar Svetasreni, manager of the marketing arm of De Beers, which is known as the Diamond Trading Company, explains that De Beers used to control some 90 per cent of the world’s rough diamond market. "So it was clearly in their interests to promote the sale of diamonds to consumers generally."

However, non-De Beers mines in Canada and Australia have opened over the past few years, leading to a drop in De Beers’ overall market share. This has lessened the motivation for De Beers to promote diamonds generically, so instead they are shifting responsibility for the marketing of diamonds back to their siteholders – that is, the approximately 120 companies who buy rough diamonds from their mines. "In 2000 some siteholders did their own branding – in the US, Japan and Europe – but not all the way to the retailer," explains Kannikar. "This is the first time it’s being done at the retail level."

Given the current economic climate, Thailand might seem an odd choice as the first market to be tested. Not so, says Kannikar. "In the development stage, Sadifco [the De Beers siteholder who makes the Hope diamond] asked their head office in Antwerp where most of their diamonds went. The answer was Thailand."

Until around 1996, Thailand was the number six diamond consuming country in the world, and it had the world’s fifth largest diamond-cutting industry. "Consumption has reduced substantially since the crisis, but there is still a very large group of Thai ladies – real diamond lovers – who know what they want, and will buy it."

As the economy recovers, the Hope diamond should be well enough recognised as a brand to take advantage of the improved market. "We’re aiming to build a high-end, exclusive brand. Image is a very important," says Kannikar, adding that the diamond is being pitched towards high income women with sophisticated tastes. "That is, brand-oriented women who want to feel complete confidence in the quality of the diamonds they buy."

And is it a good investment?

"Yes," says Kannikar. "We aren’t promoting this diamond by emphasising that particular aspect of it, but it is. If a husband had invested all his shares in the Thai stockmarket before 1997, and his wife had put hers into diamonds, who do you think would have the most valuable assets now?"

That might, however, convince anyone needing a further rational reason to buy a beautiful, sparkling diamond.

A new take on tradition

01.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

It’s about polishing a traditional concept a little, bringing it line with people’s changing tastes while also subtly improving on it.

It’s easy to deduce that the Novotel’s newly-renovated Lok Wah Hin is essentially a Chinese restaurant. Lazy susans spin on tables, under which elegant tall-backed chairs snugly sit, wispy Chinese paintings adorn the walls and the decor of soft blacks, greens and golds leave no room for doubt.

But this is modern Chinese. The crisp, clean lines of both the restaurant’s design and its ostentatious flower arrangements evoke a little of Japan, while we’re told the chef has oriented the menu slightly towards the west, meaning it includes dishes that are technically "fusion" rather than strictly Chinese. Indeed there are references to Japanese, Singaporean and Hong Kong meals on the menu, but they are quite clearly nods to culinary influences rather than confusion over this restaurant’s focus. This is modern Chinese dining – the emphasis is on Schezuan and Cantonese – with some adventurous, intriguing twists.

We commence our meal with braised crab claws with XO sauce (Bt300++ each). They’re piquant to the point of spiciness and sweet, too, in typical aromatic Schezuan style. The crab flesh is tender and juicy, it’s flavour only just allowed to shine through the sauce. I’d like another really, but there’s a whole meal to get through…

The first of a succession of steaming plates is delivered to our table, braised sea cucumber with black mushrooms in a brown sauce. Having never tried its main ingredient, I’m immediately enthused. The cucumber’s texture is not something I’ve been conditioned to appreciate in the west, but after a few mouthfuls I do thoroughly enjoy it – a coinosseur might throw their hands up in horror at the comparison, but its texture is reasonably similar to jellyfish. This particular dish is not on the main menu, but it does appear on several of the set menus, which start at Bt6,200 per ten people (or fewer if an advanced booking is made).

The sauteed prawns with chicken, which arrive in a cleverly made, crisscrossed basket made of taro, are also only available on set menus. The dish itself lives up to its presentation, with tender chicken, prawns and succulent sea scallops making for an excellent combination.

We also tuck into steamed T-man fish rolls with shredded giner and spring onion (Bt300/450/750++). The flesh is moist and sweet, and complemented well by the slightly acidic, salty sauce.

My favourite dish, however, is the sauteed broccoli topped with crabmeat (Bt180/270/450++). The deep green broccoli is smothered in a creamy sauce laden with chunks of the tender meat that perfectly complement the underlying vegetable.

Other tempting items on the lengthy menu include stewed soya sauce pigeon and vegetables (Bt350++per piece), sauteed beef fillet with black pepper sauce (180/270/450++) and braised fish maw and sea conch in brown sauce (Bt600/900/1,500). But we fill the tiny hole still left in our appetites with a bowl of hearty Singapore-style fried rice noodles (Bt1180/270/450++), a positive twist on the typical final banquet dish of fried rice. The flat, wide cut noodles have a pleasurably clean cut; they’d be ideal for a quick meal on their own.

I’m reluctant to venture towards dessert, but our host insists, encouraging me to try the double-boiled Chinese ginseng with hasma, or snow frog jelly (Bt250++ per individual serving). The ginseng soup is delicate and pleasantly light after our heavy meal, while the fluffy jelly is fragrant and slightly redolent of nutty wood.

