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Deep in the jungle surrounding the Cardamom National Park an adventure unlike any other awaits you.

Diverse cultures, lovely people, rich histories, stunning landscapes, thrilling adventures, profound tranquillity, and the best food you will ever eat; Southeast Asia is a travellers paradise. Best of all, once there, you can have an amazing vacation without spending a lot of money. The street food is fresh, delicious and exciting. You can stay in a hut on the beach under mosquito nets. There are many cheap and easy ways to take a boat or plane or bus or van or tuk tuk anywhere! But what if you DO want to spend a lot of money? What if you want to give yourself the full celebrity treatment and pamper to the max? This can be a little trickier in Southeast Asia, because hotels that are labelled four and five star don’t always live up to those expectations. If you pay $12 a night to stay in a hut on a remote Cambodian beach, you know what you are getting, and it will be fantastic. But if you pay thousands of dollars to stay in a luxury hotel and it ends up being rough around the edges, with mediocre food, smelly accommodations, you are going to be bummed out and wish you had just chosen the hut. However, if you know where to look, Southeast Asia has a few luxurious options that will blow all your expectations away. Places that will make you feel like a royal guest, and still give you a cultural experience that you could only get in this part of the world. We’ve noticed that the best of these also have robust sustainability and conservation programs. Notable Destinations will be sharing a series of articles looking at properties you must check out if you are looking for the ultimate elevated getaway to Southeast Asia, beginning with Cambodia, and the incomparable Shinta Mani Wild.

Shinta Mani Wild is a bucket-list destination. We can discuss this phenomenal place, but it must be experienced to fully understand it’s glory. It’s not a hotel, it’s an encampment, resting in the valley along the Tmor Rung river, deep in the Cambodian jungle.

Celebrated hotel designer, Bill Bensley, purchased the 865 hectares, upon which the camp sits, with the intent of protecting the habitat from logging and poaching. Then, the goal became to create a “Utopia of Sustainability”, and that idea runs to the core in every aspect of Shinta Mani Wild. More than an enchanting destination for discerning travellers, Wild doubles as a research facility, and partners with Wildlife Alliance, funding a ranger station on the property. As a guest of Shinta Mani Wild, your money goes directly into conservation efforts, so you get to be a part of the solution while having one of the best times of your life.

Everything about Shinta Mani Wild is special, starting with the check in. After a drive through the villages and farmlands stretching across the Cambodian countryside, the pavement runs out and we arrive at the mouth of the valley. Here, the staff greets our family warmly and we meet our Adventure Butler, who loads us into a vintage military jeep which rumbles and bounces up rugged dirt roads into the lush rainforest. The jeep lets us off at a towering wood structure, and we ascend. From the top, we look down over the Tmor Rung river valley and the expansive wilderness of Cardamom National Park beyond. But this tower isn’t just about views. From here we strap onto a 400 metre zipline that sends us screaming gleefully over the treetops, across the river, down into the jungle. Another, smaller zipline brings us back across the river, past stunning waterfalls, to The Landing Zone, where we are handed a craft cocktail as we step out of our harness.  

The Landing Zone is the central point of the encampment and is connected to Headquarters, the largest pavilion where all the fabulous meals are served. Each meal at Shinta Mani Wild is a culinary adventure. Every morning starts with a basket of fresh baked pastries that rival the best boulangeries in Paris. The menu changes daily with whatever is fresh, with a focus on sourcing ingredients from within a 25km radius of the property. The dishes are dynamic, often diving deep into Khmer cuisine, from traditional to nouveau. The chefs also pull freely from the world’s cuisines to create each dish and never failed to delight and surprise our taste buds.

Southeast Asia can be a tricky place to find fine wine and spirits, but The Landing Zone bar has a surprising and excellent selection. The master mixologist, Po, will deftly mix you any cocktail you desire, but you must also taste his signature creations; so good.

In addition to the fantastic food and drink, Headquarters and The Landing Zone provide an opportunity to connect with the other guests of Shinta Mani Wild. Everyone we met was in such a good mood! From couples on a romantic escape, to families sharing adventure. There is an instant kinship born from just being together in such a magical place, and it was a joy to chat and trade adventure-stories with folks from all over the world. With a tiny number of accommodations, you quickly get to know everybody visiting the property. And then, when you want it, you can disappear down a path through the jungle to your own personal sanctuary.

The accommodations are luxurious tents, built up on wooden platforms perched on or above the river. There are only fifteen tents, each on a secluded spot, offering privacy, serenity, and immersion in nature.

Let’s talk about these tents though…. Each tent has a unique theme and aesthetic. They are highly designed, but feel homey and welcoming, as if each were furnished with personal items Bill Bensley has been collecting over decades (perhaps that’s exactly what it is). There is everything you desire, from a self-serve bar with fine spirits, to an outdoor bathtub, to luxurious beds and comfortable toilets. If you wish, you can zip yourself in quietly inside and turn on the AC. We opted to unzip everything and let the warm air and sounds of the river and jungle-at-night drift through the screens.

Once you are comfortably situated in these tents, it’s hard to leave. But there is so much to explore and fun to be had! Remember, when we arrived, we met our Adventure Butler? Well, they are there to help guide your experience and accompany you on the adventures of your choosing. We hiked up into the mountainside above the camp and our Adventure Butler, gave us insights into the landscape, the area, the animals, and explained the medicinal properties of various plants we encountered, or showed us what could be foraged for dinner (foraging with the chef is a whole other adventure available to guests). We rode bicycles out into the valley, through villages, past fishermen and ox and children playing. The activity we enjoyed most was a private expedition up and down the river on one of Shinta Mani’s pontoon boats. It was a nice mixture of relaxation and adventure, from lounging on the roof of the boat and watching the jungle pass by, to jumping off the roof to swim and kayak in the river. If we get to go again, we will definitely join an anti-poaching patrol leaving from the on-site ranger station, to aid the Wildlife Alliance in combating the destructive forces that threaten the Cardamom forest.

Shinta Mani Wild is the confluence of fabulous adventure and meaningful action. It comes together with wonderful people, in a sublime location, and an added touch of magic. It is a place of depth and texture, where experiences are layered and fulfilling. And this article has only been a hint. Swimming in a cistern, rejuvenation at Khmer Tonics Spa, cocktails on river rocks, giggles over the linga plants, encounters with macaques, eating red ants; all experiences that we could expand upon, but… you’ll have to go and find out for yourself.

Noah Davis