Wow Wow Wild
Our Shinta Mani Wild driver arrived early in a SUV decked out in camouflage print amenities. He picked us up from the Rosewood hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, and drove us two full hours on a mostly straight and empty expressway. Upon arrival at the gated gantry of the Shinta Mani Wild, we hastily completed registration formalities in a comfortable African safari style shack. Our butler briefly introduces himself before chauffeuring us in an old army jeep, traversing across muddy dirt paths to get deeper into the wild.
On the way, the loud engine of the vehicle scattered a large kaleidoscope of black and orange coloured danaus genutias, aka common tiger butterflies. One could almost hear the faint delicate flutter of their gossamer wings that closely resembles those of their North American monarch cousins.
We were ushered to the very top of a 7-storey-high steel zipline tower where we could relish and soak in the breathtaking panoramic views of the densely forested estuary. This 400-metre long zipline is indubitably the longest available zipline in all of Cambodia. The enthusiastic staff briefed us on routine protocols and got us decked up in safety helmets and harnesses. They also let slip the information that guests may request to repeat the ziplining as many times as they desire during their stay in order to capture the perfect GoPro video, or Instagram-worthy snapshot.
I identify with Indiana Jones whenever I experience hair-raising, adrenaline pumping, and heart thumping exhilaration – especially so during the split second moment where my legs were hanging less than a metre away from some of the treetops. Time stood still while I was racing through, but oddly enough, the escapade was also paradoxically over too soon.
After completing the procedure, we were led across a series of bouncy suspension bridges, and lo and behold, staring right back at us was yet another zipline. I looked at the staff and my partner with incredulous bewilderment. “What?! There is another zipline?” I enthused with elation and eager anticipation.
The second and shorter zipline blazed through sensationally scenic waterfalls and swift river rapids. The end of the line plonked our cute lil’ asses right smack into the landing zone bar where the F&B manager Tenzin Thinley, who is curiously of Bhutanese descent, awaited to serve us with a refreshing pineapple and cinnamon spiced rum cocktail. We were also greeted by a pair of healthy and regal-looking Cambodian razorback hounds, owned by the hotel manager and his wife, that rushed up to sniff and check us out.
Hanging above vintage leather couches is a distinctive signboard in the form of an old weathered leather bag with intricate Tibetan Sanskrit text painted on that caught my attention, and so I quizzed the Bhutanese manager who translated it plainly and succinctly, “If you are not already happy inside, then nothing outside can make you happy.” I pondered the notion deeper and derived an epiphany that physical material objects, as well as all things external can also be lost, stolen, damaged, and outgrown, and hence are unable to provide or accord any real form of sustained happiness by themselves. What a profoundly apt reminder to start our stay here on the wild side on a sublime note.
The whimsically quirky Shinta Mani Wild is essentially an eco-tourism luxe destination that is reminiscent of the tales from Pulitzer and Noble prize-winning author Ernest Hemmingway’s fabled wilderness adventures, that is additionally being juxtaposed with a retro cabaret vibe and carnival-like atmosphere. Amusement park carousel horses and wooden phalluses hang provocatively from the ceilings, teasing onlookers with tongue-in-cheek humour. An eccentric plethora of wacky cowhide sofas, antique suitcases, old books, rusted mannequins, ethnic Cambodian woodworks, and other curious artefacts adorn every nook and cranny of the headquarters, restaurant, and the landing bar resting areas. A signed circular wooden plaque proclaimed that English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran came by to stay and left his indelible mark here for all to see.
Veni, Vedi, Vici.
The Shinta Mani Wild is a partnership between acclaimed landscape architect Bill Bensley and Cambodian business entrepreneur Sokoun Chanpreda. The dynamic duo bought the sprawling 800 acre piece of land at a timber auction in order to save it from illegal logging and deforestation. Logistical details and operational elements of the resort are being planned out and managed by highly sought after hospitality advisor and consultant Jason Friedman, whose years of industry experience helped to shape and bring alive architect Bill Bensley’s fantasy vision of what it might have been like to join former American first lady Jacky Kennedy Onassis on her jungle safari travels throughout the Kingdom alongside Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk back in 1967.
