Shinta Mani Wild: Splendid Isolation
Tempus checks into the extraordinary Shinta Mani Wild resort in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, where nature and luxury live together in perfect harmony
It took three attempts to erect the welcome station at the luxury resort of Shinta Mani Wild in 2018. Twice, a herd of wild elephants made their deep displeasure known about the interloper in their midst by trampling it underfoot and razing it to the ground.
But co-founder Bill Bensley simply laughed it off and started building again. For the passionate conservationist, it was how it should be. ‘Shinta Mani’ is Sanskrit for ‘good heart’ and the resort, nuzzled deep in the Cardamom Mountains in southwest Cambodia, is entirely deserving of its name.
While other eco resorts often pay lip service to conservation, Shinta Mani Wild lives and breathes it. Bensley scoped out the eventual layout of the resort by walking along the dry bed of the Tmor Rung river, which trickles, flows and thunders through the 865-acre luxury jungle retreat, depending on the season. His focus was minimal disruption to the wildlife, flora and fauna that thrive in this natural paradise.
So, the Landing Zone bar, 15 custom-designed luxury tented villas, the restaurant, Khymer Tonics spa and cistern (the swimming pool) were built in natural clearings on existing rock foundations. Construction workers faced a hefty fine if they chopped down any vegetation whatsoever. That’s why you will notice trees poking up through the boardwalks that zig-zag across the resort and lead to whichever villa you are blessed to call home for your stay.
My two-night stay began with a private transfer from Phnom Penh. The driver greeted me on my doorstep with a smile and a refreshing towel before ushering me into the air-conditioned 4×4 vehicle. Chilled drinks and snacks were available during the comfortable four-hour drive, including sweet fresh coconut juice.
But the Shinta Mani experience really begins with the extraordinary two-zipwire entry into the resort. Guests can choose to continue by road, but the majority channel their inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft and are rewarded with an exhilarating bird’s-eye view of the dense foliage below as they whizz through over the forest canopy.
I arrived as a huge blood-orange sun was slipping down towards the horizon and the air was a cacophony of bird calls, cicadas and other wild creatures heralding the coming of night. Guests are assigned a butler for their stay, and mine, a lovely young Cambodian guy called Lucky, was there to help make sure I got into the resort in one piece.
The second, shorter zipwire took me over the river and Raging Sister Waterfall No 1 (in mid-flow in February) to alight at Shinta Mani’s landing spot. The hub of the resort centres around here, with the open-air Landing Zone bar, restaurant, and butler HQ just a few steps away.
American Bill Bensley is a world-renowned architect designer of luxury resorts and a welcome tour gave me a glimpse of his astonishing vision for Shinta Mani Wild. It’s a magical blend of eccentric explorer, high-end style and joyful flamboyance.
The al fresco restaurant, dubbed Headquarters, encapsulates this unique aesthetic with its cornucopia of curated pieces that jostle for attention. Carousel-style wooden horses seemingly gallop mid-air, traditional Khmer statues invite contemplation and quirky curiosities delight the eye.
You can imagine any of the world’s great explorers arriving here and thinking they’ve gone to heaven. I certainly did when I was shown my dining spot. Visiting in low season at the tail-end of a pandemic, I was the only guest for the evening and so a table, encircled with flickering candles, was set up on the small cliff top overlooking the river and waterfall I had zip-wired over. Guests are treated to a different set menu every evening, depending on in-season produce and the bounty the chef has successfully foraged that day.
I was teased that wild ants were on the menu, but instead tucked into perfectly prepared langoustines, a delicate Khmer-style pork curry and a selection of leaves picked fresh from the banks of the river earlier in the day. The home-made bread was truly the best I’d had since leaving the UK, 16 months previously.
As with the best luxury resorts, the staff anticipate the guest’s next move. And so, my butler, Lucky, magically reappeared as dinner came to a close to escort me, lantern-held-aloft, to The Birders, or Villa 10. Each 100 sq metre ‘tent’ has its own unique style and The Birders comes with strengthened net canopies so keen ‘twitchers’ can get close to the estimated 450 native bird species that live here.
Other stand-out features of The Birders includes the roll-top bath on the veranda, a fully-stocked bar complete with cocktail-making equipment and a double bed with a mattress so deep that it perfectly illustrates the phrase ‘climb into bed’. You can also ‘zip up’ the ‘windows’ and be fully immersed in the incredible surrounding scenery. The area is also home to over 100 species of butterflies, fluttering whimsically in the air.
Magical moments like this aside, as mentioned at the beginning, Shinta Mani Wild takes its conservation efforts seriously. That’s why it has a strict no in-room dining policy to ensure that animals aren’t tempted to drop by for a snack and start changing their natural eating habits.
Guests can see the conservation work in action through a range of excursions run from the Wildlife Alliance station in the resort. As part of Bill Bensley’s commitment to protecting the forest and wildlife in the region, the resort funds a team of rangers who patrol the area all year round.
A statistics board in the camp highlights how important their work is, showing that so far nearly 2000 animal snares have been removed, and nearly 100 chainsaws have been confiscated in a bid to stop illegal logging in the area.
I tagged along on one morning excursion as the ranger shared stories of loggers trying to smuggle banned timber out in the back of an ambulance, and pointing out broken snares once intended for the area’s population of civet cats.
We also saw broken branches and scuffled scorched earth; the tell-tale signs of an elephant herd in the neighbourhood. However, Shinta Mani’s good intentions seem to have been communicated to these magnificent creatures because these days, the welcome station remains untouched.
Want to go?
Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Wild has fourteen one bedroom and one two bedroom tents. Rates start from USD950 per person per night (based on twin or double occupancy) plus applicable service charge and government taxes and are inclusive of all food and beverages; private guided activities and excursions; unlimited spa treatments; personal Bensley Butler and land transfers from Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville airports. Helicopter transfers are additional. A minimum three night stay is required and a minimum age of 10 years. Rates are valid to 17 December, 2021.