It took a mere one hour flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap International airport, or what felt like 7 songs on our ‘Get Psyched’ playlist. A mere hour, 15 minutes in a hotel pickup limousine, a fragrant cold towelette and an iced flute of rosé — before we entered beneath the white stone squared arches of an oasis that would have us leaving two nights later and twenty daydreams more inspired.
The debut flagship property of the incredible Bill Bensley (who, amongst other properties, also designed Bangkok’s The Siam and Chiang Rai’s Four Seasons Tented Camp), the Shinta Mani Angkor-Bensley Collection opened last December after much anticipation and to high praise.
For one weekend, we were wholly immersed in a whirlwind of the most wonderful kind, indulging in the signature Bensley Experience, a package available only to guests of the Bensley Collection. It includes, amongst other perks, fast-track airport services and pick up by a personal Bensley Butler; a welcoming beginning to the elegant world-class hospitality we would experience in the heart of Cambodia’s renowned temple town of Angkor.
The Shinta Mani Angkor-Bensley Collection sits (lies, rests, blooms) in what feels like Shinta Mani’s very own leafy street. The hotel is part of the Shinta Mani group, currently consisting of Shinta Mani Shack, Shinta Mani Angkor, and the Shinta Mani Angkor-Bensley Collection. Each of the properties are in close proximity to one another, bearing a warm sense of community despite their individual identities and styles. Of the three, the Bensley Collection is the most exclusive, made up of ten ultra-luxe private pool villas.
Located within the cultural heart of the royal historic town of Siem Reap, the Old Market and the riverfront are both a short evening walk from the properties. The Royal Residence is also nearby, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the amazing temples of Angkor Wat just a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away. Like a hidden luxe lodge after a long day of exploring, the Bensley Collection already checks mental boxes for those looking to relax between sites, as well as those looking to unwind in a secret retreat a hassle-free 15 minutes from the airport.
On arriving at the Bensley Collection, we sat inside a small yet artfully decorated lobby for a very personal check-in experience. Together with our Bensley Butler, Phillip, we discussed a customised itinerary for the coming days, tailored specifically to our interests and needs (lactose intolerance, and a love for art history). We were then taken to our villa, strolling past dramatically high black wooden doors, each marked with a single room number. At a golden Number 3, next to a tinkling fountain, we entered.
Each of the villas at the Bensley Collection offer 156sqm of living and lounging space, spread over two floors. The welcoming view is of a black-and-white-tiled outdoor seating area and 9-metre personal lap pool, which leads to a floor-to-ceiling window into the bedroom area. An outdoor staircase takes you upstairs to a roof terrace, though rooftop living room – or blissful nap spot/dreamy stargazing station – is a far more apt description. There’s also a snazzy outdoor pantry, complete with complimentary Khmer snacks, an Italian coffee machine, and for Bensley Experience guests, free flow wine and beer.
The indoors are divided into two almost entirely glass-walled pavilions, separated by a tropical garden. The bed is undeniably the highlight of the bedroom pavilion. Here guests can catch Zzzs in opulent style (honestly, did Bill order the pillow feathers directly from heaven), rising with a view of the pool and palms outside, or completely drowsy upon using the automatic black-out blinds for complete deep sleepy time darkness. A charming old-school telephone sits on the bedside golden bamboo tower, alongside Bill Bensley’s book, Escapism.
A stroll along more black and white tiles leads to the glass-walled (yup) bathroom pavilion, where a not-glass-walled walk-in closet awaits, as well as a beautiful white marble and gold rainforest shower. Nestled between the tropical garden’s lush greenery, there also lies a black stone bath tub. On our second night, Phillip arranged for this to be filled with a bubble bath and lotus petals. Regular bathing has never been the same since.
The whole space feels very open and yet very private, inviting a birthday suit dress code for a dip in the private pool, and an air of ease as you move up the tiled stairs for a snack and a nap on the rooftop living room. A very stylish Bluetooth speaker can accompany you on all these trips, adding to what the villas already do very well: exude an aura of carefree calm, with chic charming Khmer accents as the welcoming backdrop.
