“If you have problems locking the door, you can leave the key with me and we will do it for you,” my butler said, as he handed me a tarnished gold key that looked like it belonged in a Victorian door lock. Guests often struggle with trying to lock the door that leads to the luxuriously designed Shinta Mani Angkor-Bensley Collection villas, he explained.
When he said that, two things crossed my mind: One, I now held the key to my home away from home; and two, I had a butler at my disposal. I’m no Lara Croft or Bruce Wayne, but I could tell that Peter, my butler, was set to make my first visit to Cambodia fuss free and extremely comfortable. I received VIP treatment as soon as I emerged from Siem Reap International Airport. When I walked out, my transport to the hotel was ready and waiting along with water bottles to quench my thirst after the flight. Cold, wet towels were on hand to refresh me – definitely much needed in the Cambodian afternoon heat. Five minutes into the journey to Shinta Mani, Peter said four words that perked up my millennial ears: “Would you like wifi?” he asked, holding out a pocket wifi in his hand – it was a gadget any digital nomad would appreciate!
“Two things crossed my mind – one: I now held the key to my home away from home; and two: I have a butler at my disposal.”
Before leaving for Siem Reap, I’d armed myself with a wealth of information about Shinta Mani Hotels. What drew me in about the villas apart from the luxury, was the aspect of giving back to the impoverished Cambodian families. The Shinta Mani Foundation (SMF) was founded by entrepreneur Sokoun Chanpreda on the basis of seeking to enhance the lives of the Cambodians in poverty. A percentage of the nightly rates paid by guests at the Bensley Collection goes directly into SMF. The profits provide free hospitality education to impoverished rural Cambodian locals, equipping them with skills to be used in the real world. Seeing the classrooms on Shinta Mani grounds for the School of Hospitality was eye opening and further reinforced the fact that the Shinta Mani management is willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Three times a year, voluntary dentists from Global Dental Relief fly in from the United States to provide free oral hygiene to over 2000 Cambodian children. In terms of direct assistance, SMF provides small business loans to local entrepreneurs with zero interest; and community service: where volunteers’ time and effort are highly valued.
The Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley Collection is an extension of Shinta Mani Hotels which comprises of ten wholesome 156 square meter luxury villas. Created by iconic interior designer Bill Bensley, the villas don’t just look luxurious they’re designed for comfort and practicality, exactly the way Bensley himself would like to live.
Yet, seeing the Bensley villas in photos did not beat experiencing them in person. The first detail that caught my eye was the black and white tiles lining the front lounge of my villa. Winking in the sun a bright sapphire blue was the private pool each villa is equipped with. I climbed up the steps to the top deck where guests could lounge, enjoy in-villa dining, or evening drinks while surrounded by lush hanging greens and cooling humidifiers.
In the bedroom, the king-sized bed took pride of place. Propped on the bed were six heavenly, fluffy, huggable pillows sitting on tailor-made Khmer inspired sheets. The bedroom faced the lounge with sliding glass doors which opened up to the aforementioned pool. It took all of my resolve to hold back the urge to immediately dive headfirst into the pool’s welcoming blue depths.
When I thought that was all it would take to amaze me, the bathroom proved me wrong. It was surrounded by a small back garden that leads to an outdoor rain shower and an extremely #instaworthy granite rock bath. The whole space left me feeling naked yet without the fear of voyeurism.
It is also family friendly as automatically controlled blinds and strategically placed curtains shield each section of the villa for privacy, and high walls separated private from public. Choose to fill your belly at one of Shinta Mani’s restaurants: Kroya, as close to an authentic Khmer culinary experience as you can get without leaving the premises; The Elephant Polo Club, international cuisine in a relaxed environment with an extensive alcohol list to fulfill any wine aficionado’s heart; or Benley’s Bar, an airy spot to unwind and relax after a full day of sightseeing at Angkor Wat.
When it comes to experiencing Siem Reap, the ever attentive Bensley Butlers have it down to a T – whether you need a tuk-tuk arranged or a local to guide you through your explorations. If you’re a first timer in the area, a day trip to the ruins of Angkor is a must, but be sure to plan your day well before the blistering Cambodian sun hits at noon.
