The Elephant Cave — Goa Gajah — is just southeast of Ubud, a very easy morning trip yet fascinating and quite lovely. Built around the 11th century, the complex has both Hindu and Buddhist imagery. The cave contains symbols of Shiva and the image of Ganesha, while down towards the river, there are stone disks and domes of the Buddhist architecture. Some of the Buddhist relics date back to the 8th century.
Elephants aren't native to Bali. Any live elephants you might see in a number of tourist traps have been imported from Myanmar or Laos. The only reason is to cater to, or perform for, ignorant tourists. I can deliver a long lecture on the unpleasant aspects of trading in wild animals for commercial consumption but will leave it for another post!
The name of the cave likely comes from the Ganesh imagery although the close-by Petanu river was once called the Elephant river.
Built around the 11th century, the complex of buildings and pools is a very Balinese mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism. The site is alluded to in the Javanese poem Desawarnana, written in 1365. Based on the mention in this text, Dutch archeologists were able to rediscover the temple in 1923.
Then in 1954, another Dutch archeological group was poking around the complex. One gentleman, according to legend, tripped backwards on a rock and realised a whole other section existed, and the beautiful bathing pool was then excavated. Surrounding the pool are six statues of women holding pitches — fountains from which water pours into the pool. A seventh was destroyed due to an earthquake sometime in the past; the statues represent the seven holy rivers of India.
Inside the small cave, visitors can see the three alcoves — worn down over centuries by whichever guru was resident at the time with his two students as they meditated or perhaps discussed philosophy and world affairs.
The Goa Gajah complex is in a super convenient location right near Ubud, which means it can get very busy, especially during the high season in July and August. If you arrive before 10 am, you will miss the busloads of tourists from the south. There are a handful of guides (basically touts) hanging around. They are interesting and funny, but also likely to initially offer this service for a ludicrously large amount. Ask them to do it for R50,000 or you can just wave them away with a smile and a headshake if you'd rather explore by yourself. If you are wearing shorts, you will be given a sarong at the entrance (free), which you return when you leave.
The entrance fee was R50,000 (about US$3.50) per person at the time of writing. You can drive yourself easily by scooter (parking is about R2000) or get any driver from Ubud to take you. There is the usual cluster of tourist shops at the entrance/exit, which are actually slightly cheaper than the popular and busy Ubud markets if you need a new sarong or a small gift.
For lunch or dinner, there are a couple of pretty but mediocre warungs serving western and Indonesian food in and around the complex if you get hungry. There are better places close by that overlook the river. Ask your driver or check google maps.