Re­mote yet rav­ish­ing in ev­ery de­tail, Cam­bo­dia’s Shinta Mani Wild is the rad­i­cal lux­ury re­treat just that bit closer to na­ture.

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents - By Rachel Lees

Get­ting closer to na­ture at Cam­bo­dia’s Shinta Mani Wild.

As I look up at the por­trait of an im­mac­u­late Jackie Kennedy that hangs in the open-air din­ing room of Shinta Mani Wild, I’m sud­denly very con­scious of my di­shev­elled hair, damp skin and dusty hik­ing boots. Cam­bo­dia would have been blaz­ing hot when she vis­ited, and the coun­try’s rust red earth tends to cling to vis­i­tors amid the sul­try air. Yet Kennedy was flaw­less, the em­bod­i­ment of ca­sual el­e­gance in high-waisted chi­nos and a pale blue shirt, as she ful­filled “a lifelong dream of see­ing Angkor Wat”.

But Siem Reap this is not, and my jour­ney hasn’t ex­actly been a gen­tle stroll through an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. Af­ter land­ing in Ph­nom Penh, I got in a taxi to make the three-hour drive to Cam­bo­dia’s Car­damom Moun­tains — the lat­ter part of which was a tur­bu­lent rat­tle over un­sealed, pot­holed roads. Once on re­sort grounds, there was a bumpy ride in a Viet­nam War-era jeep, and a brief walk through the jun­gle, be­fore scal­ing a mul­ti­storey tower to strap on a har­ness and hel­met.

As I stood on the zip line plat­form, high above the tree­tops, the pris­tine view — and last-minute nerves about the im­pend­ing de­scent — was breath­tak­ing. It was im­pos­si­ble to see where the zip line ca­ble ended: it seemed to van­ish into the lush jun­gle canopy. I in­haled deeply and launched off the plat­form. The 380-me­tre-long ride skimmed past branches and over rivers and waterfalls, be­fore de­posit­ing me safely in the bar of ar­guably the most an­tic­i­pated re­sort to open in Asia in re­cent months.

Of course, I could have driven down the drive­way. But that wasn’t the ar­rival in­tended by Bill Bens­ley, the Bangkok-based Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect, de­signer and re­sort owner who cre­ated Shinta Mani Wild. For in­trepid trav­ellers who seek off-the-beaten-path ad­ven­ture, few prop­er­ties in the world are as ex­cit­ing or lux­u­ri­ous as this one. It’s the sort of place you’d ex­pect to find Lara Croft and In­di­ana Jones swap­ping tales over a craft cock­tail — so why does Kennedy’s like­ness take pride of place?

Bens­ley, who has de­signed some 200 ho­tels and re­sorts around the world, has a vivid imag­i­na­tion and a pen­chant for sto­ry­telling. In this case, he drew on Kennedy’s real-life visit to Cam­bo­dia, hosted by King Norodom Si­hanouk — mus­ing, what might it have looked like if the King had taken Kennedy on a jun­gle safari?

The answer is a tented ex­pe­ri­ence be­fit­ting both roy­alty and fash­ion­able first ladies, with wooden floors and nat­u­ral, lo­cal fab­rics ac­cented by a rich pal­ette of gold, saf­fron and slate grey — and about 5000 unique pieces, each per­son­ally ap­proved by Bens­ley, from day beds to au­then­tic Kh­mer ob­jets d’art.

Each of the 15 el­e­vated tents juts out over a 1.5 kilo­me­tre-stretch of river, on a moun­tain range that borders three of Cam­bo­dia’s old­est and most im­por­tant parks: Kirirom, Bokor and Car­damom. It is one of the last great wilder­ness ar­eas in South­east Asia, and among the coun­try’s few re­main­ing habi­tats for wildlife. The stilted wood-and-canvas struc­tures blend seam­lessly into the sur­round­ing jun­gle and al­low the nat­u­ral mi­gra­tory move­ments of its in­hab­i­tants — in­clud­ing wild ele­phants, gib­bons and civets — to con­tinue undis­turbed be­low. The de­signer ad­hered to a min­i­mum in­ter­ven­tion pol­icy when con­struct­ing the re­sort, even build­ing tents around ex­ist­ing trees. Views of waterfalls, lush green­ery and moun­tains en­ve­lope each tent’s ex­pan­sive deck, on which stands a deca­dent, ham­mered-metal free­stand­ing outdoor bath­tub. It’s the ideal place to soak af­ter a day spent in the wilder­ness.