The entire resort compounds were built without harming, sacrificing, or cutting down even a single tree. This is evident by the numerous trees sprouting out of the deliberately planned holes that were carefully cut into the recycled wooden planks during construction. The resort’s 15 luxury safari tents are spread out far apart from each other along a 1.5km stretch of the Tmong Rung river in order to accord optimum isolation and maximum seclusion.
All guest accommodation tents are raised way above the ground, so as to continue to allow the natural migratory movements of the forest critter inhabitants, as well as to provide sweeping views of both the surrounding forestry and the raging river beneath.
Our extravagant and lavishly decorated butterfly-themed tent was a cornucopia of magical wonders just waiting to be discovered, and is situated at a strategic converging confluence of two rivers tributaries. We were able to decipher the chorus of birds, cicadas, crickets, and geckos amidst the thunderous roar of the mighty river gushing beneath us. When we got tired of the ambient nature sounds, we connected and plugged our own electrifying playlist into the provided portable Bose Bluetooth speaker that had a strongly discernable reverberating bass. The tangibly thumping groove sipped into our bones and felt like aural sex.
The Shinta Mani Wild offers a gamut of fun-filled adventures and educational activities such as bird spotting, mountain biking, jungle trekking, Tenkara fishing, butterfly identification, cooking classes, and pontoon boat river expeditions. Those not into physical stuff, can choose to relax by the gargantuan cistern pool, or choose from a wide array of restorative and therapeutic spa treatment therapies.
The staff members at the Shinta Mani Wild operate as a cohesive family unit. The resort is well maintained and helmed by personable and respectable general manager David Steyn, and his lovely wife Solveig Gevers who gleefully leads guests in morning sunrise yoga sessions and meditative Chi Gong classes. The couple’s harmonious synergy and espirit de corps is tangible, palpable, and admirable. The high staff to guest ratio also ensures that visitors are thoroughly pampered and are well taken care of.
Cardamom National Park is home to over 50 highly endangered and 5 critically endangered species including the exotic Sunda pangolins, adorable wide eyed slow lorises, ferocious sun bears, majestic Asian elephants, and saber toothed clouded leopards. Unfortunately, illegal poaching and timber logging is threatening the natural habitats of these animal species.
The Shinta Mani Wild, via the auspice of its foundation, monetarily supports and works very closely with the local Wildlife Alliance to patrol and protect the wilderness, as well as to uphold grassroots environmental conservation efforts. Resort guests get the golden opportunity to tag along and join the Wildlife Alliance forest rangers and anti-poaching teams in their daily scouting operations. It was a harrowing eye opening experience to see the heaps and piles of confiscated snares, traps, chainsaws, firearms, etc that are safely padlocked up in a storeroom and awaiting destruction. Some of the snares are prominently displayed at the depot portion of the headquarters. Right beside is a board showcasing the current updated statistics of animal rescues and the quantity of confiscated items to date.
One of the biggest surprise is how delightfully savoury and wonderful the food offerings were considering the remote location of the resort. As a perk and benefit of being immersed in the biodiversity of a rainforest, we got the chance to sample exotic fruits, leaves, and even insects that are indigenous and endemic within a 2-kilometre radius of the resort.
Executive head chef Bernard Hartzenberg and a team of experienced rangers took us foraging for edible herbs, flowers and plants around the vicinity of the resort. An unusual culinary delicacy that the chef prepared for us was the stir-fried red fire ants with chilli with a texture and taste that resembles spicy pork floss. After a delectable chef’s table dinner, talented young mixologist and bartender Song Po taught us how to concoct six different cocktails and mocktails using a myriad of spirits, bartending tools, ingredients, and garnishes. We were flabbergasted by how utterly creative, artistic, and entertaining crafting cocktails can be. My inner child squealed with delight when the smoke bubble placed on top of a Daiquiri dissipated into a white wispy mist when popped.
