If you’re prone to blushing, avert your eyes now – from giant phalluses to saucy showgirls, these are the best sites to see the cultures of the world go x-rated.
1. Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
That the Chandellas, the dynasty behind Khajuraho, chose to build their cultural capital on a remote and dusty plain is perplexing, but fortunate – the unappealing location kept their risqué repository safe from the disapproving eyes of Muslim invaders. And disapprove they would’ve: Khajuraho’s temples are dominated by erotica, a Kama Sutra made stone, carved in a frenzy of artistic aphrodisia from 950 to 1050 AD. Seductive apsaras (heavenly nymphs), couples copulating in athletic poses, full-on orgies, a little bestiality…all are reproduced in sandstone. Why, no one quite knows, but it seems this ancient civilisation was extremely comfortable with its sexuality.
Khajuraho is a 10-hour bus ride from Agra, 14 hours from Varanasi; the quickest option is to fly there from Varanasi.
2. Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset, England
A man with no insecurity issues, the naked Cerne Abbas Giant stands proud (in every way) on a hillside in rural Dorset. He’s around 400 years old, 55m tall and carries a 37m-long club – but it’s his, er, other weapon that grabs the attention. His body is outlined by a trench cut through the grass to the chalk below, so he needs regular maintenance – rock replacement and a bit of weeding. It also means he’s easy to alter – scientists think he once carried a cloak, now overgrown, while the puritanical Victorians let the grass grow over his manhood.
The National Trust car park offers the best views; from here it’s a 250m walk to the Giant.
3. Mardis Gras, Sydney, Australia
Showgirls and cowgirls, leopard-skin and lifeguard trunks, men dressed like pharaohs, in fishnets, in almost nothing at all – this is no ordinary fashion parade: Sydney Mardis Gras is a colossal, camp, sequined and saucy celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liberation in Australia, and across the world. Today’s party atmosphere belies more troubled roots – Sydney’s first such march for homosexual rights in 1978 ended in police violence. It’s a sign of the increasingly liberated times that now people of all persuasions – and in any state of feathered dress or political T-shirt – can get together for a raucously ‘peaceful’ knees-up.
The parade, held every February, starts around 7.45pm; the best viewing spots are along Oxford and Flinders Streets.
4. Chimi Lhakhang, near Punakha, Bhutan
Lama Drukpa Kunley – the Divine Madman – wasn’t your conventional saint. He peed on religious pictures, drank, womanised and generally acted scandalously until his death in 1529. But there was method behind this Madman – he used outrageousness to better teach Buddhism to the people. His subduing of the Dochu La demoness by use of his ‘magic thunderbolt’ has particularly captured the Bhutanese imagination: many houses are decorated with Kunley’s ‘flying phallus’ to ward off evil. At Chimi Lhakhang, a remote monastery dedicated to the saint, childless women visit in the hope that some of the Madman’s virility might rub off.
Chimi Lhakhang is a 20-minute walk from the road. It can be slippery after rain; the best time to visit is spring/autumn.
5. Moulin Rouge, Paris, France
Frilled and fabulous, the Moulin Rouge was once the epitome of Parisian joie de vivre. The infamous nightspot first opened its doors in 1889 in the seedy district of Pigalle; here, low-lifes fraternised with arty types, and the emphasis was on creativity and fun. It was under the Moulin Rouge’s namesake red windmill that the can-can was first kicked, a dance through which courtesans could seduce by showing acrobatic acumen and a bit of skin. Today it’s all a little less debauched – showgirls dance to dining tourists. Those in need of an immodesty fix should try the Musée de l’erotisme next door.
There are two Moulin Rouge showtimes each night (9pm and 11pm); the show only costs from €80, dinner and show combos cost from €150.
6. Kanamara Matsuri, Kawasaki, Japan
Prudes look away now – you can’t escape the male member in Kawasaki come April. The annual Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus) originated in the 17th century, when local prostitutes began to pray for protection from sexually transmitted diseases at the Kanamara Shrine. Now the celebration is open to all but the easily offended – a 2.5m pink phallus is paraded through streets lined with locals, tourists and transvestites; vegetables are carved into suggestive shapes then auctioned off to the highest bidders; and there’s no end to the penis-themed paraphernalia on sale, from lollipops to lucky charms.
The festival’s main event is held on the first Sunday in April; the parade of the penis starts around noon.
7. The Secret Room, Naples, Italy
This collection of salacious treasures from volcano-hit Pompeii has proven a troublesome trove. The ancient Romans had a more liberal sexual outlook than the archaeologists digging them up; their frescoes were racy, their statues prurient. So what were respectable 18th-century men to do with all this naughtiness? Hide it away, of course, which is why Naples’ Archaeological Museum houses the Gabinetto Segreto – the Secret Room. Variously open, closed, then bricked up altogether, it was only in 2000 that it became properly accessible, and its secrets – terracotta penises, a stone satyr making love to a goat – finally revealed.
The secret collection is in rooms LXII and LXV on the mezzanine floor of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.
8. Chinese Sex Culture Museum Garden, Tongli, China
It’s odd that in anything-goes Shanghai – once dubbed the ‘Whore of the Orient’ – the authorities took such dislike to Liu Dalin’s museum. A collection of 9000 years of Eastern erotica, the Chinese Sex Culture Museum was the sociology professor’s literal labour of love. But due to lack of support from the city (he wasn’t allowed to write the symbol for ‘sex’ on his sign, for starters), Dalin moved his chastity belts and lascivious landscape paintings to the town of Tongli. Now, his 1200 artefacts are back on show, with the addition of a saucy statue garden, where sexuality and shrubbery combine.
Picturesque Tongli, 80km west of Shanghai, gets busy with weekend daytrippers; stay overnight at traditional guesthouse Zhengfu Caotang.
9. Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands
It’s no surprise that the oldest part of Amsterdam is where you find the ‘world’s oldest profession’ – the sex industry here dates back to the 14th century, when sailors docked – and then looked for a place to drop anchor… What this does mean is that Amsterdam’s Red Light District is really rather lovely – tall gabled buildings hugging narrow canals, criss-crossed by bridges. Plus around 250 windows where ladies in undies display their wares. It’s a curious mix of scenic and seedy, and the best place to get an insight is the Prostitution Information Centre, from where an ex sex-worker leads eye-opening tours.
The Prostitution Information Centre provides info and advice; it runs an hour-long walking tour every Saturday at 5pm (€12.50).
10. Icelandic Phallological Museum, Húsavík, Iceland
How do you pick a favourite in a museum of 270 members? It’s not easy: this museum of penises is a phallologist’s fantasy, containing specimens from almost all of Iceland’s native species, plus some foreign extras. Museum founder Sigurður Hjartarson, who’s been collecting since 1974, has accrued appendages from sperm whales (1.7m long) and hamsters (2mm); he has polar bear parts and walrus bits, wall-mounted and floating in jars. But most Icelandic of all is the folkloric section – in a nation where much of the population admits to believing in ‘hidden people’, it’s good to see elves’ on the shelves.
The museum is open noon to 6pm daily from 20 May to 10 September; entrance costs Ikr600.