As an optimistic young generation strives to move on from decades of genocide and civil war, a new swath of this this bewitching Southeast Asian kingdom is opening up. Charles Graeber, who first traveled to Cambodia in the 1990s, discovers a new side of the south.

By Charles Graeber
Updated: April 17, 2019
Each of Shinta Mani Wild's 15 tented suites sits above a private stretch of river in South Cardamom National Park.
Christopher Wise

This, believe it or not, was the job: to check out intriguing new luxury hotels in a country I had not been back to in some 15 years. The country was Cambodia, and the only catch was — well, there wasn’t a catch.

I first went to Cambodia in 1996, at the invitation of an old friend and fellow journalist. He was writing for a newspaper named the Cambodia Daily. He insisted I come see this place. I did. My two-week visit stretched into a life-altering year, then longer.

The country captured me, charmed and confused me. It has that effect on people, it draws them in. I abandoned my plans, canceled medical school, dropped out of a relationship with a wonderful girl, and wrote half of a juvenile novel about expat life, about the streams of bats that blackened the skies at sunset and the conflict of feeling so happy and free in a country savaged by genocide and war.

I got a motorcycle, a rented room, a new love, and a new sense of purpose. It was a thrilling time. My friend had been right: there really was no more interesting or important place. Cambodia was on the cusp, emerging from the nightmare of the cultural cleansing carried out by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge; between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population, had been killed by starvation, overwork, or outright murder. But the intervening years had pushed the Khmer Rouge into hiding, and after another decade of civil war, the country seemed to finally be ready for peace — a democracy, even. And perhaps, we all dreamed, we might somehow help it along.

In the late 1990s, the little ruined riverside capital of Phnom Penh had a fledgling free press and fragile peace held together by an elderly king and blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers. The countryside was rough and raw and unspeakably beautiful. It wasn’t just the crumbling French-colonial villas and floating villages and miles of pristine coastline, or the ancient spires of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat, rising like a prayer from the jungle. It was the people. It sounds like a cliché, and it’s certainly a generalization, but the Cambodians I met were good people, pure-hearted somehow. Perhaps, because they were survivors, they considered themselves lucky. Those who visited, people like myself, quickly realized how much we had taken for granted, and how much we had to learn.

From left: A Buddhist blessing ceremony at Six Senses Krabey Island resort; making chili sauce at Six Senses' Tree restaurant; a staffer prepares for a dinner party at Shinta Mani Wild, a new lodge in the Cardamom Mountains.
Christopher Wise

Cambodia has undergone a staggering transformation since then. In 2012, the elderly king, Norodom Sihanouk, died, and these days the UN peacekeepers have been supplanted by Chinese investors. The country didn’t turn into a democracy, exactly, as the ruling party gradually removed opposition voices from the streets and the newspapers, and even the ballot. But the majority of the country has experienced a novel degree of stability, and with it a swell of development. Over half the population is under 25 years old, too young to remember when their country was a destination mostly for journalists, backpackers, and fugitives. Now Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.

That said, those temples, and perhaps Phnom Penh, are all most visitors ever see of Cambodia. But now a new generation of high-end properties has begun drawing visitors beyond the usual circuit. The coastal islands and jungle mountains in the south and west have been largely inaccessible to visitors for decades. This was a Cambodia I’d never seen. Did I want to? my editor asked.

I write for work, usually about difficult things. This wasn’t exactly war reporting; it sounded fun, and I needed a break. And I could bring my partner, Gabrielle, on what would be her first visit to Asia. Did I want the job?

Sure, I said. It’s a living.

The Phnom Penh I knew didn’t have stoplights, a functioning movie theater, or an ATM. It certainly didn’t have a host of spas and luxury hotels. Now it has several. The hotel currently at the top of the food chain, the Rosewood, occupies the top floors of the second-tallest building in Cambodia, the Vattanac Capital Tower.

As well as creating a striking contrast with the low French-colonial buildings that defined the city I remembered, this new monolith of glass and steel provides a remarkable view of the city. You can take it in from Sora, the rooftop bar — already a destination for the city’s newly affluent, see-and-be-seen crowd. Similar views are also available via floor-to-ceiling windows in all the public floors of the hotel, from the fine-dining restaurant to the spa, the art gallery to the café.

But it was only when Gabrielle and I entered the plush serenity of our suite that I finally had a chance to sit and take the view in. The experience was like being in a hot-air balloon above a cornfield, the entire city a scale miniature. Gradually, I recognized shapes below me: the Central Market, the temple. And there, partly obscured by trees, were my rooms on 178 Street, across from the National Museum. Were the bats still here?

