Bill Bensley is adamant: ‘Luxury as we knew it is stone-cold dead!’ He’s not the first person in the hospitality industry to make that remark, or something like it. But as the man who has done more than anyone else to redefine the luxury hotel resort in Southeast Asia, it sounds like Elon Musk saying there’s not much of a future for electric cars.
From Phuket to Da Nang, Indonesia to Cambodia, in partnership with Rosewood or the InterContinental, JW Marriott or the Four Seasons, the name Bill Bensley is a guarantee that your accommodation is going to have more than a touch of verve, glamour and irreverence. He’s taken the familiar regional, pared-down aesthetic (thatched roofs, rooms on stilts, open-air lobbies, daybeds) and added mosaics, columns, mirrors and art deco graphics.
Still, he doesn’t like ‘luxury’. What else doesn’t he like? ‘Beach resorts. And I don’t like big hotels.’
So if he’s no longer in the business of luxury, big hotels and beach resorts – what business is he in?
‘Storytelling. Storytelling in hospitality is my next big move,’ he says. Take the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa, off Vietnam’s southwest coast. To the untrained eye it looks like – well, a big luxury beach hotel.
But Bensley has given it an elaborate backstory. ‘It’s the refurbishment of Lamarck University that was built in 1880,’ Bensley says with a wink in acknowledgement that the university is a fictional inspiration. ‘I broke this hotel down into 27 different departments, from the chemistry department to zoology, so all the rooms are different.’
‘Now I’m designing the uniforms, the music and all the graphics, telling the story right down to the last teaspoon.’
Bensley’s Rosewood hotel in Luang Prabang, Laos, was one of 2018’s most high-profile openings.
‘Each of the 23 rooms tells a story, too,’ Bensley says. ‘I’ve got 2,500 artefacts documenting the lives of different personalities that were influential in Laos from 1855 all the way up to 1910, including the “Playboy King” of Laos, Sisavang Vong.’
Maybe it’s time to tell Bensley’s own story.
Born 60 years ago this month in Anaheim, California, he earned pocket money tending to and redesigning his neighbours’ gardens. His love of learning was sparked by his father, a prototype research mechanic who built parts of the Gemini shuttles that went to the moon. He studied landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University before taking a masters in landscape architecture and urban design at Harvard.
In 1984, Bensley pivoted east. He joined a Harvard classmate, Lek Bunnag, in Singapore. For three years he cut his teeth in hotel design, before moving to Hong Kong and then, in 1989, to Bangkok. Bensley met his now husband and business partner, Jirachai Rengthong, during his first week in Thailand. ‘It took at least a month before he would go on a date with me.’
And so to the latest chapter of the Bensley story. The setting is unlikely: deep in the Cambodian rainforest in the Southern Cardamom National Park.
Across the trail, three hardwood trees lie freshly sliced open with the best timber removed, while four rudimentary traps designed to catch civets are propped nearby. This is poacher country.
I’m on patrol – not something hotel guests get to say very often. A man pops out of the forest near us. My heart pounds. Team leader Rethy Sowath with NGO Wildlife Alliance confronts the poacher, searching his bag. Today, the bag is empty.
Poaching is a life-and-death industry, and not just for the animals. Controlled by a mafia-like underworld, this is a multibillion-dollar industry in Southeast Asia. Rethy carries a large knife on his hip, while his colleague guards the team with an AK-47 rifle.
I joined this patrol from the luxury hotel Shinta Mani Wild – Bensley Collection, three hours’ drive southwest of Phnom Penh. The hotel sits within 350 hectares of private land that forms a wildlife corridor between three national parks.
But that’s only one part of the Shinta Mani Wild story. To arrive at his ‘story’, Bensley upturned a tale of classic 1960s culture clash. In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, Jackie Kennedy paid a visit to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk. Bensley has taken this strange episode of Cold War diplomacy and run with it: the resort invokes what it might’ve been like had the pair decided to travel on safari.