To help you nav­i­gate this nat­u­ral play­ground and the re­sort’s ros­ter of ad­ven­tur­ous pur­suits, guests are as­signed a per­sonal but­ler, who ac­com­pa­nies you on all ac­tiv­i­ties — 26-year-old Boren proves a great sport, and seems to an­tic­i­pate needs be­fore I have them. Whether it’s mak­ing sure there’s a fresh co­conut wait­ing for me at the end of the zip line or leap­ing into a wa­ter­fall be­fore I do to prove there’s no dan­ger.

I try tenkara, a med­i­ta­tive Ja­panese form of catch-and-re­lease fly fish­ing — and while the fish weren’t bit­ing, my two hours flew by un­der the pa­tient and en­cour­ag­ing tute­lage of Bens­ley’s per­sonal fly-fish­ing guide, Tulga Tu­men­jar­gal. (Tu­men­jar­gal teaches guests in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary; the re­sort’s gen­eral man­ager, Sang­jay Cho­e­gyal, takes over for the rest of the year.) An­other high­light was a morn­ing spent moun­tain bik­ing, then kayak­ing a stretch of

“It’s the sort of place you’d ex­pect to find Lara Croft and In­di­ana Jones swap­ping tales over a craft cock­tail.”

the Tmor Rung river. King­fish­ers and herons darted ahead of our ca­noe, lead­ing the way through pris­tine jun­gle.

Those keen to gain in­sight into the im­por­tant work the Shinta Mani Foun­da­tion is do­ing to help con­serve and pro­tect the lo­cal area can join Wildlife Al­liance rangers on mo­tor­bike for an­tipoach­ing pa­trols and help track pre­vi­ously un­recorded wildlife ac­tiv­ity. Al­ter­na­tively, nat­u­ral­ists lead guests through the for­est in search of butterflie­s, birds and plants — one of the res­i­dent botanists re­cently dis­cov­ered a new species of orchid — or for­ag­ing for wild fungi and moringa, used in the dishes served by the restau­rant.

Malaysia-born Pa­tri­cia Yeo, cor­po­rate chef of the Shinta Mani ho­tel group, per­forms small culi­nary mir­a­cles at the re­mote re­sort, far from the fresh food mar­kets of Ph­nom Penh. With her team of Kh­mer chefs, Yeo turns out exquisite plates such as duck with mashed potato and jus, and prawn and mango salad. But don’t be fooled by the sim­plic­ity of the dishes or their in­gre­di­ents, of which only the best pass Yeo’s high stan­dards — they are Miche­lin qual­ity. In the case of my salad, prawns were poached to perfection then cubed along with mango, cu­cum­ber and cap­sicum, doused in a pi­quant pas­sion­fruit sauce and art­fully ar­ranged in a cylin­dri­cal stack on the plate. If it’s a burger you crave, Yeo will send out what may be the best you’ve ever tasted — so mor­eish were they that two fel­low re­sort­go­ers or­dered a sec­ond round, be­fore laps­ing into what can only be de­scribed as a food coma for the re­main­der of the af­ter­noon.

On my last day at the re­sort, I tell Yeo I’d like to pack her in my suit­case and take her home. Alas, she de­clines. Be­fore head­ing back to the air­port, I de­cide to spend my last hour do­ing some­thing to recharge. I could take a dip in the gi­ant steel-clad saltwater pool. Or head to the spa ringed by boul­ders, where a skilled masseuse kneads knots into obliv­ion us­ing chem­i­cal-free, herb-based ton­ics. Or take one last soak in that heav­enly tub on my deck. And I can’t help but won­der: what would Jackie have done?

Op­po­site page: a guest tent at Shinta Mani Wild, Cam­bo­dia. This page, from top: Bill Bens­ley’s col­lec­tion of Kh­mer ob­jets d’art are on dis­play through­out the re­sort; day beds at the Wa­ter­fall Restau­rant; bath­room fur­nish­ings.

From top: jun­gle views from the re­sort; plush bed­ding in a guest tent; the Land­ing Zone Bar; bath­room de­tails.

From top: tents are de­signed to evoke the feel of a lux­ury safari; an outdoor bath over­look­ing the river; a sun-drenched tent in­te­rior; the Land­ing Zone Bar sur­rounded by waterfalls.

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