Over the last 20 years, Bali's streets have got increasingly clogged up with traffic – to the point that parts of the South of the island (particularly around the port at Benoa, plus the capital Denpasar, and the main resort town of Kuta) are now at virtual gridlock. In the south, journey times have doubled, and this beguiling island is in danger of losing its magic.
So, seeing as traffic here moves at a snail's pace, I decided to see some of the island at an elephant's pace, by joining the ship's tour to an elephant sanctuary. Of course, this being Bali, the day involved a 2-hour trip to get there, but once we were out of the urbanised areas, we were back in the "Old Bali", with its timeless landscapes of green rice terraces and rural calm.
I've been to a few elephant parks in Thailand, where you're left with a slightly uneasy feeling about the exploitation of these magnificent creatures and about the quality of the conditions that they're kept in; but here in Bali, the park seemed well run and the elephants seemed content. Of course, how am I to know if an elephant feels "fulfilled" here in captivity? But these were mainly elephants rescued from logging operators on Sumatra – so, even carrying round an overweight tourist like me on its back for a 30-minute ride six times a day, has got to be better than being kept in chains, pushing around logs.
First we got to feed the elephants, who weren't shy about giving you a nudge with their trunks to get you to hand them a piece of fruit. Even so, these incredibly powerful beasts were surprisingly gentle in taking things off you. Then we had a lumbering ride through thick vegetation (much better than in Thailand, when sometimes you're just plodding along a concrete path in what's little better than an open field).
Finally, we had a "show", where the elephants showed amazing dexterity and gentle touches in creating a painting, kicking a football, balancing on two legs or playing basketball. Again, these are hardly the natural behaviour that you'd see in the wild, but there was none of the blasting music and embarrassing audience participation that I've seen in other elephant parks, where you get the uneasy feeling that you're just seeing a circus act.
I've been to most of the major temples in this part of Bali, so today was a good chance to see something a little different. The presence of a place like this shows that Bali has well and truly arrived on the mainstream tourist circuit; but at least in this case, it's being done with a certain taste and sensitivity. As development continues, and tourist numbers soar here, it will be interesting to see if this is the exception or the norm.