Bill Bensley Goes Wild: The prolific hotel designer speaks on nerves and nature ahead of Shinta Mani Wild opening (INTERVIEW)

Photo: Laurel Tuohy
Photo: Laurel Tuohy

Bill Bensley once said, “Never do anything twice. Experiment. Do weird things. Once you start repeating yourself, you’re through.”

True to form, the iconic hotel designer stepped squarely off the map with Shinta Mani Wild, a 15-key suspended tent camp in Southwestern Cambodia tucked away in the remote Cardamom Mountains. The camp opens Friday and has been called one of the most anticipated travel launches of the year.

Photo: Shinta Mani Wild
Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

It’s to be Bensley’s smallest and most exclusive offering yet. The details include old-fashioned bathtubs on secluded, outdoor, wide-plank decking that sit beside built-in hammocks that let guests watch the river rush by beneath them. The inspiration is Jacqueline Onassis on a luxury safari in the Cambodian jungle, according to the designer. The 100 square meter tents feature wicker, Khmer wood furniture, and a safari-chic palette of saffron, goldenrod, and slate blue. As you might expect, no cost has been spared — the designer invested US$16 million in the project.

It’s not his first foray into camps. This is the same man behind the world’s first luxury camp, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai. It’s properties like this that might be responsible for the phenomenon of glamping. But when I posit this to Bensley on a recent afternoon at his Bangkok design studio, he demurs: “Oh no, I’m sure glamping predates Four Seasons. I never even thought about that.”

The front of Bensley's headquarters. Photo: Laurel Tuohy
The front of Bensley’s headquarters. The boxes behind the sculpture are furniture pieces en route to Cambodia and Vietnam for hotel projects in progress. But, the designer says, they are almost always taking large deliveries or shipping massive items out. Photo: Laurel Tuohy

He’s everything you might expect from someone who has designed upwards of 200 whimsical yet accessible properties — names such as The Siam, The Four Seasons Koh Samui, The Slate, and Rosewood Luang Prabang — four of which he owns himself as part of The Bensley Collection. He is engaging, funny, laughs loudly and often, and creativity glints in his eyes. His ideas move quickly from one to the next. Soon his long legs — he’s 6’4” and probably 6’6” in the silver cowboy boots he wore that day — take him swiftly through the compound, a former Iranian ambassador’s residence, with me and his five Instafamous Jack Russell terriers close on his stacked heels.

A detail at Bensley's headquarters. Photo: Laurel Tuohy
A detail at Bensley’s headquarters. Photo: Laurel Tuohy

We’re on our way to chat with the designers, architects, and creators that bring his finely-detailed, color-soaked, daydreamy hotel visions to life.

Photo: Laurel Tuohy
The architects’ office. Photo: Laurel Tuohy

The things that most set this latest address apart from others he’s done are the secluded setting and conservation efforts, both of which he’s able to control fully when designing a hotel that he also owns.

It’s billed as a “private nature sanctuary” that sits at the crux of three of Cambodia’s national parks: Kirirom, Bokor, and Cardamom, three hours’ drive from Phnom Penh. The natural surrounds include 1.5 kilometers of river frontage with prime waterfall views, mountains, and rainforest where it’s not unlikely to see elephants, gibbons and other locals going about their business beneath the tents.

Photo: Shinta Mani Wild
Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

But it’s not just about creating a natural spot for guests to enjoy. Bensley aimed at protecting the 350-hectare river valley from poaching, mining, and logging working alongside Wildlife Alliance, The Royal University of Phnom Penh, and the Cambodian Government.

He’s no stranger to eco-pursuits in hotel design and can go to extreme measures to work with nature instead of against it. For one of his recent projects, the 22-room Capella Ubud, he didn’t cut down a single tree on the property.

He said of Wild, “We chose to go with just 15 keys for low environmental impact, these little tents on stilts let animals and the river run underneath.”

Photo: Shinta Mani Wild
Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

Not quite as modest as he describes, the stays have panoramic views of rainforest and river valley, with details and design elements unique to each tent and carefully considered.

Photo: Shinta Mani Wild
Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

When not relaxing in a tent, guests have use of a private, luxury expedition boat created by the designer and complete with bar and sun loungers. On land, visitors can take a hike, borrow ATVs, or check camera traps and study the forest with local rangers.

Back at the resort, they can catch a buzz at the Landing Zone Bar, try Cambodian cuisine at Waterfall Restaurant, have a Khmer-style treatment at Boulders Spa, or take a dip in the central swimming pool.

Bensley also has plans for the most James Bond of entrances into Wild. It’s always been a dream of his to offer Asia’s longest zipline entry to a resort. It’s not quite ready yet, but Wild will soon have a 400-meter extreme entry across a waterfall that plants guests directly in front of the bar where one of the resort’s signature Gin & Tonics is placed in their hands.

Photo: Shinta Mani Wild
The resort’s bar. Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

Though Bensley’s hardly new to the hotel game, the nerves that come with opening a new place never go away. “This one has so much limelight on it — Forbes called it the most anticipated hotel opening of 2018. We’ve got a list of writers from all over the world coming from early December.” He likened it to a Hollywood movie opening, “If you don’t get it right the first time, you can’t go back and fix it.”

When asked if he minds that projects he puts so much time into will be seen by so few people due to the low number of rooms, he answered in the negative, saying: “I hate big hotels. I would much rather have a few people see some really good stuff than a lot of people see ordinary stuff.” He noted the different mindset at a small hotel with personalized service. “With small hotels, like The Siam here in town, people feel special staying there. Everyone knows your name and what you want for breakfast … I like small hotels that have layers and layers and layers of interest.”

He considers it a great compliment when people tell him they’ve stayed at one of his hotels and feel like they didn’t have a chance to take in every detail. For Shinta Mani Wild, he estimates that about 5,000 unique items — everything from sunbeds to curios to cushions — had to pass through his Bangkok headquarters en route to Cambodia, and he had to personally approve each one.

“If people feel like they haven’t seen everything, that’s why they gotta come back,” he said.

Shinta Mani Wild
Tmor Rung

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