In the Cambodian jungle, Shinta Mani Wild’s founder, architect and designer Bill Bensley cordially invites guests to be an active part of restoring the rainforest’s flora and fauna within 350 hectares of Cardamom National Park. With just 15 luxury tents set on the rocky banks of the beautiful Tmor Rung River, only a select few get to experience his quirky, colonial, military-chic glamping at a time. Expect plenty of adrenaline-fuelled activities and deep forest explorations led by Wildlife Alliance rangers, birds and butterflies everywhere, a secluded spa sanctuary and a soul-soaring sense of purpose. Catharine Nicol got a taste of this new model of hospitality, where guests are intimately involved in creating a positive impact in the surrounding nature and communities. As a result, as days at Wild go by, the staff, butlers and GM start to feel like family, while the wellbeing of the forest and its inhabitants get closer and closer to guests’ hearts. It’s surprisingly hard to leave…
Whether you fly into Phnom Penh International Airport or Sihanouk International Airport on Cambodia’s coast, Shinta Mani Wild is around a three-hour drive by resort-organised transfer. A small turning off Asian Highway 11 takes you 12-kilometres along road then track, passing a few villages, before stopping at the guarded entrance to Shinta Mani Wild’s swathe of the Cardamom National Park.
Starting off the way your stay means to go on, a WW2 army jeep picks you up and weaves its way through the rainforest to deposit you, not at the resort for check-in, but at the foot of their zip line. Gliding for 380 metres over the treetops you get a great bird’s eye view of the river and camp. The second zip line flies you straight into the Landing Zone Bar, adrenaline soaring, cocktail awaiting; welcome to the Wild.
March to May are the cooler, drier months, with low river levels ideal for mountain biking and calm rock pools for swimming. June to October bring the wetter season, filling the rivers and heralding the best time for kayaking, and flora and fauna spotting. November to February the rivers descend again, butterfly season starts and the sun shines.
Bensley created the resort expressly in order to rescue the land from poachers, loggers and mining, which are all endangering increasing tracts of nature in this part of the world. Partnering with Wildlife Alliance (WA), resort fees fund the military-trained WA rangers who guard the resort and go out on forays to dismantle snares, catch poachers and check cameras for animal activity. The most popular activity at the camp is to accompany these Kalashnikov-wielding rangers on their expeditions.
Bensley is renowned for his fantastically quirky architecture and design, and so it is at Wild. The concept of an old-school jungle safari is eccentrically influenced by Jackie O’s style in a nod to her historic visit to Cambodia back in the ’60s. Staff wear military-chic uniforms, spaces and shelves are dotted with fascinating vintage objets d’art, both local to Cambodia and foreign, with surprises at every turn—imagine coming face-to-face with a couple of carousel horses out in the Cambodian rainforest.
There are just 15 luxurious tents at Wild, each set with its own little stretch of river, and total privacy. Small paths lead from each tent through the forest to Headquarters where guests gather to eat delightful meals, plan the day with their adventure butlers and, later, swap stories of their exciting activities. The Landing Zone Bar is set beside the river’s waterfall, and a small walk away, hidden from sight, is the pool. The spa is secluded in the forest: you’ll be led there by a ranger.
Outdoorsy and adventurous families with older kids (minimum age is 10), couples and small groups of friends gather for the Wild experience, and are looked after by charming staff, some hailing from local villages and others graduates of the Shinta Mani Foundation programme. The locals may once have made a living through poaching or logging, but Bensley and Wild offer them a way to live with renewed environmental awareness. Extremely professional, the staff in charge of the zip line, for example, ensure safety is paramount from beginning to end.
The guest tents, 14 one-bedroom and one two-bedroom, are elevated on stilts to minimise any disturbance of the land and its inhabitants, and the interior design, both inside and alfresco, is definitively, delightfully, flamboyantly Bensley.
Guests are greeted by the large partially covered decking—the living area—with its huge animal print sofa, dining table and alfresco slipper bathtub. The mini-bar is the maxi-est you’ll have ever seen, with an actual chest freezer covered in cowhide. Inside there’s Stoli vodka and homemade ice cream as well as soft drinks, and beside it is a dark wood wet bar of incredibly generous proportions with all the accoutrements for making your own concoctions come cocktail hour.
Inside, the eccentricity continues under ceiling fans, with charming curios around the bed, which is high-set for better views over the river when the window is un-zipped, when you can also lounge on the hammock. The expansive wash area of two brass sinks stretch between a shower on one side, toilet the other, both charmingly decorated. You feel like an aristocratic explorer chartering new lands in a fantasy of old-fashioned luxury and total comfort.
Everything is all-inclusive at the resort, and the treats begin the moment you step into Headquarters. First thing in the morning it could be simply a cup of tea or coffee before a swim, yoga session beside the river, hikes or a fishing lesson from the GM, depending on the river level.
The food here, under the supervision of executive chef Patricia Yeo, is top-notch. Menus throughout the day are written on a chalkboard, and all the dishes are seasonal, and beautifully presented. You can also make any dietary requests pre-stay, and ensure the offerings are as healthy or allergy-friendly as you need them to be. Many of the ingredients have been picked or foraged from within the forest, bursting with freshness and flavour.
Breakfast, for example, presents a wooden board of pastries and perhaps a hot dish like poached eggs on local spice cooked larb and toast, or a healthy bowl of fruits and yoghurt. Lunches could combine cool soups with crunchy salads or stir-fries with local ingredients, or a plate of western comfort food. Spontaneous picnics around the forest and beside the river often take the place of more formal meals.