Shinta Mani Wild consists of 15 luxury tents, set along one and a half kilometres of boulder-strewn river, each tent decorated with artefacts like travelling chests, a botanical press and vintage sewing machines. Bensley treads lightly with his low-volume hotel, while generating revenue for conservation.
He says ‘Wild’ (as he likes to call the hotel) is not super-luxe. Although, with pop-up bars above waterfalls, personal ‘adventure butlers’ and unlimited spa treatments, there are certainly no hardships here.
The most outlandish of the Shinta Mani Wild experiences is the arrival at reception. For those that dare, a 320-metre zipline delivers guests directly to the Landing Zone Bar.
‘Wild is meant to ease guests out of that expected comfort zone, into a place of exploration and learning,’ Bensley explains. ‘It is important to step off that zipline platform some 12 storeys in the air, sail above a healthy canopy of rainforest and then over our most beautiful waterfall – you know why? Because you’ll remember that for as long as you live.’
Despite enormous difficulties in building this remote hotel, Bensley counts Shinta Mani Wild as one of his career highlights for what it can achieve for the local people. The hotel is the culmination of everything Bensley has learnt and everything he loves.
Bensley’s business partner, Sokoun Chanpreda, outbid logging companies to secure this land. To protect the forest, Bensley and Sokoun started their own hotel, providing locals with alternative incomes to poaching. Two-thirds of the staff come from surrounding villages.
‘Shinta Mani Wild is, for me, a way to teach Cambodians that conservation is more valuable than extraction,’ Bensley says. The hotel also funds its own rangers that patrol the private reserve and adjacent national parks.
Another career highlight for Bensley was his first camp, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand. On this site, he took inspiration from Botswana, and tied the low-impact resort to the rehabilitation of elephants rescued from begging on the streets of Bangkok.
Originally known for designing Balinese landscapes for hotels, Bensley now prefers to design the architecture, landscapes and interiors. His first integrated design was the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Thailand, which he still regards fondly.
‘It was here I developed my theory of minimal intervention, understanding what the site will allow you to put on it without affecting it environmentally.’ He preserved all 856 coconut trees that existed on the site through a system that allowed trees to penetrate buildings.
In 2019, Bensley’s creativity pushes new boundaries.
‘Wild’ certainly is quirky. Perhaps just quirky enough to save a forest.
And Bensley does own up to ‘a rather quirky sense of aesthetics’. The good news is that the giant hotel brands and their billionaire owners are anything but a brake on his creativity. The days of the Asian kit resort are numbered.
‘What I am learning,’ he says, ‘through a positive response to my wackiness, is that perhaps my quirks are not quirky enough.
Five hotels with the Bensley quirk
‘All our clients want to have something more outstanding then the last,’ says Bensley. ‘So I go to great lengths to make our designs look and quack differently from each other.’
Rather than physical similarities, Bensley’s projects each embody an element of his credo, which he says boils down to one important word – respect. Aside from Shinta Mani Wild, here are five of Bensley’s favourite hotels and their underlying ethos.
InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, Vietnam – high concept or what?
Spread across four levels – one each for the ‘kingdoms of Heaven, Sky, Earth and Sea’ – linked by the hotel’s own funicular railway, and lying in a vast monkey forest above a secret bay.
Rosewood Luang Prabang, Laos – teaching guests something new
‘I love the idea that even a small hotel can be designed to be a historically accurate capsule story of a whole country.’
Capella Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – integration with nature
The hotel hides in the jungle and, as Bensley says, ‘Bali is so totally overbuilt, no one there needs another in-your-face architectural icon.’
The Siam, Bangkok, Thailand – embracing the neighbourhood
Constructed as a new build in the capital’s historical quarter, The Siam takes guests back to 19th century Bangkok.
Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Thailand – innovation to protect nature
Bensley mocked up each building in bamboo first before construction. ‘This allowed us to really work the guest rooms in between the trees,’ he says.