We had only 36 hours in the capital and we overfilled them, exploring Buddhist temples and wandering streets I half remembered, cruising the humming night markets and generally reacquainting myself with the uniquely open and delightful people of this city. Arriving in a new place can be jarring, but Cambodia is easy, because Cambodians are easygoing. At least I’ve found it so, and I was delighted, and a bit relieved, to discover that Gabrielle felt the same. This wasn’t exactly sightseeing, it was slowing down and seeing, and we wanted to stay. But we had another trip to make.

From left: An oceanfront villa at Six Senses Krabey Island resort in Southern Cambodia; Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, as seen from the rooftop bar of the Rosewood Phnom Penh.
Christopher Wise

The last time I traveled from Phnom Penh to the southern province of Sihanoukville, I rode on the train. That is to say, I rode on the roof of one, the way a surfer rides a wave. It was a budget travel option for locals, though neither safe nor strictly legal. The nearly 150-mile journey is still long and hot, but I’m older and lazier. This time, we drove to Sihanoukville in an air-conditioned car.

We were headed for a resort named Six Senses Krabey Island, the latest in a handful of private-island escapes to have opened along the Cambodian coast in recent years. Our driver, Sathya Soun, made great time, working the horn and the gas and the brake across the mountains. Five hours later we crested a final hill and suddenly there was the Gulf of Thailand: a blue line of horizon, broken by the distant green humps of the islands.

We pulled up to the Six Senses boathouse, where we traded our luggage for chilled hand towels and house-made ginger-and-lemongrass tonic. At the dock our boat awaited, bobbing on sapphire-blue water. Slender fish skimmed the surface like tiny barracuda; swarming shadows of bait pulsed and darted in the depths. “There were dolphins this morning,” our captain said, and we whooshed off toward Krabey Island on twin 250-horsepower engines. There, a small contingent of staff was waiting, hands pressed together in welcome as we exchanged greetings and climbed the pathway to the 40 villas discreetly tucked into the rocks and coves and jungle of this little island paradise.

You may have heard about the Six Senses philosophy: at its resorts, the emphasis is on a sustainable, authentic, experiential, and, if you choose, wellness-centered stay. Want to sleep better? Eat better?  Or just chill out? Krabey is not a large island, but there are places to walk, to explore, to play and swim. There’s a glass-roofed hilltop spa and wellness center with a lighthouse view of the world.

Ours was villa No. 30: secluded and, I thought, particularly stunning. Its design was naturalistic without being rough-hewn—less Fred Flintstone, more Frank Lloyd Wright. A wall of sliding glass doors faced a small patio and plunge pool, merging with a view of the gulf, a broad-limbed tree fitted with a rattan swing chair, and, at cocktail hour, the setting sun.

From left: Seared red snapper in Cambodian-style kuri sauce at Six Senses Krabey Island; boardwalks allow guests to walk the perimeter of Krabey Island.
Christopher Wise

Arriving here, the first impulse is to play house. You can control the curtains, the lighting, the fans and the temperature on a tablet supplied in every villa; you can also stream reggae through the Marshall Bluetooth speakers, check the mini-bar for cold bottles of the local Brewlander craft beer, and jump naked into the pool. The journey had been interesting but not short, and now what we wanted to do was: nothing. Perfectly nothing.

But while Gabrielle puttered around our new nest, I pushed back out into the heat, touring the facilities (common pool, ice cream parlor, water-sports center), mopping my forehead with a krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, which doubles as a sarong, belt, and turban. There were fishing communities to visit and local fish to pick from the nets, cooking classes to attend, bottles of chilled white wine to sample, and facial scrubs to prepare.

An expert elbow-heavy deep-tissue massage brought me to the edge of begging for amnesty, but somehow unknotted the ravages of a four-year book project and a 16-hour flight. Later, the resident wellness consultant, Dr. Anand Peethambar, led me in a personal early-morning beachside yoga session, something I have seen pictured in resort brochures and antidepressant commercials but did not actually believe happened in real life.

I’d return to the villa and find Gabrielle kneeling on the tiles studying a snail the size of a croissant or collecting praying mantises, their jagged arms cocked like paper soldiers. Or legging through the tidal pool like some giant bird, stalking translucent shrimp with luminous eyes.

