Long Live the King of Whimsy

I was privileged and fortunate enough to be invited over for dinner at the wild and wacky imaginarium “Baan Botanica”, which is the legendary private residential abode of famed and renowned landscape architect Bill Bensley. Over a sumptuous multi-course dinner at the grand dining hall of the lush and luscious estate, I quizzed the hospitality industry’s leading pioneer in sustainable hotel architecture and Harvard school of design graduate about his latest art exhibition, various humanitarian projects, environmental sustainability, and The White Lotus.

Baan Botanica

Luke (L): Baan Botanica is simply gorgeous and stunning! I feel like I am in a surreal fairytale tropical garden oasis. It looks like something that you might perhaps get a glimpse of in Ubud rather than something tucked away in metropolitan Bangkok. How long did it take you and your team to conceptualise, source, and put everything together?

Bill (B): Baan Botanica is still not finished. It is an ever-evolving process that has taken over 35 years, and not a week goes by that something does not change around here. There are 17 different gardens in this one-acre complex, and I use this place as a form of experimentation. For example, there are probably twelve layers of paint on these walls so that we can test out the colour combinations, shapes, fixtures, textures, etc. It is something that we try out here and live with first before translating it into our creative projects.

Four Seasons Hualalai

L: In the span of your illustrious career, you have designed more than 200 hotels and even some castles across over 50 countries. I have personally visited and stayed at several of the resorts that you built. Right away, one can instantly tell your signature quirky style and design sensibilities. Your distinctive hotel designs and interiors are all so different from the usual typical run-of-the-mill cookie cutter type of resorts. Tell us what are some of the major highlights of your career, as well as your most memorable projects to date and why.

Four Seasons Langkawi

B: That is a hard question. Several comes to mind; if you have the time. Careerwise, my first big break in life was the Four Seasons Hualalai project located at the Big Island of Hawaii. The other competing landscape architecture firm was actually my Harvard professor, but my team won the bid. The Four Seasons Langkawi would be the other property that comes to mind as a defining career moment. When I did the blueprints for the interior decorations of that beautiful beachfront property, the Malaysian owners instantly loved it and went with my proposed ideas. It is all very memorable for me as a defining moment in my career.

Four Season Golden Triangle

Another major highlight is the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, which won the Conde Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice award for number one hotel resort in the world for three consecutive years in a row. That is an incredible feat. I wrote and submitted a 10 page paper inspired by African safari tents and sent it to the owner, and within 14 months it was all being built up. The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle is also a sanctuary for rehabilitated elephants. When the Siam in Bangkok opened, it was another momentous career highlight, as people really liked the refreshing idea of walking into a place that looks like a garden when they are checking in, instead of the usual air-conditioned lobby. That was a big deal.

The Siam

L: You are a true renaissance man and so multidisciplinary. I went to take a look at the two art galleries featuring your paintings; at the Intercontinental Da Nang and over at the MOCA Art Space inside the Four Seasons Bangkok by the Chao Praya River. I imagine that you must be an extremely busy man. Where do you find the time to also paint on top of all that you already do?

Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Praya

B: I wake up at 6am in the morning and I paint till 10am, and then I start work at the office till about 4pm. After which, I start painting again all the way till dinnertime. This is my routine everyday. I started painting even before the pandemic when I first begun learning from my art teacher Kate Spencer about six years ago.

Every single painting from the opening of the “Faroese Chronicle” art show has a specific purpose, and they all sold out within 17 hours. We have made over USD$300,000 for the Shinta Mani charity foundation. As such, we will be building a total of 21 houses and buying a school bus for the poor and underprivileged Cambodian orphaned kids and impoverished families using the proceeds collected from the sale of art works from the exhibition. These destitute kids have very little to eat, and live in pathetic shacks with just a piece of broken plastic above their heads that leaks because of the holes. It is so heart breaking to wtiness. The donors will get a detailed report of how their money benefited the community.

L: Environmental sustainability, conservation and upcycling are topics dear to your heart as is evident in all of your numerous humanitarian projects and philanthropic works. Tell us what is of the utmost environmental concern in your opinion and what actions can we take to improve things?

B: The most immediate environmental concern right now in my lifetime is that the native wildlife and trees of the Cardamon national rainforest, which is the last big rainforest belt that we have in the South East Asia region, is fast disappearing. At the rate that it is going, there might be no rainforest left. Precipitation from the entire Cardamom rainforest belt is the rice bowl for the people and farmers in the regions of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. For without it, a lot of people will starve to death.

My private “Wildlife Alliance” park rangers have been dismantling animal snares that catches anything in their way. The snares can even trap a baby elephant. Just last week, we dismantled our 10,000th snare and last month, we found a dead endangered spotted leopard that was unfortunately caught in one of these snares. We got to her too late. In the past seven years, we have also seized over 9,000 timber chainsaw machines used in the illegal logging and lumbering of those trees. The size of the Cardamon national park is more than 10,000 sqm. Trying to find the culprits, poachers, and who is doing what over there is all very frustrating. I appeal to the readers to help out by being informed and educated, as well as to support these environmental causes as much as they possibly can in whatever way they can.

L: Please share with us about some of your upcoming projects currently under development?

B: I only have limited time left on this Earth, and so the last thing that I want to do is to repeat myself. I like to go in the opposite direction and surprise people. My goal is to not be expectable, and keep others guessing what I might do next. You are actually the first person to hear about my next upcoming hotel project that I am working on which is an exclusive and secluded resort of tented camps facing the Aegean Sea that will be located in Bodrum, in southern Turkey. It will be inspired by the opulence of the Ottoman empire. I am also in the midst of building a new Spanish style home up north over in Chiang Mai with my partner Jirachai.

The Slate Phuket

Not that many people know about this, but in 1984, I was a cast member of a completely sold out theatre production for two weeks over at the National Theatre in Singapore. I was also in the New York production of “West Side Story” which was so much fun! It was so much fun! I felt very alive. At the end of July, I am going to be the narrator of the “Faroese Chronicle” musical theatrical stage production that will be held at The Slate Phuket, which is also a resort that I built. The paintings from the “Faroese Chronicle” art exhibition will be blown up to about the size of this greenhouse that we are in right now. There will be dancing, laughing, comedy, etc.

L: Wow Bill! That is impressive! What is a personal goal that you have yet to achieve?

B: My personal goal is to change the way people think about resorts and sustainable hospitality. I wish to create a revolutionary hotel out of 100% recycled material, but I have not yet found a client willing to do that.

Four Seasons Koh Samui

L: It has been reported that the third season of the wildly popular HBO series The White Lotus is going to be set in Thailand, and will be filmed in either the Four Seasons Koh Samui or the Four Seasons Golden Triangle which are two resorts that you built. What do you think about that?

B: Mark White, the creator of the series was just recently over at Baan Botanica and we discussed some ideas. Mark might just let me play a cameo role in the upcoming season.

Four Seasons Koh Samui

L: What is the secret to your successful 36 years long marriage with your horticulturist husband and life partner Jirachai?

B: I think it is our sense of humour. Being childlike. You will see for yourself when we sit down for dinner later. There is rarely a day that we do not burst into laughter at least 20 times per day. I do not keep our relationship a secret. We have had a very long and wonderful relationship, and it is indeed very possible to be happily married for that long.

L: Thank you Bill for openly sharing with us a slice of what goes on in your fascinating and whimsical world. How can the readers reach out to you and/or donate to the Shinta Mani foundation?

B: Please kindly contact my personal assistant Mink. You may email her at [email protected]. My website address is https://www.bensley.com/

Images: The Four Seasons, The Siam, The Slate and Bensley

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