In the evenings, as if around a watering hole, guests gather at the Landing Zone Bar and the camp comes alive. The atmosphere is convivial, stories of the day being swapped over seriously delicious cocktails with local spices and herbs in homemade infusions. (Off-site drinks happen in surprise locations too, but no spoilers here).
When it comes to the food, one night you might find a BBQ being set up outside the Landing Zone Bar eaten to the sound of the waterfall, or perhaps a delicious smorgasbord of local mud crab, or a Cambodian-style curry with all the trimmings. And the party can continue, as you contentedly digest, there or in your private living room under the stars…
Wellness comes from countless corners at Wild, all in an easy, free-spirited manner included in your stay for you to pick and choose as you see fit. Jumping into the river for a spot of wild swimming and climbing onto a rock to stand under a waterfall, for example. Learning tenkara fishing, losing yourself in the meditative back and forth of casting and letting the mind float, knowing that any fish caught are gently thrown back. Try yoga and meditation within the forest or on a boulder above the river, or simply daydreaming at the riverside or poolside during a river-stone foot massage.
Spa treatments are also all-inclusive here. The morning chat with my butler Mac ensured that there was time for a treatment at some point during every day’s itineraries. On your decking, in the forest, on Bill’s expedition boat on the river… massages can be requested wherever and whenever.
07:00 Meditation on tent decking above the river
07:30 Forest yoga
10:00 Forest hike with adventure butler and ranger
12:00 Lunch at Headquarters
14:00 Mountain biking past villages with adventure butler
15:30 Spa treatment
17:00 Drive to expedition boat for a river cruise and sunset drinks
19:00 Landing Zone Bar drinks and BBQ dinner
My first foray to the Khmer Tonics Spa was post-dinner on my first evening. In the dark I was led by a ranger through the forest on foot, and it felt like I was on a mini-expedition. Before long, lights appeared in front of us heralding the spa reception pavilion. Surrounded by the magical sounds of the forest, I was led to one of two wooden spa cabins, a soaring-roofed, beautifully cooled space with alfresco shower bathroom.
The spa’s tonics bring the rainforest’s healing ingredients into play, with blends of medicinal plants foraged and chemical-free. The traditional Khmer massage of acupressure and stretching is the local therapy, not dissimilar to a Thai massage. Body scrubs pre-massage and warmed poultices to ease tension feature in other treatments – you pick and choose what you feel you need most each visit.
Staying at Wild is a modern-day, high-end, luxurious immersion in a rainforest that urgently needs our support. Bensley’s high-yield, low-impact camp is a new kind of safari where saving the land from man is the order of every day. Here the ‘big five’ are wild boar, civet cats, porcupine, macaque and the adorable, nocturnal, slow loris. Guests experience being at the coalface of conservation when accompanying Kalashnikov-carrying WA rangers on their motorbikes on raids, and it’s exciting to see them in action. However, as the rangers say, not finding snares, camps or poachers, is the best result possible.
At Wild, all resources must of course be brought in from the outside, and understanding this makes it natural to want to take care of them, despite the generosity of everything throughout your stay; you don’t want to waste a thing, a crumb, a drop. And this feeling lasts long after your stay. But further, seeing the real, visible endangerment of land, flora and fauna, and witnessing how caring instead of exploiting can regenerate nature, is an invaluable experience. You can see gears changing in guests as they vow to take more care of this wonderful planet in the future, wherever they may be in the world.
Wild teaches you what can be done with passion, purpose and persistence. I would encourage whoever can afford to, to invest in this fantastic experience, and bring your children too. Return yearly and you’ll see how far the rainforest has developed since your last stay, and reacquaint yourself with the Wild family.
You’ll have endless amounts of fun exploring at Wild. You’ll fall in love with the place and the people and their purpose. You’ll also be part of a learning experience that leaves you with the incredible feeling of wellbeing that comes from being part of something that is bigger than yourself, that puts things into sharp perspective, and gives you the opportunity to be a better person once you leave.
There are so many things to love… Arriving by zip wire was a real highlight: flying over the forest, with views down to the river and the camp, straight into the Landing Zone Bar is a spectacular entrance.
The focus on learning about and looking after the land, flora and fauna on the hoof, while exploring the rainforest with the rangers makes the experience, and pulls together all the threads of this resort.
Unique cultural activities, like learning tenkara casting with Sangjay the GM. He was endlessly patient as he talked me through choosing the right fly, the right spot on the river and casting rhythm. The adventure butlers, too, were full of knowledge. Mac, my butler, was an expert at organising my days, spotting and naming the hundreds of kinds of butterflies, a worthy contender of our mountain biking challenge, and to top it all, beautifully packed my case.
Of course, the Bill Bensley design makes the entire resort really pop. The military-chic style of Wild includes Swiss Army Penknife key fobs, the WW2 army jeep roaring around the forest and the camouflage-style uniforms.
Each tent has its own merits. The best tent for total seclusion is Tent 14; while for direct access to the river for dawn meditations and saluting the sun, Tents 1 and 8 are best. The tents are themed, with a Jackie O tent, a Wildlife Alliance tent as well as those dedicated to surrounding fauna, like the elephant, terrapin or gibbon tents.
Don’t miss foraging in the rainforest, learning about what from the plants, fruits and fungi are edible and medicinal, and then seeing the results on your plate or in the spa. The minimum stay is three days, but to really appreciate the forest and all the activities available, six days is recommended.
For super-speedy connections helicopter transfers from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Sihanoukville, can be organised straight into the property.