The Bensley Collection does not have its own restaurant just yet, though guests can order room service to the villas anytime they please. The house kitchen provides all the usual staples, and meals can be served anywhere from breakfast in bed to afternoon tea by the pool, or an alfresco dinner up on the rooftop. Yet whilst it is tempting to never leave the comfort of the villa, the other Shinta Mani properties are just a short walk away, and also offer ample options to tickle the taste buds.
Located at Shinta Mani Angkor, Kroya (which means ‘food’ in the Khmer Royal language) serves Khmer food, using a blend of international and local products, with native herbs and spices. We tried the 7 course Khmer tasting menu for an authentic bite of many local favourites, alongside a few of the house own Cambodian cocktails. Meals can be enjoyed indoors under a painted ceiling of black and gold Angkor Wat blue prints, or outside on the romantic swing terrace.
Bensley’s Bar, on the second floor of the inner courtyard at Shinta Mani Angkor, offers a laid back environment for post-dinner drinks and discussions, whilst the sweetly named Elephant Polo Club at Shinta Mani Shack houses a sophisticated environment to feast on international cuisine. For relaxed all day dining, there’s also Bai Tong, where guests can sample Khmer street food by the Shinta Mani Shack pool (an amazing monochromatic tiled vision all for itself).
Activities & Facilities
Whilst guests can enjoy the Bensley Collection as a bed and breakfast like most other five star resorts, the Bensley Experience package offers an all-inclusive service for the traveler looking for a worry-free vacation. Our Bensley Butler Phillip took care of our every need, allowing us to eat and drink as we pleased and see the touristic sites we wanted to see, without ever having to see or sign a bill until our departure.
It’s a truly bespoke service, which often took us off the beaten track – quite literally. Given its renowned UNESCO World Heritage status, many of the temples of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat can feel crowded with tourists, and yet we were able to witness the sunrise at the main temple (after a riveting 4am wake up call) from a spot that still felt front row and secluded. In fact, many of our site visits were timed so immaculately that we always managed to explore with only a handful of other people on site. Our personal tuk tuk driver stayed with us for the whole day, quick to take us from temples to markets, and to a serene spot by the lake for a picnic.
After the private tours, guests can enjoy a range of activities back at Shinta Mani. The Shinta Mani Spa by Khmer Tonics is a peaceful spot to unwind with a traditional Khmer massage, before an evening read at the Bonalai library. There’s also a business centre and a meeting and event space, for all those who need to hop on a quick business call or email session. Avid and amateur cooks can take part in a Khmer cooking class, learning the secrets of the Southeast Asian cuisine, with a cookbook and a certificate to take home after the course. We were served the dishes we learned to cook with the chef in the kitchen, and, suffice to say, we came back with plenty of bragging rights.
The Shinta Mani Foundation began in 2004, with the opening of the Shinta Mani School of Hospitality, on the very same grounds of what is today the Shinta Mani Angkor hotel. Rooted in a vision to invest in the positive future of the country, the foundation soon gained international recognition for its efforts to train underprivileged Cambodians on a free of charge basis, providing them with the necessary skills to secure employment. The not-for-profit organisation has now grown (and moved from its humble grounds), to engage in development programmes in the core areas of education, micro-finance, healthcare, and direct assistance. The sense of community is strong, evident in the warm staff at all Shinta Mani properties, and their motto, ‘Open Doors, Open Hearts’. A percentage of all daily room rates go towards the foundation, whilst guests can also opt to donate directly, too.
It’s easy for luxury hotels or boutique villas to become run-of-the-mill in a remarkable race against the clock and growing competition. And yet, the Shinta Mani Angkor-Bensley Collection offers a deep sense of culture and world-class service without being overwhelming or unoriginal. It is clear that there is thought put into every detail, from the walls that mimic the romantic drapes of Khmer King Jayavarman’s robe, to the freshly fragrant jasmine scent that roams the rooms. Imaginative without being intrusive, the hotel is visually as pleasing as it is peaceful in experience. Heaven can hang on for a sec, we’ve got the Bensley Collection for now.
On leaving, Phillip took us to the airport, and wished us a good flight on exchanging sampeahs (a Khmer equivalent to the Thai wai). It took us a full flight hour from Siem Reap International Airport to Bangkok, or what felt like one long melancholic song on our ‘Homebound’ playlist.