I chose to save the temples for a future trip to Siem Reap and opted for Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Banish all thoughts of whip-cracking ring leaders and performing animals from your mind, because that is not the kind of circus Phare is. Phare, the Cambodian Circus was opened in 2013, but the NGO school Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) was established since 1994. PPSA served as a training center for the less fortunate rural Cambodians at no cost. The social enterprise prides itself on its unique take of art – combining theatre, dance, live music, and storytelling – all scripts written from a Cambodian’s personal perspective on history, folklore, societal standards, and real life experiences. With tickets priced at $18 – $38 (RM72 – RM150), almost three quarters of the ticket sales goes back into funding PPSA.
I had the fortune of nabbing front row seats after chatting with Craig Dodge, the Director of Sales and Marketing for Phare. The circus performs different plays nightly under a big top capable of fitting an audience of up to 330. Eclipse, the show I watched, details the story of a young man born with a disfigurement, cruelly shunned by society as an outcast. These performing artists take their performance internationally, Craig told me, traversing the United States from California, Florida, Washington DC, to Berlin and Norway in Europe. “Some of them come from remote villages on the outskirts of the city, and they have never seen the sea,” Craig said, detailing the experience of one Christmas, when the Phare artists were invited to perform on a Cambodian island. “So imagine their excitement – they didn’t sleep after performing either!” As I swept my gaze over the crowd, I realised what captivated them weren’t just the cheekily daring fire-breathers or extremely flexible gymnasts who could scale 15 feet poles in a heartbeat. Instead, the audience was captivated by the story behind the show and the artistes who had managed to transform their lives into something entirely unimaginable, thanks to Phare.
“I realised what captivated them aren’t just the cheekily daring fire-breathers or extremely flexible gymnasts who scale 15 feet poles in a heartbeat.”
Responsible tourism is notably observed in Siem Reap, and I hope it’s here to stay. After the hour-long show, I hopped on the tuk-tuk Peter mentioned would be waiting for us outside the showgrounds; famished and eager to return to the comfort of Bensley Villa No. 3. If you feel like being spoiled, I highly recommend taking advantage of the in-villa dining option. Think room service sans the smell of food lingering in the bedroom, thanks to the option of dining outdoors by the pool or on the top deck. One thing is certain with the Bensley Collection – the quality of attention paid to the smallest detail is exquisite. From the portable Bluetooth Bose Speakers to the way his-and-hers bedroom slippers (distinguishable by subtle size) are aligned at a perfect 45 degree angle at the foot of the bed courtesy of the magical elves we call housekeeping, I appreciated every nuanced decision that only confirmed its thoughtfulness.
“Where possible, there is a space for natural light; where practical, a touch of green is allowed to flourish; and where the bare walls of hotels are adorned with abstract paintings, Bensley puts the art in art-deco.”
Bensley holds Mother Nature close to his heart, as he believes she is the only one capable of creating paradise on earth, and this is immediately imminent in his design for Shinta Mani. Where possible, there is a space for natural light; the floor-to-ceiling glass walls prove that. Where practical, a touch of green is allowed to flourish; rather than overwhelming the space with grandiose statues. Where the bare walls of hotels are adorned with abstract paintings or patterned wallpaper, Bensley puts the art in art-deco. In the living space, a 3D wall, if you can imagine it, is carved to symbolise rippling folds of the late Khmer King Jayavarman VII’s robe. It’s designed to make you feel like you’re living in a Khmer Kingdom of your own.
In this decade, Insta-worthy lavish villas and personal butlers are dime a dozen, but what’s different about Shinta Mani is the hard concrete evidence they present – the Bensley experience you pay for proves its unwavering commitment by going back into helping the local community. If you had to choose any once-in-a-lifetime luxurious experience, make Bensley your well-spent choice.
Photos: LuxuryHunt.com, Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley, Scott Sharick, Daphne Ng
This article originally appeared in Marie Claire July 2018. Log on to www.shintamani.com to find out how you can experience the Shinta Mani Bensley Collection villas. Visit www.shintamanifoundation.org to learn more about being a leader in responsible tourism.