From left: The Tree restaurant at Six Senses Krabey Island; a staff member at All Villas Koh Russey, one of several private-island resorts off mainland Cambodia.
Christopher Wise

We discovered that life on a private island quickly begins to resemble an Agatha Christie mystery, with a cast of characters destined to interact. There was a procession of workers who shyly waved, orange-robed monks brought in to chase evil spirits into the sea, and Parag Mahajani, the resort’s visiting astronomer. Mahajani genuinely wanted to show us the moon’s Sea of Tranquility — the lunar landing site of Apollo 11. Each night he was heartbreakingly optimistic that the clouds would part; each morning I’d see him in the tree-house-like restaurant, still hopeful, peeling his breakfast oranges with a distinctly Euclidian air. I hated to let him down.

Could we have stayed on at Six Senses? Lord, yes. I wanted to. Gabrielle wanted to. It had been, what, two days? Three? But there were other places to have opinions about. And so we stuffed our (mostly unworn) clothes back into the bag, boarded another boat in a profusion of byes and bows and clasped hands, and headed for another resort.

I sometimes have a problem with “luxury” travel, because luxury can create a barrier from the difficulties and annoyances of daily life. Travel, meanwhile, is an opportunity to experience something unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable — the lives of real people in other places. At our final destination, however, I discovered a version of luxury travel I could live with: a rare and extravagant feast of the senses hidden deep within the jungle; an unexpected, delightful conversation named Shinta Mani Wild.

To get to that conversation required another boat and a four-hour drive through towns and villages and wedding processions, then an unpaved road and a two-track wooden bridge. The mountains got bigger, the undergrowth greener. At some point we switched to a jeep, so we could crawl the ruts in low gear.

For now, this is the only form of arrival at Shinta Mani Wild, but eventually, general manager Sangjay Choegyal told me, most guests will enter via a 1,000-foot zipline over the jungle canopy and across a thundering waterfall. (The jeep option will still be available for the fainter of heart.) This is theater with a mission: to separate guests from their workaday mind-set and prepacked expectations, as quickly and completely as possible.

Which is to say, to get them out of their heads and into Cambodia.

Shinta Mani Wild is the latest offering from Bill Bensley, the celebrated, Bangkok-based designer of some 200 hotels in more than 30 countries. Bensley is justly thought to have redefined luxury in the hotels of Southeast Asia, and in recent years he has developed a particular passion for this kingdom.

The resort is something unique and new to Cambodia — not only a distinctive property in a relatively uncharted region but also one driven by a commitment to helping preserve, nurture, and highlight this country and its character.

How to describe Shinta Mani Wild? First, there is the location: a 1.7-million-acre national park preserve deep in the southern Cardamom Mountains, part of the largest unspoiled patch of jungle in Southeast Asia. Not long ago, the reserve was isolated; then a highway was cut across it, providing access for loggers and developers to nibble at its edges, and creating a barrier to the migration of animals between the high plateaus of Cambodia’s famous Bokor National Park and Kirirom National Park. Private money, including Bensley’s, established a new reserve, and the land was saved.

Then there’s the design. The technical term is “tented camp,” as the 15 guest units — each of which sits perched over its own private stretch of the untamed Thmor Roung River — evoke a glamping aesthetic. But there’s really no confusing this for anything approaching camping, or anything other than a Bensley property.

When examined from a distance, each villa reveals itself to in fact be built something like a giant boat. The tented portion contains the interior living space; the outdoor space resembles a deck, ringed by netted wings that extend over the river, serving as enormous hammocks. It’s as if someone built an ark out of pieces of a North Indian hill station, a jumble of 19th-century African and Cambodian hardwood furniture, and remnants of Barnum & Bailey circus canvas. The vibe is curated fun mixed with local flavor, a mixture of the antique and the fabulous and the foreign, of old-money grace and old-world eccentricity. It is, in short, a room that you do not want to leave.

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“Heaven,” was how Gabrielle put it as she flitted from river to orchid to hammock. There was a short happy dance and, eventually, a facedown flop on the great four-poster bed in the middle of the tent.

“Bill’s only rule, in developing this, was just don’t cut down any trees,” Choegyal, the general manager, told me. I told him it sounded impossible. “But it wasn’t,” Choegyal said. Instead, structures were built around the trees. “There’s always a solution — that’s one of the things Bill has taught me.”

It’s a harmony of nature and design that you feel, rather than notice outright. Like the structures at Shinta Mani, Cambodia’s wild spaces must find a way to both resist and accommodate, to bend and not break.

