It is now 40 years since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power in Cambodia, and finally things are beginning to change. Chinese investment has primed economic growth, and last year an astonishing 2.6 million people visited the huge temple complex of Angkor Wat, near the northwestern city of Siem Reap. Elsewhere, a handful of upscale hotels and resorts are beginning to open in areas that were previously inaccessible to all but the most adventurous of foreign travelers.
One of the most interesting is Shinta Mani Wild, a new ecolodge on a private nature sanctuary, located in a mountainous region three hours’ drive to the southwest of the capital, Phnom Penh. This area was once a hideout for Khmer Rouge guerrillas; more recently it has been the scene of widespread illegal logging and rampant poaching. Despite these depredations, it is still covered by one of the largest forests in Southeast Asia, home to Asian elephants, as well as remnant populations of tigers, clouded leopards and sun bears. Shinta Mani Wild is the personal project of American architect and designer Bill Bensley, who first achieved international fame with the Hideaway Report-recommended tented camp that he designed for Four Seasons at Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. The new camp comprises 15 opulent tented accommodations, erected on stilts at the edge of a dramatic ravine. Its flamboyant design was inspired by a trip that King Norodom Sihanouk arranged for Jackie Kennedy on her visit to Cambodia in 1967. Although the resort’s program of wildlife activities is still a work in progress, Shinta Mani Wild is already a seductive place in which to relax.
Another three hours’ drive to the south, the coastline known in French colonial days as the Cambodian Riviera is also witnessing a surge of development. On this trip we stayed at the new Six Senses Krabey Island, set on a 30-acre microdot, 15 minutes by boat from a private jetty near the port of Sihanoukville. We also visited the charming seaside towns of Kampot and Kep. In the 1960s, the latter was a chic enclave where King Sihanouk socialized with high-ranking diplomats as well as luminaries like Catherine Deneuve.
From Kep we headed into Vietnam, crossing the border at Ha Tien, before entering the Mekong Delta, a semi-wilderness of swamps, canals, islands and paddy fields that extend northeast for 200 miles to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Set on an island in the Hau River (an arm of the Mekong), the new Azerai Can Tho is the latest venture of hotel legend Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts. The property, a serene and picturesque enclave with a magnificent pool, a notable spa and delicious Vietnamese food, provides a base from which to explore the vibrant city of Can Tho, with its colorful floating markets and renowned restaurants and food stands.
This issue also contains an account of our return to Santa Barbara wine country, where we stayed at Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, a long-established retreat where life moves at an easy pace, with outdoor activities steeped in Western culture and traditions centered on family. We also found time to investigate Santa Barbara’s thriving food scene and visit notable wineries in the nearby Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys.