In August 2019, I checked into the Butterfly Tent at Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented camp set deep in the wilderness along a river valley within a waterfall-laced private wildlife and nature reserve which spans across southwestern Cambodia’s Kirirom, Bokor and Cardamom National Parks. The wildlife corridor is home to various rare species such as the Asian elephant, Bengal slow loris, Sunda pangolin and pileated gibbon. The camp is a 3-hour drive south of Phnom Penh by car, with helicopter transfers available for Christian Greys, Mariah Careys and Nick Youngs.
Working in partnership with the Shinta Mani Foundation, the Wildlife Alliance, the Royal Phnom Penh University as well as local researchers and Cambodian government agencies, the ecotourism resort strives to empower local families as well as provide those in the poaching trade with alternative livelihood opportunities. The property also takes part in various conservation initiatives to protect the nature sanctuary from illegal poaching, mining and logging, with part of the room rate going towards more effective policing of the Southern Cardamom area. Many of the camp’s activities, such as the anti-poaching patrol and nature trail, incorporate a conservation-related element and dovetail with the conservation initiatives to allow a unique and meaningful level of guest participation.
Your room rate covers all excursions and adventure activities offered by the camp, all food and drinks consumed during your stay (both meals and in-suite beverages), unlimited spa treatments as well as the car transfer from either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville airport.
TIME magazine recently included Shinta Mani Wild in their list of the World’s Greatest Places 2019.
The UTW (“Under Ten Words”): Unique, unforgettable luxury ecotourism camp experience in Cambodia.
The must-dos (if any): Zipline to the Landing Zone Bar, go on an anti-poaching patrol, take the luxury expedition boat down the estuary, dine at Headquarters, imbibe freely in your tent, have unlimited spa treatments.
SHINTA MANI WILD
Perched above waterfalls, rivers and the vast wilderness, the luxury tented camp sports a vintage aesthetic inspired by a theatrical reimagining of Jackie O’s travels with King Sihanouk in 1967 as a glamorous romp in a Cambodian jungle safari, courtesy of hotel designer Bill Bensley (the man behind properties such as InterContinental Danang, Capella Ubud and Rosewood Luang Prabang). Interesting curios such as antique sextants, elephant sculptures and carousel horses – all hand-picked by Bensley himself – feature across the camp’s various spaces, which play it all leather chairs, brass fixtures and dark woods in their masculine, Hemingway-esque leanings.
Arriving at the camp is no ordinary affair. Upon reaching the depot at the camp’s entrance, guests are divested of their belongings (which are transported by the butler team to their tent) and brought to a 5-storey high steel-girdered tower. After climbing to the top, they are strapped to a harness before commencing on a Indiana Jones-esque, adrenaline-charged 380-metre zipline over a seemingly never-ending stretch of dense forest and gushing waterfalls before arriving at the Landing Zone Bar, where the winsome General Manager Sangjay Choegyal and a team of Bensley Adventure Butlers provide you with a warm welcome to the property and a glass of ice-cold Khmer G&T. (The unadventurous and lily-livered who wish to skip the zipline can request for jeep transfers to base camp.)
Lining 1.5 kilometres of the Tmor Rung River, the camp’s 15 luxurious safari-style tents are each based on a different theme such as Cambodian royalty, Jackie O, elephants and birds. The base camp area comprises a dining mess Headquarters for all your meals, the Landing Zone Bar next to the Big Raging Sister Waterfall for bespoke cocktails, and “camp counsellor” offices where the General Manager and the Bensley Adventure Butlers are stationed. Connected via twisty, extended stretches of bridges, gravel and pebble-stone pathways in the jungle, the tents are suitably far apart from each other and from the base camp area for a truly heightened sense of seclusion and maximum privacy. After nightfall, rangers are on stand-by with lamps to escort you from place to place.
