I have a strong connection with Cambodia, where I launched my latest property, Shinta Mani Wild, in December. I hadn’t had much exposure to the amazing and beautiful Cardamom Mountains though, which – despite prolific illegal logging over the last few decades – is still Southeast Asia’s largest, unbroken forest and home to a number of protected national parks. The land that our new [tented safari-style] camp is located on [in the middle of the Tmor Rung jungle, wedged between the Kirirom, Bokor and Cardamom national parks and about a three-hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh] came up for sale around a decade ago, and Sokun Chenpreda, my business partner from Siem Reap, and his father and I visited and just fell in love with it.
When we found out potential buyers included a Korean company who had plans to log the forest, we decided to join the auction – and we won. At that time I didn’t understand as well as I do now the threats facing [Cambodia’s natural resources]. In the beginning we were not really sure what to do with the land… but over the last 10 years the surrounding forests were [being chopped down] fast and furiously and we realised we needed to [show] that conservation is better than extraction. So we also partnered with [the non-profit organisation] Wildlife Alliance which has been very important, and decided on a luxury tourism project that would have a really low environmental impact and hopefully a high yield. It’s a pretty simple message.
This is certainly my most ambitious and challenging project to date. Whether it’s really going to work or not, I don’t know, but the whole point of this is to try to protect this forest and her wildlife before it’s too late and all gone. And what I do know for sure is that this is the right thing to do. I’ve been working out here in Asia for 30 years and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Just the logistics of getting all of the pieces for a retreat of this scale into the deep, remote jungle of Cambodia has been exhausting. We had to set up sewage, electricity and staff housing from scratch.
We are not just poking around the woods toasting marshmallows out here. The conservation and forest protection we do is serious business. We are out on patrols with armed rangers, confiscating snares and traps and issuing fines. We also set up camera traps to monitor wildlife. It can be frustrating to witness the sheer scale of forest destruction going on in not just Cambodia but the world – but the staff we have hired to combat this give me hope. One of the first Cambodian guys we hired seven years ago, who was fresh out of university, is so passionate about this project that he is still with us now. The only way to stop poaching and logging is to enforce the law. You need to be able to pay the locals a decent wage to work towards protecting the forest; you need to pay them more than the logging companies and poachers can bribe them with. So that’s the whole idea of this camp. Yes, we charge high prices [room rates start at US$1,900 per night, all-inclusive] but that is so that we can pay rangers not just on our 400ha site but go beyond that on a larger scale – ideally the entire Southern Cardamoms. This is serious stuff… these rangers only go out in groups of four – safety in numbers – and they never split up. You need big money to protect this place.
Luxury travel is changing very quickly and it’s the kind of travel that I want to do myself. Experiential travel is replacing luxury travel. I know there is a market for this. All of the things we are doing in the camp are exactly the things I want to do when I go out on vacation. I vacation for three months a year searching for most unique experiences and finding unique places that will push me out of my comfort zone and to get me to do things I never would have done before. Our zipline [which upon arrival, carries guests 380m across the canopy and a cascading river to the resort’s bar] is just one example of that. It’s really cool! I dived for the first time off our waterfall too, that was incredible! I’ve been travelling to Mongolia every year for the summer season for six years now, and each year I go fishing with Tulga, a fly-fishing expert. We’ve become great friends, so he’s now coming to Shinta Mani Wild to teach fly-fishing in Cambodia in the winter months. So that kind of stuff is what I love and that is what this camp is all about. People – especially luxury travellers – want authentic, exciting experiences.
I turned 60 on 2 February and had all of my friends at Shinta Mani Wild for a wild weekend. That was the moment that I could step back and look at this place and think, wow. Lots of presents were opened but my best gift was when the rangers of Wildlife Alliance rocked up to our camp, unannounced and released three civet cats on our property right in front of all of us. The 400 hectares surrounding the resort is now deemed safe enough and we expect more releases here in the future. The organisation’s founder Suwanna Gauntlett has been doing valiant work for the past 25 years. The rate of destruction in Cambodia and the battle to maintain some semblance of the wildlife population is an eye-opener.
The design of the tents were inspired by this trip that Jackie Onassis made to Cambodia’s Angkorian temples in the 1960s with the king at that time, Norodom Sihanouk. I am very much a romantic, and the DNA of Shinta Mani Wild was this make believe storyline of her continuing her trip into the Cardamoms. I’m not really into modern design; I’m very much enamoured with Cambodia’s “Golden Age”. The retreat is filled with character – with objects I’ve been collecting. Some of my favourite things include the hundred or so beautiful old leather suitcases we have around the resort as well as some refurbished French leather club chairs from the 1920s. We also have old Burmese carved animal wooden sculptures; about 300 old printmaker trays from India; some refurbished safari Jeeps from the 1950s; and huge antique teak presses for storage. In each tent we created a 1960s-inspired graphic print of the animals you find in this jungle – otters, leopards, elephants – and upholstered on to the vintage sofas. We also hand-painted murals on the walls of every single tent. It’s a real labour of love and I’ll keep on adding to it – you know how I love to overdo things.
Shinta Mani Wild is quite different to the other tented camps [such as Capella Ubud and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai] that I have designed as this time we are shareholders. And because it’s not tied to another big brand I can do all the wacky stuff I’ve been dreaming of such as the zipline. I have complete creative freedom. For instance, I took a year to collect from all over Europe hundreds of mismatched antique silver cutlery– they’d never let you do that at a branded resort. I want a guest to be able to stay for seven nights and not see the same table setting once. It’s all in the small details like that. I don’t expect to make any money on this project – but I do know that this resort is a very good one, has a genuine purpose and is the right thing to do.
SEE ALSO: The hotel hot list 2018: Into the wild