By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos
May 30, 2019
IT WAS ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF AGO when Bill Bensley told me about his fantastical plans for Shinta Mani Wild, his first entirely home-grown resort. “You’re going to take a zipline from the highest point on the property, over the waterfall and back, to the welcome platform, where you’ll be handed a gin and tonic,” he laughed, “because by then you need it.” Obviously, I then proceeded to gush to everyone about the double ziplines—even though I didn’t fully believe it. Hoteliers tell you a lot of things pre-opening, and many of them don’t pan out. This was the nuttiest thing any hotelier had ever told me, so the sheer chutzpah of the idea was exciting enough to pique the imagination about what the real Shinta Mani Wild might include, whether or not sailing in above the southern Cambodian rainforest was a realistic way to hand over your passport.
So, when one of the first things my butler, Boren, says after he picks me up from the Phnom Penh airport in his camouflage vest is that he used to be a professional ziplining guide, I scan my brain for the other crazy promises Bensley had made me. Guests can go out on anti-poaching patrols: “You can pick up snares,” he said. (Sure, sounds safe.) The room rate includes all alcohol: “That’s how I like to travel. No nickel-and-diming.” (Oh, Bill, you might regret that when I get there.) But first things first. The fly-in entrance is real and I’m super excited. Maybe a little too excited—3½ hours later I find myself dangling in mid-air over a brook, waiting to be rescued from the middle of the second-longest zipline in Southeast Asia.
We had changed cars at the property line, from a new SUV to an old U.S. Army Jeep that’s part of the fleet the hotel acquired from the production of Angelina Jolie’s Khmer Rouge biopic, First They Killed My Father. We had bumped up a rutted dirt road to the tall zipline-takeoff tower. At the top, Boren stuck his finger up and declared there was no wind. “Make yourself small,” he told me, “if you don’t want to get stuck.” But, I wanted to let it hang all loose, kick my legs, and take 360-degree video above the trees. I wanted to milk the zipline for all it was worth. I did not make myself small. So here I am, having coasted to within two meters of the landing zone and then rolled ever so slowly back from whence I came, stuck.
It’s a clear, sunny day. Maybe I should be scared, dangling 30 meters in the air, but what can I do? I lean back, I listen to the birds, I take in the view down the valley, I wave at a local guy passing below. Boren has sent one end of a rope with a ranger to Spiderman-shimmy down the cable to fetch me. I’m live-streaming it on Instagram and you can hear me crack up when he gets a couple of arm lengths’ away and the rope runs out. Back he goes to the platform. Back he comes with a longer rope. He hooks us to each other, and Boren reels us in.
“You should live your life big,” Boren says to me. “But sometimes you have to make yourself small.” Everyone is laughing. I’m loving the nonchalance of the whole situation. Zipline No. 2 is a seven-second breeze. And then someone indeed hands me a drink (Bloody Mary, pre-radioed in by Boren) as soon as I drop in. I’m not sure of our exact GPS positioning, but I do know that we are light years removed from your typical five-star.
Not a man known to be constrained by realism, Bensley acquired the rights to this land by subterfuge: posing as an aw-shucks, cowboy boots–wearing capitalist, he won a 99-year concession and logging rights to 350 hectares in the Southern Cardamom Mountains, left it untouched for 15 years, and has now opened the most ambitious, luxury eco-resort in the region. Its all-inclusive rate covers multi-course meals prepared at the chef’s discretion or your request, all-you-can-spa treatments, all activities, and the salaries, room and board for the team of park rangers who live on-site. “This is an extension of all the good work we are doing with the Shinta Mani Foundation,” Bensley said of the Siem Reap–based organization he’s affiliated with that runs a hospitality school, issues micro-loans, covers tuitions, funds healthcare and promotes sustainable farming to help lift rural Cambodians out of poverty.
