Having already stayed in the elegant Shinta Mani Angkor and the family-friendly Shinta Mani Shack in downtown Siem Reap, both designed by the American architect and designer Bill Bensley, we had big expectations for his new creation, the Shinta Mani Angkor — Bensley Collection. Bensley, who has designed scores of the world’s most spectacular luxury resorts, is not one to sit on his laurels and these luxury villa residences, which opened in December next door to its two sister hotels, are an extravagant celebration of sophisticated bespoke hospitality.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s No. 1 attraction with two-and-a-half million annual visitors who come to see the nearby ancient Angkor Wat temple complex.
On arrival at the international airport, a smiling Shinta Mani butler fast-tracked our passports, skipping the straggling visa and immigration lines; whisked us to the car and checked us in on the short drive into town.
The entrance to the villas, on a leafy downtown street, is through a magnificent white marble arch, which is a replica of the façade of an ancient Angkor Wat temple. The feeling of entering another dimension was accentuated by the tall, padlocked door at the patio of our villa, which, like the other nine, had high walls for total privacy. The patios have black and white Art Deco styling. The orange of the cushions and that of the butlers’ Cambodian uniforms add vibrant splashes of color. There is also a comfortable seating area, a 30-foot pool with a fountain and stairs leading to the rooftop terrace. Villa No. 2 took on even more of a fairytale atmosphere when Head Butler Mac ([email protected]; 011-85-512-553-510) told us that the Crown Princess of Pahang in Malaysia — who is a big Bensley fan — had just left.
Villas No. 1 to 9 have 1,680 square feet of space and are identical. Number 10 is the same inside but has an overall area of 3,120 square feet thanks to its extra-large pool terrace. Mac told us that three sets of villas have connecting doors via their patios and are perfect for families and friends traveling together. He also said there are great sunset views from the upper terraces of Villas No. 1 to 8, which face west.
The Villas' walled compound (above) offers guests complete privacy.
If there is one thing Bensley just cannot do, it is to leave a plain surface alone. So, the black wood floors are inlaid with brass stripes and the white marble in the bathroom is elegantly faceted. On the wall behind the pool, which continues into the bedroom, the massive and hypnotic 3D mural of the snowy-white rippling folds of the robes of Jayavarman, one of the great Angkor kings, made us feel that we were in an opulent Khmer kingdom of our own.
Beds are a very personal thing, but I defy anyone not to succumb to the monumental bed (which can morph into Hollywood twins), topped with an extravagant number of humongous fluffy pillows, that dominates the bedroom. Behind the bed, the lush, tropical garden with a stone bathtub, a glass-encased bathroom with twin sinks and an outdoor shower, and the walk-in closet have all the amenities to put a smile on the face of even the most demanding VIP. The charming and discreet butlers provide the rest: From unpacking suitcases to shaking world-class margaritas, and from sprinkling the pool with rose petals to making sure that guests get the best out of every second of their stay in Siem Reap.
On the shaded upper terrace, framed by pink bougainvillea flowers and with a marble-topped bar, the huge daybed is an island on which guests can relax and dine, and it can be made up for dreamy nights under the stars. Our butler Kemlek told us it is also popular for in-room massages, and that breakfasts, lunches and barbecue dinners can be set up both there or beside the pool.
General Manager Indra Budiman ([email protected]; 011-85-512-680-700), who dynamically and smilingly oversees all three properties, can be contacted for VIPs and, as GDS booking has not yet kicked in, the person to reach out to is Sales and Marketing Manager Sophie Couturier ([email protected]; 011-85-563-967-885).
Dining options, under Executive Chef Reza Kurianwan ([email protected]), go from the refined traditional Khmer menu in the Shinta Mani Angkor’s Kroya Restaurant, which also serves breakfasts and international evergreens, to the casual all-day Baitong Restaurant in the next-door Shinta Mani Shack. The newly opened Elephant Polo Club, with indoor and outdoor seating, has a sophisticated steakhouse menu and fine wines. Mac advises making advance reservations as these restaurants are very popular, not only with guests but also with non-residents.
