Building empires
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Divine design




Bill Bensley’s distinctive, whimsical personal style touches everything the moment you hand yourself over to the Shinta Mani. From Salas’s uniform, to the chequerboard-esque monochrome (a familiar Bensley feature) that crept into every element of our stay, to the resort’s signage (flanked by Traveller’s Palms, to us a nostalgic sign of a great hotel), to the Butler’s Lounge by the private entrance, through to our gorgeous villa. Everything has been beautifully developed to pitch and appeal to the highest level of Shinta Mani’s clientele.

We love properties with a sense of place and there’s no doubt we were in Siem Reap. In a borderline kitsch but tasteful way, there are lashings of Khmer folly – prang spires, gopura towers and cloistered galleries – Buddhist zen fused with more contemporary elements like Japanese, raked, white pebbles, soul-reflecting mirrors and fire torches at night. Also, The Bensley Collection villas sit close to the boundary wall of the Shinta Mani Angkor compound – a curious choice considering there should be an emphasis on privacy and discretion – and street noise (albeit minimal), plus the sounds of local life, form part of the experience. It won’t be for everyone, but we liked it.

At the time of our visit, just three out of ten villas were complete; we were second to stay in ours. We have been told that all ten exclusive Bensley Collection villas had the seal of approval for a complete launch at the end of January and we have it on good authority that they’ve been receiving satisfied guests ever since.

But the real magic happens beyond the doors to our villa – a jaw-dropping reveal. It is a decadent duplex suite, with gorgeous, monochrome floors, long dive-right-in plunge-pool, interior courtyard, lavish, custom-designed furnishings with splashes of bright monk-robe orange and royal yellow. It’s masculine, bold, sophisticated and very ‘Instagrammable.’

The layout of the villa celebrated spending time outside; the outdoors merged seamlessly with the indoors, creating a sense of infinity and freedom throughout the space. Stairs led upstairs to a gratuitous roof-terrace and relaxation area, perfect for morning yoga, afternoon cocktails or a barbecue (so says Salas, practising his upsell).

Walking through each door is a journey in itself; from the open pool courtyard, a second set of bay doors led into air-conditioned bliss: an intimate bedroom and lounge area. More double doors showcased a hideaway garden and secret corridor that led to a sumptuous, enclosed bathroom and walk-in wardrobe; which in turn opened up to yet another outdoor space in which the centrepiece is a stone bathtub, completely open to the elements.

Throughout the villa, there’s every imaginable perk – tailored bed linen, tempting kitchenette, bluetooth speakers (including one actually in the showerhead), delightfully fragrant amenities, curated art and the very best in hand-made fixtures and fittings. We were blown away.

One feature we mustn’t forget to tell you about is a giant, contemporary fresco of the billowing robes of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who commissioned the most beautiful temples in neighbouring Angkor. It takes up the entire length of the wall separating each villa. We wonder if this is the equivalent to an artist’s signature; perhaps Bensley sees himself as today’s literal and social architect. In any case, like Jayavarman, he has created a masterpiece.

Let’s go outside

When you stay in a place like this, it is easy to understand why people won’t want to leave the splendours of their villas or suites. However, besides the collection’s ‘Butler’s Lounge’, the Bensley villas share their food, beverage and other communal facilities with the rest of the resort, which in our humble opinion is a real oversight. The Bensley Collection is a very special, intimate experience shared only by a privileged few and there was a mismatch in our expectations when we had to engage with the rest of the Shinta Mani Resort.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s so much of a first-world problem; there’s absolutely nothing amiss with the Shinta Mani Angkor, per se, but there are subtle differences between the experiences – primarily in service. We felt that the main resort staff, while friendly, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude in comparison. While service was satisfactory, it just wasn’t on par with the Bensley Collection. Also, there was no step-up in food and beverage for Collection guests. To use a travel analogy, it was like paying for and having a first-class seat on a plane, but when it came to mealtimes, being asked to eat in premium economy.

The main resort could also do with an injection of soul. Kroya restaurant at dinnertime was inanimate and we were the only people to grace the Bensley Bar, even on Christmas day. The spaces themselves were aesthetically beautiful, but had pangs of a place that had fallen out of vogue. Our signature spa experience was not particularly memorable and us Bensleyphiles were underwhelmed by the supposedly ‘curated by Bill Bensley’ gift shop. All of this was even when Shinta Mani Angkor itself was at full occupancy, so we’re told. To be fair to them, the property’s proximity to the town centre meant that guests are easily drawn away by its delights, but the consequence is that the main resort is left feeling like somewhere you would return to just to sleep, rather than a place you’d enjoy spending time in.

However, the property is trying to create more interactive in-house activities. We took part in a fun Khmer cooking class in which a Shinta Mani chef took us out to the local market by tuk-tuk in a well presented, eye-opening, experiential and ultimately enjoyable morning. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of eating something local that you’ve actually cooked for yourself, having understood where it comes from and what it is.

We also spent some time finding out more about the fantastic work that the Shinta Mani Foundation does and how guests can get involved in the projects. You’ll be interested to know that somewhere out there in Cambodia, there is a well with our names on it.

Our hot tip for Collection guests is to arrange for breakfast to be served on-demand in villa and have your butler do drinks on the roof terrace. For dining out, the hotel has a sister restaurant in town where they can arrange dinner and charge it to your villa, although we can’t even begin to understand why anyone would want to eat Western soul food in Cambodia. Ask your butler for local recommendations, there are some fantastic places to graze in the city. Tuk-tuk journeys to and from the Collection are complimentary.

But of course, the main event for any Siem Reap visit is the ancient Kingdom of Angkor. Bensley butlers can arrange top-notch private guides (in any language and with special crowd-beating knowledge) to the UNESCO World Heritage site. We had the added benefit of Salas joining us on our journey, offering his own personal insight to the trip and never being far behind with a bottle of ice-cold water and jasmine-scented towel.

www.shintamani.com

Photography courtesy of Shinta Mani and by Uwern Jong