When I arrived in Phnom Penh after a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Shanghai, there were just three other commercial jets parked at the terminal, only one of which belonged to the national airline, Cambodia Airways. For a capital city, in the middle of the day, this seemed surprising. During pre-trip research, I’d learned that Cambodia is the least developed of the Southeast Asia countries, with a 2018 per capita GDP of just $4,322, its economy having lagged behind those of neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Memories of calamitous wars still linger, even though around 65 percent of the inhabitants are under age 30 and hence were not alive when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power. And the past is given daily physical embodiment by the saturnine figure of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985.
However, my reading also revealed that economic growth is now starting to accelerate, driven chiefly by Chinese investment and the rapid expansion of tourism. Last year no fewer than 2.6 million people visited Angkor Wat, the 12th-century temple complex built on a 400-acre site outside the northwestern city of Siem Reap. And hotels and resorts are beginning to open in areas of the country that were previously inaccessible to all but the most adventurous of foreign travelers.
A lack of development may be bad for the citizens, but for visitors it can have a plus side. Central Phnom Penh remains a congenial place, with much of its elegant French Colonial architecture intact and little of the unrestrained concrete sprawl and gridlocked traffic found in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. We have long recommended the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which opened in 1929; today it is overlooked by the new Rosewood Phnom Penh, a much-lauded 175-room property that occupies the top 14 floors of a 615-foot tower (the city’s second skyscraper).
On this occasion, however, we had no plans to linger in the capital, so instead we headed along Highway 4 in the direction of Sihanoukville, a major port on the Gulf of Thailand. Our car, driver and “butler” had been sent by Shinta Mani Wild, a new resort that opened in December 2018, located 80 miles to the southwest on a private nature sanctuary. The first third of the journey passed through litter-strewn sprawl, where the level of poverty was depressingly apparent. The two-lane road was reasonably well-surfaced, and the general standard of driving was far less scary than it is in some Asian countries (mostly notably India).
Shinta Mani Wild is the personal project of one of the most flamboyant figures in luxury travel. Originally from Southern California, Bill Bensley studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, after which, in 1984, he headed to Singapore. He has been in Asia ever since. Over the years, Bensley’s Bangkok-based architecture firm became synonymous with exotic resorts created for InterContinental, St. Regis, J.W. Marriott, Oberoi, Anantara — in fact just about every major hotel company you can think of. The property that first made him famous, however, was the Hideaway Report-recommended 15-room tented camp that he designed for Four Seasons at Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. Bensley’s style is theatrical, whimsical and baroque, and in many ways his properties are the antithesis of those of the celebrated Asian boutique brand Aman Resorts, whose founder, Adrian Zecha, preferred an austere minimalist aesthetic.
Shinta Mani Wild is the personal project of one of the most flamboyant figures in luxury travel.
After about three hours, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road and headed into a forested landscape dominated by the peaks of the Cardamom Mountains, which rise to an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. Once, this inaccessible region was a final hideout for Khmer Rouge guerrillas; more recently it has been the scene of widespread illegal logging and mining, as well as rampant poaching. Despite these depredations, the area is still covered by one of the largest forests in Southeast Asia, home to Asian elephants and pileated gibbons, as well as remnant populations of Indochinese tigers, clouded leopards and Malayan sun bears.
Bensley acquired a lease on an 865-acre site that is located in a wildlife corridor between the Bokor and Kirirom national parks. His ambition was to create a sustainable ecotourism project — in conjunction with the New York-based Wildlife Alliance, the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government — in order to protect the environment, frustrate the loggers and provide training and employment opportunities for local people.
The camp comprises 15 opulent tented accommodations, which were erected on stilts in order to allow animals to pass beneath. The resort is integrated into its natural surroundings, and as few trees as possible were felled during its construction. The public areas are situated at the edge of a ravine overlooking a dramatic waterfall, or at least they are during the wet season and its aftermath (May through December), but this being February, the river’s flow was much diminished. Bensley’s designs are often based on a story or a theme, and Shinta Mani Wild was inspired by a trip that King Norodom Sihanouk arranged for Jackie Kennedy on her visit to Cambodia in 1967. (An extremely large, slightly incongruous portrait of the first lady occupies pride of place in the main dining room.) As a result, the property resembles an old-fashioned colonial-style safari camp, with brass fixtures, leather chairs, dark wood furniture, steamer trunks, silverware and crystal tumblers and decanters.
On arrival, we were escorted to the bar, where we accepted a welcome cocktail and chatted with the exceptionally friendly Cambodian staff, who hovered about and seemed almost too eager to be hospitable. Would we like to go ziplining? the duty manager inquired hopefully. Having just flown from New York via Shanghai, followed by a three-hour drive, we declined and said that we’d much prefer to head to our room for a shower. His expression was so crestfallen that we immediately regretted not having taken up his offer.
Our lavish tented villa (#5) was secluded at the end of a narrow gravel path that twisted through thick vegetation. Its huge partly shaded deck was appointed with a dining table and canvas chairs backed by a colorful painting of wildlife and jungle plants in a style vaguely reminiscent of the work of Henri Rousseau. A vibrant animal-print sofa and two leather armchairs were set on a rattan rug. And a cowhide-covered icebox stood next to a generously stocked marble-topped bar. In one corner, a large freestanding tub overlooked the jungle.
A heavy wooden door opened into a spacious air-conditioned bedroom with an elevated king-size bed, bookshelves, framed prints, ceiling fans, custom furniture and an old-fashioned Bakelite telephone with which to summon room service. A counter made from a stretch of varnished tree trunk ran along an entire side of the room, into which were set two brass sinks. Lights and gilt-framed mirrors were suspended from the ceiling, an arrangement driven more by the design aesthetic than the needs of those wishing to apply makeup or shave. A separate room contained a monsoon shower. (In this setting, the lack of an outdoor shower seemed an omission.) Overall, our villa struck us as a romantic private world, in which it would be a pleasure to luxuriate and unwind.
I suspect that most of the guests at Shinta Mani Wild will stray from the seductive accommodations only as far as the dining room — which serves excellent locally sourced Cambodian cuisine — the dramatic black lap pool and the small hilltop spa, which offers Khmer treatments employing only organic products. It remains to be seen if the resort will be able to develop a comprehensive program of activities centered on wildlife and the local national parks. Dense forest is a challenging environment in which to view animals, or even birds. At present, it is possible to accompany rangers on patrols and to help them check camera traps, as well as to explore an estuarine river system aboard a custom-built boat.
However, the conservation model at Shinta Mani Wild is undeniably impressive. Funds from the resort help to support the local wildlife rangers, while The Shinta Mani Foundation coordinates community-outreach and environmental-educational programs. Young adults who would otherwise have few career opportunities can attend a free hospitality training school in Siem Reap (where there are three other Shinta Mani hotels), and the foundation also helps to finance children’s dentistry, dig wells and provide academic scholarships. In all of this, Shinta Mani Wild is a fine example of intelligent, compassionate, contemporary tourism. Bill Bensley’s nostalgic design may hark back to the romance of a vanished age, but in many ways his camp is at the cutting edge of modern luxury travel.
Relaxing on the expansive deck of our exceptionally comfortable tented villa; the delightful local staff; the atmosphere of deep seclusion.
The resort has been designed around the river and a waterfall, but the high season is also the dry season (January to March), when the flow is greatly reduced.
The Shinta Mani Foundation directly finances conservation efforts and community-outreach projects.