It was tempting, after so much moving around, to just stop and hang the Do Not Disturb sign across the bridge leading to our suite (yes, there is a rope and a bridge). To listen to the river below, to read a book — or not read one. But there were things to do. There were adventure butlers on hand, young men in fitted camo vests more Savile Row than deer hunter, some of whom doubled as resident butterfly experts, others as specialists in the Cambodian martial art of bokator. Tulga, a Mongolian fishing guide, wanted to show us his version of tenkara, the meditative Japanese art of catch-and-release fly-fishing. I caught two trees, one rock, and no fish, and Gabrielle’s luck was no better. Tenkara was one option; if a guest wanted to do something else, like forage for mud crabs for that night’s dinner, that was possible too.

From left: Going on an anti-poaching patrol at Shinta Mani Wild; a floating fishing village near Krabey Island; a glass of Khmer-style iced tea.
Christopher Wise

Later, we hopped on the backs of the mopeds driven by Chen Oudom, a young soldier, and Yervon Von, a local anti-poaching specialist. Both are part of a group Shinta Mani Wild supports called Wildlife Alliance, which fights a war of attrition against the chain saws and snare traps that threaten these forests. Its ultimate goal is to create enough of an ecotourism industry here that villagers see these wild spaces as a resource to preserve, not plunder. Elephants, leopards, and gibbons are regularly captured near Shinta Mani; attempting to catch poachers in the act, or dissuade them from trying, is daily work. We spent the afternoon foot-patrolling the jungle paths the poachers use, eyes peeled for illegal snares that maim and kill any animal that happens upon them.

We had only two nights at Shinta Mani Wild, but they were full, late ones full of stories and fun, jungle sounds mixing with the laughter of the rushing river below. We had dinner, then drinks, then Mongolian vodka. For after-dinner entertainment, Gabrielle learned some bokator moves, then the resort’s collection of antique front-desk bells were brought out to create a surprisingly pleasing symphony at the dinner table.

A giant Indian moon moth hung over one of the light bulbs high in the tent top, and a great white tokay gecko arrived to keep us company. Gabrielle called it “Friend.” Friend didn’t disagree, and stuck around. Sometime later, the sky became lighter, the rocks and mountains and river became visible again, and we were there, very much there, in a place like no other.

We were leaving in a few hours. But somehow it seemed that we had finally just arrived.

Krabey Island, in the Gulf of Thailand, is a 15-minute boat tide from Cambodia's southern shore.
Christopher Wise

Plan a Trip to South Cambodia

also Make the capital of Phnom Penh your base for a trip to the unspoiled islands off the coast, followed by a stay in a jungle camp.

Getting There & Around

We flew Cathay Pacific from New York to Phnom Penh, with a layover in Hong Kong. You can buy a visa on arrival for $30 — just make sure your passport is more than six months away from expiration. Regional carriers connect the Cambodian capital and the airport at Sihanoukville in less than an hour. A hired car with a driver takes longer, but you see more.

Where to Stay

Rosewood Phnom Penh

High above the city in the Vattanac Capital Tower, the city’s newest upscale hotel has sleek, contemporary rooms with spectacular views. Don’t miss a drink at the vertiginous Sora rooftop bar. rosewood​hotels.com; doubles from $224.

Six Senses Krabey Island

Just three miles off Cambodia’s unspoiled southern coast, this private island has everything you’d expect from a Six Senses resort: ravishing waterfront villas, many with private pools, plus extensive spa and wellness facilities. Activities range from watersports and stargazing to cooking classes and tours of fishing villages. six​senses.com; doubles from $430.

Alila Villas Koh Russey

On the nearby island of Koh Russey you’ll find a more familiar tropical beach vacation hotel experience: lounge chairs, a pool, and a cash bar on a crescent of sandy beach. The food here is excellent — from the Khmer-style beef loc lac to the croissants. alilahotels.com; doubles from $463.

Shinta Mani Wild

Bangkok-based hotel guru Bill Bensley has brought luxury to an untrodden part of Cambodia. Fifteen tented villas are arranged around a river in South Cardamom National Park, where adventure butlers offer guided activities including patrols with local anti-poaching NGO Wildlife Alliance. shinta​mani​wild.com; doubles from $2,345, all-inclusive.

Tour Operator

Wild Frontiers has a team of local specialists who can plan a southern Cambodia itinerary, as well as Angkor Wat extensions (from $7,460 per person for nine nights, excluding travel). They can also arrange a tour of Phnom Penh with the moped-riding Motogirls ($38 per person) or a trip to the Phom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center ($150 per person), where you can help care for rescued bears.

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