Our perpetually smiling personal butler Tom Von constantly amused us with his antics, and frequently made us chuckle with his jolly banter and easy-going disposition. While petite-sized wellness guide Pan Ting Ting serenaded and lulled us into a peacefully serene slumber with her prized collection of precious crystal singing bowls, wind gongs and angelic chimes. The high vibrational frequencies of the sound healing tools could be felt rippling through my entire being. I sensed my consciousness detach from the body, drift far away into oblivion, before blissing out in Elysium.
Before we knew it, the days rapidly flew by and alas, much to our dismay, it was time to depart. The entire Shinta Mani Wild family lined up to shower us with keepsake mementos and to bid us a fond farewell. Parting is such bitter sweet sorrow.
Anchored in Angkor
In a matter of hours, we had shifted ourselves from depths of the misty Cardamom rainforests over to the doorsteps of the enigmatic temples of ancient Angkor. Upon landing at Siem Reap International airport, we were promptly whisked away in style and comfort by our personal Bensley butler. The enjoyable and scenic car ride to the stately looking Shinta Mani Angkor took under 20 minutes. Located in the quaint and charming French Quarter district of Siem Reap, this gem of a hotel is but a mere 10-minute walk away from the central town area and famous bar street. The well-situated hotel is also just a short 15 minutes drive from the official Angkor archaeological park tourist ticket office, which every visitor would have to pass through at some point during their stay in order to enter the surrounding temples.
Effervescent and gregarious general manager Ewan Taylor was on site to meet, greet, and bid us a warm welcome alongside his team of bubbly and genuinely amiable hospitality staff who promptly offered us refreshments and eagerly showed us around in order to acquaint us with the amenities of the hotel. Enclosed and shrouded by towering walls, each exclusive Bensley collection pool villa is a romantic haven and luxurious garden sanctuary that is steeped in maximum privacy and specifically created to stoke the flames of passion. High ceiling bedrooms with full-length glass sliding doors open up into a lengthy 30ft long pool with a cascading Shiva Lingam water feature at the very end.
The entire villa is surrounded by lush courtyard gardens adorned with pretty plumeria, shady monsteras and elegant palm leaves. On the second floor lies a sunset rooftop terrace that is perfect for evening cocktail soirées, or even an al fresco styled slumber under the stars. The elaborate vanity and rain shower area opens up to a clever mirrored courtyard consisting of dense green foliage, and with a decadent freestanding black marble bathtub as the centrepiece.
We were stunned and flabbergasted by the intricate floating mandala made from radiating fresh pink lotus petals to symbolise the thousand-petal crown chakra that represents the holy grail of spiritual enlightenment, and moksha liberation from illusionary cyclical samsara. I admired the painstaking handcrafted artistry of the lavish lotus decorations depicting such lofty ideals, which made it utterly too sublime to even consider utilising, disrupting, or spoiling.
The entire provincial township of Siem Reap primarily exists to cater to the mass tourism that converges from all corners of the globe to gawk and marvel at the vast temple complexes of ancient Angkor, which were purpose built by the once mighty and prosperous Khmer empire that somehow brilliantly managed to invent a sophisticated hydraulic city systems of canals, reservoirs, and waterways in order to irrigate the surrounding agricultural lands. Spanning some 400 acres of mostly flat terrain tropical rain forests, and comprising over a thousand building complexes, this UNESCO world heritage site is prized for its enormous cultural, religious, artistic, historical, and archaeological significance.
After Angkor was being abandoned by the sudden decline and curious demise of the Khmers, nature reclaimed back the entire city, and then Theravada Buddhist monks took over custodianship of the temples prior to the French rediscovering it. Angkor Wat itself also happens to be the largest religious structure and compound in the world, and as such attracts throngs of religious and spiritual pilgrims that visit annually to soak up and revel in the vortex of sacred energies. So crucial is Angkor Wat to Cambodia’s economy that it prominently features as a poster child on the country’s national flag.
Since we had already visited the multitude of Angkor temples before during our previous trips, we decided just to do a cursory half day sightseeing sojourn to the top three most monumental and aesthetically pleasing temples; namely the gargantuan Angkor Wat, the banyan tree engulfed Ta Prohm, and my personal favourite: the mesmerisingly striking Bayon temple that features 216 peculiar looking Buddha heads that are meant to mimic and represent the iconic bodhisattva of love and compassion, Avalokiteshevara.
