As a writer who specialises in sex and relationships, I am often asked about the strangest place I have ever had sex.
I rarely answer, not because I am bashful but because the intrigue is so much more interesting than the truth (which is Richmond Park).
Instead, I refer anyone curious about unusual sex locations to the Pon Festival of Indonesia.
During this centuries-old ritual, couples meet to have sexual intercourse next to a shrine, on the side of a mountain.
The mountain in question is Mount Kemukus, located near the village of Solo in Java. And while it is an unusual spot, it is not the only fascinating aspect of this ancient rite.
The Pon Festival involves ritualistic sex between strangers, even if both parties are married to other people.
These are not one-off encounters, either: the couples must meet seven times every 35th day if the ritual is to be considered complete.
This means that they will have sex for the best part of a year.
The relationship has all the components of a committed, caring relationship, though it is anything but.
A culture clash?
Indonesia is the world’s largest island country. In 2010, it was also recorded as having the world’s most populous Muslim majority, which seems somewhat misaligned with a festival based on adulterous sex.
But Solo is said to represent the ‘modern face’ of Indonesia.
Islam here is influenced by other cultures and religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, giving rise to a festival that is far from devout.
Prayers are offered as part of the ritual (Picture: Journeyman Pictures/SBS)
For centuries, pilgrims have convened at a shrine called Gunung Kemukus, on the auspicious day of Jumat Pon (from which the Festival takes its name).
The shrine is believed to house the remains of a 16th century prince called Pangeran Samudro, the son of a Javanese king; next to him are the remains of his stepmother, Nyai Ontrowulan.
Several versions of their story abounds but it is believed that Samudro and Ontrowulan were forced to flee their home when Samudro’s father discovered their affair. The pair arrived in Solo only to be caught, mid-coitus, by villagers and killed.
Opinion is divided over what happened next: one re-telling states that before he died, Samudro sanctioned adulterous intercourse on Pon Friday. Another suggests that couples who commit a more scandalous act than Samudro and Ontrowulan’s will be rewarded with good fortune, and that they must have sex on the grave to get it.
Whatever the lineage, thousands of pilgrims converge at the site in the belief that illicit sex will bring them good luck. Pilgrims come seeking success for their businesses or for personal gain to pay off debts.
Prayers, cleansing and sex
The proceedings begin with early morning prayers.
Pilgrims then attend the grave of the prince and his star-crossed stepmother to lay flowers and pray again.
From here, they must cleanse themselves in one of the sacred springs, and only at this stage do they head off in search of a partner.
At sunset, the mountain is replete with pilgrims looking for sex.
The night is something of a reunion for returning couples.
Partners frequently exchange mobile numbers and addresses in order to find one another at the site, according to an SBS documentary, which means some couples stay in contact on non-ritual days.
Relationships occasionally form away from the mountain; even in the midst of this unusual tradition, people do fall in love but it is mostly unrequited as their intended is, well, married.
Some pilgrims tell their legal spouses that they are travelling to Gunung Kemukus. Most do not.
Traditionally, the sex is performed out in the open, and the couple will spend the remainder of the night together under the trees that dot the hillside.
For those not partaking in sex, karaoke bars provide alternative entertainment.
The mountain is littered with karaoke shacks as well as stalls selling
One prostitute was interviewed about her experiences in the SBS documentary (Picture: Journeyman Pictures/SBS)
The Pon Festival is a paradox: devout Muslims – men and women – meet regularly in the same site for adulterous sex.
Religious leaders are said to turn a blind eye to proceedings, and this tacit consent has resulted in a boom in prostitution.
A red light district springs into life around the time of the festival.
Amidst the karaoke bars and prayer sites are huts with makeshift bedrooms in the back.
In 2014, it was claimed that up to 75% of the women present were full or part-time sex workers; with more men than women in attendance, there is no shortage of men willing to pay for pleasure.
Similarly, the area has been inundated with female sex workers in desperate need of money.
A session costs as little as a tenner and many of the women are earning money for families that they have left back at home.
The future of the festival
There are sexual health clinics at the site (Picture: Journeyman Pictures/SBS)
In November 2014, the Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo moved to ban the ritual all together asking: ‘If you want to become rich, why should you engage in promiscuous sex?’
It’s a pertinent question but the Pon Festival is in little danger of being expunged.
Gunung Kemukus remains a site of religious significance with pilgrims travelling hundreds of miles to pray at Prince Samudro’s grave.
It is also highly lucrative: the local government charges the vendors that set up shop on the mountain and pilgrims are charged a hefty fee to enter.
It means that the sex trade will continue to thrive but things are improving.
A community sexual health clinic opens its doors once a week, offering testing for sexually transmitted diseases as well as free condoms to the working girls that remain in situ when the visiting pilgrims are gone.
A localised hike in STDs has been blamed on the festival: many of the men who pay for sex refuse to wear the condoms.
Whatever the fate of the Pon Festival, it offers a fascinating insight into how traditional beliefs can develop into some very modern behaviour.
The practice of having sex with a stranger may seem extreme, but every culture, in every country of the world, practices extra-marital sex. The difference is that most of us keep it secret. At the Pon Festival, everything is out in the open.