Apr 4, 2022
AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT, Siem Reap has undergone a battering in the last two years. Almost overnight, the gateway to the temples of Angkor shrunk from lively tourist hub to abandoned ghost town. In addition to the devastating economic blow dealt by the pandemic, Temple Town battled resembling, well, a battlefield for the vast majority of 2021. Under the multi-million-dollar ‘38 Roads’ project, the city’s streets were torn up – pretty much all at once – leaving Siem Reap looking like it was under siege.
However, it seems the pain will pay off. As the city starts to welcome an albeit slow trickle of tourists since Cambodia opened its doors to double-jabbed visitors in November, a re-polished Siem Reap awaits. Newly paved roads, neat sidewalks, cycle paths that sit in the shade of ancient trees and well-manicured gardens today adorn the town center. While this once-thronged hub seems a long way off returning to its former glory, life is slowly starting to sprout, and evidence sits in the reopening of one of Temple Town’s star sleeps, Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Siem Reap, after its Covid-induced closure.
A welcome team awaits as our cab pulls up. As we dab away Cambodia’s humidity with cold face towels, we’re introduced to our Bensley Butler, G1. Like his colleagues, he’s kitted out in a signature Bensley-designed uniform that steers away from five-star stuffy and serves as an extension of the visionary designer and architect’s award-winning creative flair. Rupert Bear-style trousers are teamed with a short-sleeve white shirt and playful safari-style waistcoat – testament to the fact that attention has been paid to every last detail.
As we enter the complex, it’s like walking into an alternate universe, one where Bill Bensley transports you back in time to the mighty Angkorian period while keeping your feet firmly in the present. Each of the 10, two-level villas at Shinta Mani Siem Reap features a nine-meter lap pool and outdoor lounge area. The rooftop “living room” is perfect for breakfast, indulging in a private massage or relaxing below a canopy of stars amid bursts of pink Bougainvillea. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows enable light to stream into the bedroom – fear not, black-out drapes combined with pillows so fluffy it’s like sleeping on clouds ensure a sound night’s sleep – and separate spacious bathroom, which leads to an outdoor bathtub hidden among tropical foliage.
The décor is dominated by striking black-and-white designs with notes of gold and a stunning curated collection of artworks that nod to the mighty Khmer Empire that once ruled swathes of the region. The central pieces are giant carved murals depicting the flowing robes of Jayavarman VII, Angkorian king from 1181 to 1218. Privacy is also a key feature of the villas, which are meticulously designed to keep curious eyes out (yep, that means you’re safe to take a dip in the pool au natural).
In parallel to his passion for creating special spaces that delight, enchant and transport guests to another world, Bensley is equally as passionate about sustainability and working alongside communities that need it the most. While the hospitality scene in Siem Reap pretty much ground to a halt during the pandemic, Shinta Mani Foundation’s work sky-rocketed. Lockdowns, curfews and other Covid restrictions made the foundation’s work supporting underprivileged communities all the more pressing.
“The pandemic has certainly increased our workload,” says Chunnin, the foundation’s director of community, as we drive along dusty roads that wind through typical rural Cambodian scenery – a patchwork of paddies studded with sugar palms and grazing buffalo – to meet some of the families the foundation has dealt a lifeline. “We’ve been providing food packages, health care, education; it’s more important now than ever.”
The non-profit foundation was created in 2004 by Shinta Mani Hotels’ founder Sokoun Chanpreda with the aim of supporting health, education and development programs for families struggling to survive. When Bensley teamed up with Shinta Mani to launch Bensley Collection in 2017, giving back to the community in Siem Reap and beyond was core to operations. Five percent of each stay and 100 percent of donations are directly funneled to the foundation.
Since its launch, the foundation has helped elevate thousands of lives. More than 100 homes have been constructed, thousands of wells dug and more than 9,000 youngsters in need of dental care have had check-ups. It also provides interest-free loans to small businesses and offers free education to needy students, as well as training – and recruiting – young adults in hospitality. “This work forms a really important part of our philosophy,” says Chunnin, as she shows us community vegetable gardens, water wells and homes that have been constructed at a small community in the Banteay Srey district of Siem Reap.
Under the slogan, “Open doors, open hearts,” the foundation’s work guarantees guests can enjoy an even better night’s sleep than the comfiest of comfortable beds personally hand-picked by Bensley.
siemreap.bensleycollection.com; pool villa double occupancy from US$688 in low season and up to US$1,013 in peak season.
All photos courtesy of Bensley Collection unless otherwise noted.