Having designed more than 190 hotels and resorts in over 30 different countries, Bill Bensley is now among the world’s most prominent architects and interior designers of luxury resorts. And this November the Bangkok-based designer and his firm is revealing what is arguably their most ambitious project yet – Shinta Mani Wild luxury tented camp, which lies in a pristine pocket of Cambodia’s wilderness. The designer tells Elite Traveler what makes this opening so exciting.
How did you come across the location for Shinta Mani Wild? What made this region stand out?
About 10 years ago or so, my business partner Sokoun Chanpreda’s dad, who is Cambodian, brought the sale of this land to our attention. The fact that along with the sale of the land (about the size of Central Park) there were three kilometers of raging (at times) waterfalls, which are bigger than my two-story house, and rapids, certainly swayed our decision. As well as the fact this land, which is a natural wildlife corridor, has the most recorded wild elephant-human conflict recorded in Cambodia. In short, the forest is gorgeous, and by buying it we saved it from a possible clear cut.
What was your concept for the camp itself?
Minimal intervention! Not even one tree has been touched. It took us some 20-plus visits to the site and some false starts to get the site planning to the point it is now. We have only 15 tents, each in its own environment along the river. Imagine just 15 tents spaced out in forest the size of Central Park – now that is cool. It’s low impact (on the environment) and high yield – expensive to build and operate, and to visit.
What was the inspiration for the design?
Ha! We had a little fun with this one in that the story line is “What if Jackie O had gone glamping in this wilderness with the King of Cambodia in the early 60s?” What would that have been like?
*See exactly what that was imagined to be like by navigating to the next page at the end of the interview.*
Conservation and community involvement seem to be a focus at the resort. How will these be integrated into the guests’ experience and the everyday running of the resort?
Growing the global conservation footprint is certainly a major focus. We are joining hands with Wildlife Alliance to directly protect the wildlife and forests of our neighboring parks: Bokor, Kirirom and Cardamon. This is a serious commitment that takes serious funds. They are amazing people that fight a seemingly never-ending war. We are committed to joining their cause, and by way of the camp, we will expose this beautiful wilderness to many well-to-do folks who just may want to help as well.
Why should people visit – what do you find most exciting about Shinta Mani Wild?
I think we will provide a life changing experience. What is the most exciting? The idea of changing the Cambodian mindset, by way of example, from extraction to conservation.
I love the wilderness – always have. Growing up, we would walk for days and even weeks through the Sierra Nevada, fishing to live. And now every year I fish by the Russian-Mongolian border (catch and release), so having a camp in the most remote part of the Cambodian wilderness is really exciting for me and a natural extension of my life experiences.
A Typical Guest Experience in an Atypical Camp, by Bill Bensley
Jackie O Arrives for a Week in Royal Splendor
You’re first met by the Royal Ranger at the airport. He explains how the camp works, the many options that are on offer and plans the next day. He explains that the experience might be like traveling back in time to the 1950’s akin to King Noradom Sihanouk hosting Jackie O in the wilderness. During the transfer you can listen to Khmer music and learn about the adventures waiting and all things Khmer. If it’s light enough and you’re willing, transfer by ATV to the ZipTree and wail into the Landing Zone upon which a huge Hendrick’s Gin and Khmer tonic is slid into your shaking hands. Have an orientation of the site, walk to waterfalls, have a massage and enjoy dinner.
The Northern Passage
Hike or go by ATV to the Northern Passage. Have lunch in the wilderness, then return to camp for a swim in the reservoir and hike to the hilltop for a massage and sundowners. Right after sunset, move quickly back to site by zipline.
The Water Labyrinths
The Cardamom mountain range produces more rain than anywhere else in Southeast Asia and all of this water drains back to the ocean through a labyrinth of uninhabited channels and waterways. Set out by dirt bike, ATV or jeep to the iron bridge, then bungee jump off of it, landing in our luxury river cruiser to make your way to the Cross Roads for kayaking, tube pulls and a BBQ lunch onboard. Return by jeep just before dark. Spa therapists are waiting upon your arrival.
Go by jeep to the acacia forest to forage mushrooms. You’re met by bullock cart and taken deep into the plantation where the red soursops are in season, then driven to the reservoir to forage. After a lunch of mushroom omelets, you’ll mountain bike downhill from the reservoir back to the camp.
The Raging Sisters
Have a 5am wake up call for a walk with Virak, our resident ornithologist, then spend the day with the Three Sisters (our three waterfalls). Breakfast is served on floating trays in one waterfall, water-massage is performed in another and the other waterfall is the setting for sundowners after an afternoon of waterfall-based activities. Local tribes come to see in the flavor of the night with dancing.
For Adrenaline Junkies
Kirirom, Cardamom and Bokor national parks await for downhill mountain biking. We will explore behind lock and key hidden forest paths and more, and drive to the northwest of the Shinta Mani Wild to Kirirom trees reservoir, heading north for a 10km downhill thriller, driving up here to check out the road suitability for mountain bikes first.
Early morning we join four armed rangers of the Wilderness Alliance who patrol Thmor Rung and the vast surrounding forests for poachers, snares and illegal logging in an effort to keep this part of the Elephant Mountains a safe haven for released wildlife.
*This is the itinerary created by Bill Bensley for the concept of the resort – individual guest experiences may differ.*
Shinta Mani Wild will begin welcoming guests in from December 21, 2018. Find out more by going over to shintamani.com.