Mac also said that no stay in Siem Reap is complete without trying the authentic cuisine in the Mie Café. He further recommended the Soul Kitchen for handcrafted cocktails and comfort food. Lastly, he said that you should make advance bookings at Cuisine Wat Damnak, which was listed in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants last year.
In the spa at the Shinta Mani Angkor across the road, we took the advice of Spa Manager Somalena Sam ([email protected]
mani.com; 011-85-512-993-675) and opted for the Shinta Mani Signature Massage, which uses custom-made, herb-rich products. She told us it is good idea to call or e-mail her directly to make advance bookings as, at present, there are only four treatment rooms.
Of course, Siem Reap means temples, and nobody leaves without spending time in the Angkor Wat complex and the temples around it. They can be seen in a day, but really warrant at least two or three. Each time we return, we visit Angkor because we now know we can avoid the swarming crowds. This we do thanks to Samnang Chhon of Asia Natural Tour (asianaturaltours.com; 011-85-577-524-777), who organizes these temple visits the way we like them, switching the classical stops on the itinerary to dodge the tour buses.
With Samnang, we have also visited distant temples like Koh Ker, Beng Mealea, Banteay Chhmar and Sambo Prey Kuk. Getting to them takes up to four hours by car and, while not as magnificent as Angkor, with a knowledgeable guide they all have fascinating stories to tell. So if you are an archaeology or history buff, you should include these in your itineraries.
If temple-hopping is not enough exercise, guests can jog in the nearby Royal Gardens or enjoy the 18 holes at the Angkor Golf Course. Good to know: For wannabe celebrity chefs, book a cooking class with a Shinta Mani chef. We opted for one of these, which started in the morning at a local market. Chef Thoent took us around and explained the typical Cambodian products and spices. We then spent two hours with him in the Kroya Restaurant, where we prepared two delicious local dishes, a Sour Kang Kong Beef Soup and a Green Mango Salad with Prawns, which we enjoyed at lunch.
The villas are a short walk from downtown Siem Reap with its lively shopping, night markets and bar scene but, as the temperatures were soaring, our butler Kemlek always had one of the complimentary tuk-tuks in black and white Bensley colors waiting to take us around. Tip: A-listers should not miss the Artisans Angkor showroom. This is not a show put on for tourists, but a living craft center where you see skilled artisans create the finest silks, stone and wood carvings, jewelry and beautiful home accessories, which you can then admire and purchase in the showroom.
A Hollywood Twin Villa. 3-D murals have been carved on the walls to depict the folds of Khmer king Jayavarman’s robe.
Trendy shopping is close at hand in Kandal Village, a small street with interesting fashion boutiques and little coffee shops, many specializing in Cambodian coffee, which is served western-style and even iced, but, we say, try it local-style, laced with condensed milk.
Another shopping stop suggested by Kemlek, in the leafy Charming City suburb, was at the Couture House of Eric Raisina. Cambodia’s leading fashion guru, Raisina weaves magic with his original take on silks, cottons and other fabrics in jewel colors, which he subtly transforms into unique and striking textures and shapes. His silk scarves, wraps and handbags make exquisite and affordable souvenirs.
We also dropped into Anakut, the Shinta Mani Foundation’s gift shop, and found great handcrafts like brass jewelry made from spent bullets, necklaces crafted from paper and attractive silverware all made locally by social enterprises. The Foundation’s motto is “Open Doors. Open Hearts,” and guests staying in the properties make their contribution, as a portion of room rates, which support health and development projects for local communities and provide educational training for young Cambodians.
Watch this space as Bill Bensley’s Shinta Mani Wild is due to open later this year, and we will be visiting it for you. This next property in the exclusive Bensley Collection portfolio will have 16 riverside tents in a 400-acre nature reserve, and promises to be another dazzling one-of-a-kind. Without wanting to drop any spoilers, we hear that guests will be able to zip-line down to the reception and that the restaurant will serve dishes with ingredients foraged in the forest.