Apart from the various excursions and adventures available during your stay, guests can go for a post-adventure dip in The Cistern, the dramatically black and oversized bathtub-esque swimming pool which overlooks the rapids. Elsewhere, spa concept Khmer Tonics employs traditional Khmer medicine across its various treatments ranging from the Shinta Mani Wild Signature Massage and Khmer Message to the Khmer Tonic Facial and Foot Massage, with guests able to enjoy their session either in one of the two treatment rooms or in the comfort of the outdoor deck of their tent. Spa treatments are complimentary and unlimited.
Overlooking a series of rushing rapids and surrounded by trees, the 100sqm Butterfly Tent – likely inspired by the large variety of butterflies found at the site, including a ubiquitous but gorgeous species with bold orange and white wings – employs butterfly imagery liberally throughout its spaces, from the giant butterfly structures attached to the ceiling surfaces and embroidered butterfly patterns on the shower curtain to the hand-painted butterfly mural in the bathroom. Vintage elements such as leather-bound books, luggage trunks and old-school whirling fans complete the retro safari experience. An adventure book in your tent is a key document for guests – aside from providing an introduction to the Cardamom National Park, Shinta Mani Foundation and sharing the ethos and motivations behind the ecotourism resort, the book sets out the available excursions and adventures during your stay and available spa treatments, with a map of the camp enclosed.
The air-conditioned indoor bedroom is equipped with a sizeable king-sized hardwood bed, wardrobe area, brass double vanities and a rainforest shower with luxurious bathroom amenities from Khmer Tonics. Power points and USB ports are in abundance for your charging needs, while a portable Bose Bluetooth speaker is available for your thumping pleasure. Laundry services are complimentary, unlimited and essential given the jungle setting and the inevitable dirtying of your shoes and clothes, especially during wetter seasons.
The wood-planked outdoor deck features a whimsical animal-print sofa and a dining table for a refreshing and surreal jungle open-air lounging experience. The mini-bar and cooler are stocked with a generous selection of wines and champagne as well as in-house spirits – complete with cocktail-making kit, garnishes and crystal wine glasses – for your degenerate consumption, all on a complimentary basis. The outdoor roll-top bathtub directly overlooking the white-water river provides for your au naturel exhibitionist indulgences or unbridled lusty exploits, set to the soothing gush of flowing water. It is all ridiculously private and romantic.
The entrance of the bridge-way leading to your tent is strategically angled and far away from the outdoor deck, so as long as your Do Not Disturb sign is hung across the entrance, you can rest assured that your in-tent activities can proceed safely uninterrupted.
The luxury camp offers a variety of excursions and adventures to guests, with the array of experiences changing every month based on seasonality and weather conditions. The camp plays it like a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book – whilst your butler may make recommendations based on your preferences, there is no daily programme or schedule to follow and you do whatever you like, whenever you like. For all activities based beyond the camp premises, guests get around using the camp’s fleet of vehicles which includes a rugged U.S. Army Jeep.
The camp’s signature and unmissable adventure is the anti-poaching patrol in the jungle. Accompanied by Wildlife Alliance rangers discreetly armed with AK-47s, you sit on the back of a motorbike and clutch the shoulders of a ranger as he drives you deep into the wilderness in a surprisingly cinematic moment that is less Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai in Comrades: Almost a Love Story and more The Fast and the Furious cutscene. The backdrop constantly shifts throughout the drive, from stretches of desolate openness with naked trees straight from a post-apocalyptic movie to dense forestation which brings new meaning to the term “untrodden path”. As my patrol took place on a particularly rainy day, the usual driving trails were fairly compromised, and there were extended moments of bouncy bumpiness along the challenging terrain. I had to alight on many occasions to allow the ranger to carry the motorbike out of a (sometimes literally) rocky patch.
At certain spots, the rangers stop to clear away snares, check camera traps and study the forest, including recent elephant footprints and sleep prints. After the patrol, I now know how an elephant sleeps (and wakes up) and how large an elephant footprint is.