The wine list is short but competent, with an emphasis on those from new world countries, and several choices available by the glass (Bt195 to 250++). Prices range mostly from Bt1,200 to 2,500++.

Lok Wah Hin is probably more suited to larger parties than intimate dinners for couples, with six private rooms for 12 people each surrounding the main dining area. These rooms can be joined to make room for even bigger groups, but when we were there, the bulk of the diners were family-sized groups.

As we make a start to leave, the family seated next to us looks suitably impressed with the arrival of their whole Peking duck. It’s glistening in all its caramel-coloured splendour, and we can tell they can’t wait for it to be sliced and traditionally served up.

Some things might have changed for the better at Lok Wah Hin, but the best things have certainly stayed the same.

Novotel, Siam Square Soi 6
Tel: 02 2255 6888

Tasteful education

01.09.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

If the name Cabbages and Condoms isn’t enough to channel your imagination in the right direction, you’ll get a better idea of what’s to come as you enter this popular Thai restaurant. A small wooden fertility shrine greets visitors, complete with small sculptures of the famed monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil – only in this set there’s a fourth monkey, demurely covering his nether regions with his paws.

The humour continues inside, where tasteful Thai wooden carvings are interspersed with sets of packaged condoms from around the world, mounted on the wall in woven flat baskets. Then there are the displays of glinting instruments used for vasectomies, posters featuring unusual condoms, and a carpet emblazoned with cartoon condoms. And the menu, which boldly states: "Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy."

It’s eclectic, and educational too. As manager Nobphadol Sriruwat explains, the restaurant opened in 1987 as an offshoot of non-profit organisation, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), which has its head office located right next door. "Some of the staff used to go out to buy their food on the street at lunch time, and then they thought it made sense to start cooking it here," he says.

They soon saw that starting a proper restaurant would be both a way of fundraising for the PDA, and also a vehicle for promoting birth control, the organisation’s driving objective when founded in 1974 by former Thai health minister and philanthropist Mechai Viravaidya. And why the name Cabbages and Condoms? "Because we want condoms to become as common as cabbages," explains Nobphadol.

We leave ourselves in his hands, and find that the first dish to arrive on our table is in tune with the restaurant’s theme. It’s the Cabbages and Condoms Salad (Bt110+), with a main ingredient of Shanghai noodles, rolled to resemble condoms – vaguely, but effectively . They’re mixed with tender shreds of chicken and salad vegetables, juicy prawns and a seriously spicy-sour dressing.

The only surprise about the other dishes is just how delicious they are for a restaurant where one might suspect food isn’t the real focus. The food’s authenticity isn’t watered down, either, for the hundreds of tourists who arrive nightly during high season from November to February. It’s not unusual for the restaurant to serve 400 people in a night, of whom around 90 per cent are visitors to Bangkok.

We’re presented with three other creations: deep-fried cotton fish, with a fresh mango sauce on the side (Bt230+), steamed prawns in whole young coconut (Bt250+) and a massaman curry, with chunks of tender New Zealand lamb (Bt350+).

The cotton fish is meaty, with the crispy batter surrounding it being perfectly thin. The mango sauce is an attention-grabbing condiment, it’s sourness rating very well on the mouthpuckering measure of success. The steamed prawns themselves are good, but it’s the generous slivers of melt-in-the-mouth young coconut that really grab my attention. The massaman curry is thick and confident, its gentle sweetness providing a good balance to the other dishes.

Other popular choices among diners are some of the dishes Thailand is renowned for: Tom Kha Gai, a chicken, galangal and coconut spicy soup (Bt110/170+) andTom Yum Kung, a spicy and sour prawn soup (Bt170/220+).

On the side, we’re served fragrant red jasmine rice, grown in the northeast region’s Buriram province. It has the enjoyable texture of wholemeal rice with a hint of scent that’s a pleasant change from the typical khao suay (steamed rice) you’ll be served in any other Thai restaurant. If you enjoy it, grab some to take home at restaurant’s gift shop on your way out, where it’s priced at Bt200 per kilogram.

You’ve heard of the Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel? Bangkok’s answer might just be the Vasectomy Bar. Order a pre-dinner cocktail (Bt150+), a local Singha beer (Bt80/130+) or a glass of the house wine (Bt120+). There’s no corkage. Teetotallers will be kept happy with a range of refreshing fruit blends (Bt90+).

For dessert, there’s a selection of traditional Thai specialities, such as Buo Loi, which are boiled flour balls with coconut syrup (Bt50), and lemon coconut jelly served with crushed ice (Bt70). Or splash out on a banana split (Bt120).

We sat in the restaurant’s newer building, similar to the original and built just three years ago, but a pleasant alternative is to sit in the outdoor courtyard area. The wisps of fairy lights hanging from the trees overhead create a festive atmosphere, and you can spot various Thai fruits looking ripe for the picking. Don’t be surprised to see mangoes growing next to durian: the fruit’s fake and is strung up for sanuk (fun) purposes only.

Dinner’s finale sees a return to the restaurant’s theme: instead of an after dinner mint you’ll be offered a condom to take home. And if you’re not planning on using it, you might want to stop off at the fertility shrine on your way out.

Next to PDA Head Office
Sukhumvit Soi 12
Tel: 02 229 4611
Open daily 11am to 10.30pm