The well-preserved bas-reliefs surrounding the walls of Angkor largely pay homage to the Hindu Trimurti deities of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Heroic battle scenes from the Sanskrit epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are carved and etched into the stonewalls throughout many of the temple complexes.
We felt compelled to say a solemn prayer of thanksgiving at the main entrance leading up to Angkor Wat. The Gods must have been listening that day as shortly after reciting the fervent prayer, a magnificent rainbow miraculously appeared and arched gloriously across the pastel hued sunlit skies above Angkor during golden hour, blessing and dazzling all and sundry at the temple grounds with the full spectrum of the seven colours of the chakra system.
As the sun starts to make its descent over the horizon behind the monuments of Angkor, we also decided to take our leave and hurried back to the hotel. A sense of gratitude was felt as we rejoiced in some air conditioned reprieve and respite from the heat rash, sunburn, and insect bites courtesy of an entire afternoon of temple hopping in the sweltering tropical environs. Thankfully, we found a slice of heavenly bliss and revitalisation over at the hotel’s cozy and aromatically scented Khmer Tonics Spa.
Our spirits were being rejuvenated by the whiff and application of premium massage oils that are infused with jasmine, neroli, ylang ylang, patchouli, and geranium. I watched and observed with a tinge of envy as a skilful and experienced masseur fully committed himself to the entire massage process from start to finish, and gave all of his energies into every knead, stroke, and pummel onto my partner’s weary and worn out body. So excellent was the expert spa masseur’s consummate technique that it made my partner unequivocally remark that this was hands down the best massage that he has ever received in his life thus far.
Equally unforgettable is the highly lauded royal Cambodian food available at Kroya, which is conveniently located just below the Khmer Tonics Spa. Under the passionate leadership and watchful eyes of experienced master chef Chanrith, the dedicated culinary team of kitchen staff carefully whipped up dish after dish of the most delectable and flavourful Cambodian gourmet food that we had the good fortune and privilege to get a chance to savour. When the last course was being served, our butler Son even surprised me with a belated birthday cake, a personalised hand drawn greeting card, and an exquisite bouquet handmade from pink lotus buds. I was touched and moved to the point of feeling tears well up in my eyes. What stupendous service!
After such an astounding and elevated gastronomical affair at Kroya, we instantly signed ourselves up for a local market tour and personalized private cooking class spearheaded by chef Chanrith himself who patiently taught us to replicate and recreate his time honoured interpretations of Khmer classic dishes such as beef lok lak, fish, amok, and more by improving upon the generational recipes of Cambodian cuisine that were being passed down from his ancestral forefathers. My mouth salivates as I reminisce about the piquant flavours of those highly appetising Khmer dishes.
A little known fact to most outsiders and even hotel guests is that 100% of the profits garnered from room revenues, as well as the newly opened retail shop and art gallery goes directly straight to the Shinta Mani Foundation that supports up to 35 underprivileged Cambodian children annually. The motto of the exceptionally altruistic foundation is “Open Doors, Open Hearts”, which clearly reflects, expresses, and demonstrates the hotel and foundation’s main objective and mission to aid and assist Cambodia’s society, and the local community to thrive by providing opportunities to overcome and combat poverty.
Since its inception, the academic arm of the Shinta Mani Foundation has schooled, trained, and supported over 300 students that are individually selected and handpicked through a rigorous and stringent interview process in order to ascertain authentic eligibility. Till this day, many of the graduates still work for the Shinta Mani hotels, or hold senior positions at other hotels around Siem Reap, Cambodia, or even abroad. The foundation has also generously helped to built more than 1,500 wells, and 100 homes in rural Cambodian communities, as well as provided over 10,000 dental check-ups to the villagers.
Additionally, the foundation continues to support small local business owners by loaning them interest-free start up capital in order for them to set up their own grocery provision stores, or other small-scale mom and pop type of businesses. To make a generous heart felt donation to the worthy charitable causes of the Shinta Mani Foundation and their many beneficiaries, you may do so at the link below:
Images: Luke Elijah