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Jungle sanctuary in Cambodia

In the rainforests of Cambodia lies the country’s most spectacular new hotel. But it’s not just about luxury – it’s even more about conservation

I had forgotten about the email that said ‘dress for adventure’. I look across at the team in military gear around me and rue my skinny jeans and shirt combination – Bear Grylls I am clearly not. But as I take hold of the zip line that will take me into the resort, I conclude it’ll just have to do.

At Shinta Mani Wild, located in Cambodia’s southern Cardamom National Park, a couple of hours southwest of the country’s capital Phnom Penh, the ‘wild’ is very much operative. At the property’s edge, the authentic jeeps from the Vietnam War that greet me set the tone, but it’s the zip line that highlights its adventurous philosophy. From here, the 353-metre-long line flings you high across a valley, over trees, rock pools, streams, waterfalls and bridges, before spitting you out at the property’s Landing Zone Bar. Then comes the juxtaposition: cocktails and cold towels await at the end.

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It must be one of the world’s most extravagant entrances to a hotel – but not altogether unexpected. Shinta Mani Wild is the brainchild of Bill Bensley, the hot-at-the-moment American architect whose designs are found in high-profile hotels across Southeast Asia and who, in conjunction with Shinta Mani, now has his own collection of uber-design hotels and resorts in Cambodia. Extravagance is something Bensley does well and, perhaps, naturally.

Bensley’s trademark touches appear across Shinta Mani Wild. There’s the sprawl, with 15 tents spread along a 1.5-kilometre stretch of river; there’s the strong jungle theme, with kitschy patterns and storage trunks found in the guest tents; and there’s the bold design ideas, such as net hammocks suspended high above the rainforest.

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But there’s something in this property that makes it different from Bensley’s others. That’s the ‘wild’. And that comes with a backstory.

Over decades, this part of southwestern Cambodia has been subjected to extensive logging. Almost a decade ago, Bensley got a tip that logging concessions were being put up for auction, and he managed to purchase this 350-hectare piece of Cambodian nature, complete with its dramatic waterfalls, waterways, and abundant flora and fauna. He then set about working out how to protect it from some of the practices that threatened its future.

‘This property is part of the largest unbroken rainforest in Southeast Asia,’ says Sangjay Choegyal, general manager of Shinta Mani Wild. ‘By building this property, Bill saw an opportunity to tell the world about anti-poaching, anti-mining and conservation in the context of what is happening in this part of the world.’

There might be luxury tents and cocktails awaiting after a zip line, but the conservation message is the resort’s raison d’etre.

With its designation as part of Cardamom National Park in 2016, the area received environmental protections. But that didn’t stop attempts at logging and poaching. In response, Shinta Mani Wild founded a partnership with Wildlife Alliance, an international, conservation-focused NGO based in Cambodia, to help protect the southern area of the national park. It funds a ranger station, housing eight rangers to patrol the property and the wider area. Guests are welcome to accompany these expeditions.

One morning, I join a Wildlife Alliance patrol into the surrounding wilderness. We take dirt bikes into the mountains on gravelly paths, arriving in a dense forest with narrow tracks leading further into the foliage. It’s serious business, led by two alliance patrolmen armed with AK-47s and  the authority to arrest. ‘If they find anyone doing anything related to logging, they can arrest them and the people could go to jail,’ says Bong Yi, a hotel representative joining us on the patrol. ‘For animal-related offences, there are big fines.’

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Small animals such as monkeys, cats and squirrels are the most common targets in this area, but tracks suggest that elephants also roam these parts. But the most prized of all? ‘The civet cats are especially sought after at the moment. They can fetch a lot of money because of civet coffee,’ says Yi. ‘They’ve caught a poacher with a slow loris before. The first time I went on a patrol of this area, we saw a lot of traps. We destroyed them. Some of them were still set, so they were placed recently.’ On our patrol, the team finds several traps and destroys them. Two are new – a reminder that this is an ongoing process.

Yet progress has been made, and a lot of that has come through education, as Yi testifies. ‘When I was young, I used to try and catch things in the forest, because it was just about survival. We didn’t know any better. But now I understand our job is to educate and protect. I think people – the local villagers – are starting to understand that there is value to protecting this stuff.’ They’ve started camera trapping (photographing animals remotely with motion sensors), too, to determine the extent of the wildlife, which also helps to justify the area’s national park designation.

Shinta Mani Wild’s other expeditions all bring you closer to the wilderness, giving you a better understanding of this largely unknown part of Asia’s rainforest. Outings include foraging in the wilderness for ingredients for the night’s meal (wild figs, mangosteens and various potatoes end up on the menu), navigating kayaks through narrow rivers and embankments, biking high into the Cardamom Mountains, fly-fishing in the river and swimming in nearby rock pools, all subject to the whims of the seasons.

But everything that happens here relates to the broader conservation message, which Bensley and Choegyal hope will resonate with guests. ‘In the long run, we can hopefully generate donations to keep this thing going. A ranger station costs about US$100,000 a year to operate, so hopefully guests will also become inspired to support this initiative and get involved in a bigger way,’ says Choegyal. ‘There has already been a huge shift in the community. But these projects are never an overnight fix – it’s a long-term project with a slow burn. All we can hope for is that it has an impact.’

Compared with some properties professing an outdoor experience while being relatively tame, Shinta Mani Wild’s activities should not be taken lightly; some are intensive, especially with Cambodia’s year-round humidity and heat. So if there’s one bit of advice that I would pass on should you visit: make sure you come dressed for adventure.

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