Why maximalist hotel designer Bill Bensley is determined to leave a minimalist footprint

Designer Bill Bensley seems to be an unlikely eco hero. The man who uses maximalism as his mantra has decided to do his part to help save the world. His first step was by buying a swath of rainforest land in Cambodia.

When he bought the Central Park-sized piece of rainforest nine years ago, he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He just knew that he didn’t want this verdant patch of land filled with waterfalls and wildlife falling into the hands of loggers.

His right-hand man, forestry major and biologist Jason Friedman said they could have pondered over it longer, but they were faced with a deadline imposed by the Cambodian government that meant if they didn’t use it, they would lose it, so Bensley’s biggest project to date – Shinta Mani Wild was born.

Shinta Mani Wild

Bensley has created hotels for Four Seasons, Capella and the InterContinental, but this property was his own. When he built the Four Seasons Koh Samui he demanded that no tree was cut down to create the resort. While Bensley has a maximalist outlook, his aim is to have a minimum impact on the environment. The trained landscape architect says that when he’s given a site in a natural environment, his first thought is about how he can protect it. For he says that no matter how clever he is it’s never going to be good as what Mother Nature has already created.

When he started building Four Seasons Koh Samui there were 854 trees, and when he finished there were still 854 trees. He set the same rigorous rules for his glampsite Shinta Mani Wild. This meant that when the builder announced there were two trees where he was meant to install a tent, Bensley requested – at the cost of thousands of dollars - that a bespoke tent was remade to work with rather than be detrimental to the trees.

Bensley already has 200 properties in his portfolio, so why add to his workload by choosing to an ecolodge in a rainforest? “I don’t know,” said the vivacious Californian in a quiet moment of candour. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done.” He ponders a little more. “The right answer is it is the right thing to do,” he adds.

While Bensley’s glampsite is in the Cambodian jungle, it still remains the last word in luxury. Suites are set beside two-storey waterfalls and antiques are found scattered around the hotel. Guests zipline into reception to enjoy a G&T. The storyteller used Jackie O’s trip in 1967 as his inspiration and for this reason every item in the hotel has a retro feel.

The showman-style smile rarely falls from his face, but he goes pale when he talks about the challenges he faced when putting this forest hideaway together. “Biggest challenge? Have you got a day [he says with the colour draining out of his face]. We got ripped off so many times,” he says shaking his head.

But what kept driving him forward was his reason for creating Shinta Mani Wild in the first place. He wanted to protect this wildlife corridor in the South Cardamom National Park and save it for future generations.

Bensley has hired nine rangers who patrol the grounds, checking cameras and looking for snares. Guests can join the rangers on their tours of the park. The team have partnered with the Wildlife Alliance who Bensley calls the ‘real heroes of Cardamon National Park’.

Shinta Mani Wild

Protecting the land is a constant battle. However, they can already see signs that they are making a difference. “My favourite day at Shinta Mani Wild was on my birthday when the rangers released three civets into the wild,” said Bensley. “They found them caught in a snare, they brought them back to Shinta Mani Wild in what is considered a safe place and released them into the reserve.”

With the reserve now established, Bensley could say that he has done his bit to save the planet, but he has chosen to take on what could be an even grander project in China – he plans to build a zoo. However, the wildlife-loving designer said he would only take it on if the animals could roam free and it was the humans that were behind glass.

Bensley and Friedman had taken a look at some zoos in the country, and the ones they saw didn’t leave them impressed. “Jason and I would go to a zoo and it would be bumper to bumper and someone would be honking the horn at an impala and someone was throwing bananas at monkeys,” said Bensley. “This happens all over the world how we mistreat animals. I want to change the world and how we are thinking about animals.”

Bensley decided to turn his zoo into a rescue centre. “I went back to the clients and said what if we took those animals that are being mistreated in zoos and [create a] private nature reserve?” said Bensley.

Ninety-five per cent of the land when it launches in three years’ time would be given to grazing animals, and five per cent would be for the human ‘jails’. As they are Bensley ‘jails’, these will be luxury hotel suites with terraces where you can fall asleep to the sound of the animals. But Bensley believes if people are immersed in nature they will take a new approach to wildlife. “If you can hear them grazing while you are sleeping, you will start to think about animals in a different way, a new way. How they should take priority over us,” said the designer.

Friedman who is as passionate about the project as Bensley says why it is so important to make China the setting for this forward-thinking zoo. “We want to make this about best practises. We want this place to be the global leader in care. That will become really exciting. We all use zoos as educational places and if we can influence how Chinese treat animals that’s conservation.”

Photography: Elise Hassey

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