At Shinta Mani Wild, there are only 15 guest tents dotting a 1½ kilometer stretch of river, meaning you’ll often have the staff’s undivided attention. Because it’s a baby boutique brand, and probably also because it’s middle-of-nowhere Cambodia, normal hotel rules do not apply. Zipline as much as you want: your butler will grab any of his pals who are available—they’re all trained for flying—to do the 320-meter run with you. Most nice hotels are wary of calling you a motorbike taxi, but this one has as an official activity climbing on pillion behind the rangers to go out on patrol. Did I mention Boren brought me cliff jumping?
“My dad took me camping all over America,” Bensley said. “This place is fulfilling my childhood dreams and reliving my memories.” Which perhaps explains why the custom boat on which I am lucky enough to take the maiden voyage (two more are under construction), is so damn cute. It looks like a little boy hand-built a toy model then put it under an expando-ray. Boren pours champagne on the upper deck as we sail the Srey Ambel Estuary, through a serene side of Cambodia I’ve never seen. The banks are pristine. The only people we encounter are uniformed school kids and dudes on motorbikes crossing on wooden barges with poles. There are beaches of white sand that my feet melt into like cookie dough.
The sense of freedom is liberating. And the little boy’s sense of adventure is contagious. When I’m visiting in late January, the area has just eased into dry season, a state of affairs that ordinarily might preclude kayaking, but Boren is stoked for it. “It’s so fun,” he enthuses. “I love dragging the kayaks out when you get stuck.” Out, I soon find out he means, of tangled masses of roots that have broken the waterline, over muddy embankments that sporadically ground us, and under awkwardly positioned branches that require me to do an in-boat limbo. With Boren hopping in and out of the kayak so much, I have a front-row seat to my own personal Ironman Challenge.
Det, the resident naturalist, is a fishier soul whose true passion is for forest bathing. Bensley had told me that he had found 11 kinds of edible mushrooms on the grounds of Shinta Mani Wild. During my visit, I learn that Det also discovered a species of vanilla there that was previously unseen in Cambodia. He is a keen orchid hunter. A nature stroll with him is utter serenity, largely because of his own sweet nature.
An excursion with the rangers can be a little more harrowing. Poaching, logging and squatting remain big problems and big business, even though the surrounding region was made a national park shortly after Bensley got his land. A live civet can fetch US$100 on its way, often, to an inhumane kopi luwak farm. Mainland Chinese, in the Cambodian land-grab, offer locals US$500 a hectare for illegal clearings, so they can claim squatters’ rights and build developments. The Wildlife Alliance-Shinta Mani Wild rangers are fighting an uphill battle with every trapped wild boar they free or logger they arrest. After a multi-day sting in January, for example, they impounded an excavator and marched the workers to court, only to have the case thrown out and the evidence returned. Still, when you see the rudimentary snares, often hand-made of split branches and twine, dotting forest paths, it’s hard to lose faith in the good fight.
While the camp’s concept is extraordinary—“I’m never going to make any money off of this,” Bensley tells me. “This is purely feel-good”—the aesthetic is actually quite understated for his standards. Tents contain old hardbacks, steamer trunks and Princess-and-the-Pea beds that you sink into like a fluffy hug. On the porch is the living area with your big minibar; custom murals and couches provide color, and several old brass fans keep things cool—as does the river that I’m told rushes under my tent during rainy season. Canvas flaps can be lowered around this area, but then you’d be walling yourself off from the already Insta-famous, corner-perched faux-ivory tub and the hammocks next to it that hang over the gully.
It’s tempting to laze here in my bathrobe, but Boren and Det are waiting to take me ziplining one final time. It’s my last morning in this summer camp for grown-ups, and I should live my life big, right? It goes without saying that I get stuck again. No matter. I’m not quite ready to pick up my passport yet.
shintamani.com; doubles from US$1,900, inclusive of board, alcohol, spa, activities, and airport transfers to and from Phnom Penh (three hours) and Sihanoukville (two hours).