“What happens when we do see an elephant?” I asked.
“We run,” my butler Thy – fraternity boyish and Australian-schooled but with a Gemma Chan-esque accent – responded with a wry smile.
The patrol is no show-and tell – there are very real stakes involved in going on an armed patrol and possibly getting into a sticky situation with wild animals or poachers, and a Wildlife Alliance statistics board at base camp tracks the number of released animals, confiscated equipment and removed poaching traps, forest fires and logging camps to date. Poachers caught by the Wildlife Alliance rangers during the patrols have either been given alternative livelihood opportunities (some are now anti-poaching rangers themselves) or have been brought to justice in the local courts.
Another of the camp’s signature activities is a leisurely ride in a luxury expedition boat down the Srey Ambel estuary. Designed by Bensley, the double-decked pontoon boat is moored 45 minutes from camp and equipped with sun loungers and a supply of wines, champagnes and G&Ts for your imbibing pleasure. Guests can enjoy a glorious suntan or share private moments on the upper deck, with your butler on hand to refill your glasses and snack trays whenever necessary as the boat slowly makes its way around the estuarine eco-system. During certain seasons, the pontoon boat is able to bring you to a secluded beach for your very own private picnic or sunbathing session. Luxuriously indulgent, and wedding proposal levels of otherworldly romantic.
Leisurely, low-key activities include ingredient foraging in the forest with the camp’s sous chef, cocktail-making classes, butterfly walks, Tenkara fly fishing, private picnics atop a mountain or next to the waterfall as well as bird-watching with Daksh Singh, a bird guru-in-residence hailing from Rajasthan. Activities of a more rugged slant include jungle trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and night walks. Guests who enjoyed the zip-line experience can repeat the experience an unlimited number of times for that perfect GoPro video or Instagram-worthy photo.
Meals are consumed at Headquarters, the terraced dining mess concept in the base camp area which plays it all leather sofas and lime-green bamboo chairs in its safari stylings. Daily breakfast and lunch options are updated on a blackboard, and not knowing what lies in store makes mealtimes anticipated events in their own right. The breakfast items – including a sinfully delectable Banana, Chocolate and Peanut Butter French Toast, the enjoyable Yeasted Waffle with Orange Honey Butter and Caramelised Pineapple and the ingenious Ham and Cheese Bread Pudding – sound ripped from the brunch menu of a contemporary café, while elsewhere the regional dishes – highlights include the Phnom Penh Noodles with Ground Pork in Double Cooked Pork Consommé, Laotian Crispy Rice with Fried Chicken and the Pork with Kampot Green Pepper & Capsicum – are humbly uncomplicated yet gloriously delicious.
Nightly meals are even more fun – dinners are themed and in a set menu format. While my dumpling-themed dinner was suitably international and interesting (dumplings from China, Turkey, Nepal and Cambodia were featured alongside Mushroom Ravioli and Empanadas), I much preferred the curry-themed dinner, which showcased a variety of curries such as Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry, Vegetable Dhal and a notable Mud Crab Curry which possessed such memorably sweet crabmeat that I outdid Oliver Twist and requested for thirds.
Aside from being the check-in area for ziplining guests, the safari cowboy-esque Landing Zone Bar boasts plush leather chairs and a killer view of the Big Raging Sister Waterfall. The bar’s signature cocktails make use of foraged plants, and the team is able to prepare bespoke cocktails – all complimentary – as long as they have the requisite ingredients and spirits. The kaffir lime leaf-ed Khmer G&T is a revelation.
While not the first and certainly not the last luxury tented camp, Shinta Mani Wild is a bold and daring ecotourism concept that brought me to very unexpected places, simultaneously being educational, surreal and outstandingly ultra-luxurious in its food and adventure offerings. One of my favourite and most unforgettable luxury experiences ever.
Shinta Mani Wild
Prey Praseth Village
Kampong Seila District