Bill Bensley Architect: Designer of ultra luxury resorts & royal Istanas

by Asih Jenie  /   January 24, 2023

Bill Bensley talks about his oeuvre, his biggest fear, and his most memorable recollections

Artfully wild tropical gardens, plush daybeds and ornate bed frames in lobbies and bars, and rescued elephants as resort attractions – these now-popular hospitality experiences were started by one boisterous American gardener who has gone native in South-east Asia.

You can take the man out of California, but you can’t take California out of the man.

Bill Bensley is a sunny, bouncing ball of energy who is always excited to talk about plants, animals, and hotels.

A tented villa at Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Thailand.

Bill is the name behind many of Asia’s most lush resorts, and oftentimes he is also the architect of the most unforgettable experiences offered by such luxury getaways. “King of Exotic Luxury Resorts”, “Asia’s Number One Spa Designer”, as well as a spot in Time Magazine and Architectural Digest’s top 100 designers are just a few among the ever-growing list of accolades he has accumulated from over 26 years of designing resorts.

Read Also: St. Regis Langkawi Resort – Designed by Bill Bensley

Shower, bathtub and bedroom in a linear procession at the tented villa.

“I’m just a gardener,” he says. Growing up, has he always wanted to be a gardener? I asked. “I had no choice,” he says.

“By the time I could walk, I was given a hoe and was told to work in the garden because that was what kids do in my time.”

My design credo is “Lebih gila lebih baik”, the crazier, the better. One of my worst fears in life was to bore people.

Bill grew up on a family farm in Anaheim, Orange County (“When there’s still orange trees there”), a stone’s throw from Disneyland (“The happiest place on earth”). He traded sunny California for hot and humid Asia in 1984, all thanks to Thai Architect Mathar “Lek” Bunnag, Bill’s Harvard classmate.

“Lek asked me on graduation day, ‘So, what are you going to do now?’ I wasn’t sure. I thought of bumming around Europe for a while. Lek was going to teach at NUS and invited me to Singapore. I jumped. I said, ‘Sure! Singapore – that’s in Asia, right, under China?’ That was back in 1984.”

Read More: JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort – Designed by Bill Bensley

Quilted leather furniture and statement chandelier create opulent interior at the Shinta Mani.

Bill Bensley’s Asian Adventure Started in Singapore

Bill arrived in Changi in September 1984 with just US$10 in his pocket (“All the money I had in the world.”) and took a job as a landscape architect for US architecture firm Belt Collins the following day.

Five years later, he left his senior post in Belt Collins Hong Kong to set up his own practice in Bangkok.

The studio grew, and Bill’s design evolved and expanded, flourishing just as lushly as a Bensley design tends to be. Bensley Design Studio currently employs around 180 architects, interior designers, landscape architects, as well as artisans and craftspeople in two offices in Bali and Bangkok.

The restaurant at Shinta Mani.

“My design credo is lebih gila lebih baik,” he says in perfect Indonesian. It translates to the crazier, the better. “One of my worst fears in life was to bore people,” he adds.

Four Seasons Koh Samui

He’s been doing a great job facing that fear head-on; no one can accuse him or his work of being a bore. Bill has crafted some of the world’s most memorable hospitality experiences. Like putting ornate beds in lobbies and bars, incorporating existing trees into the architecture (he did not cut down a single existing coconut tree in Four Seasons Koh Samui.

Instead, he incorporated the 865 trees into the design of the resort’s 80 villas), and creating a synergy with the local wildlife conservation efforts (case in point, taking 37 elephants rescued off the streets of Bangkok and putting them in a sanctuary that is part of the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle where borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet).

A designer of the environment

Bill considers himself a designer of the environment, which aligns with the evolution of his practice. It started as a landscape design studio that has since branched into interior and architecture.

Over the years, he has also traded the meaning of the word “work” with “play” and “staff” with “friends”. But he hates the now-overused, tired buzzword “sustainability”. “I think it’s a stupid thing – the commercialisation of it.

I also have mixed feelings about big companies getting on the sustainability bandwagon. They’re helping, in some ways, but it has become a marketing ploy,” he says.

Sustainability, stated outright or otherwise, has always been inherent in Bill’s projects. Whether in the aforementioned design and construction, or the impact they have on the local community, the man has made sustainability part of his personal luxury brand.

A sitting room dressed in blue at Istana Terengganu.

Royal Istana of Terengganu, Malaysia

The Royal Istana of Terengganu is one of Bensley’s most memorable projects, which has been 12 years in the making.

12 Years in the making

The palace boasts 215 unique rooms and 180,000 sq m of intricately designed space and costs about six times the cost to build a world-class resort. The Sultan gave Bensley a full creative rein, with one condition; the crafts and the crafted furniture must be produced locally in Malaysia.

It is a massive undertaking, he shares, as Malaysia’s culture of craft has faded in the last three generations because of the lack of demands and higher living standards compared to the country’s more craft-savvy neighbours like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

But it’s all coming together quite spectacularly at last, and there’s the Sultan’s hope to revive the country’s crafts trade.

One of the majestic entrances at Istana Terengganu.

Shinta Mani Hotel, Cambodia

Bill’s effort in creating responsible hospitality environments and tourism culminates with the Shinta Mani project in Cambodia, where he is a joint owner.

Located in Siem Reap’s French Quarter, a 15-minute ride from Angkor Wat, Shinta Mani opened in 2003 as an 18-room guest house with a hospitality centre that educates underprivileged Cambodian youth in the hospitality industry.

Angelina Jolie’s A Regular

Nine years later, the guest house has been transformed into a chic 39-room upscale boutique hotel frequented by Angelina Jolie, and the hospitality centre has evolved into a Shinta Mani foundation that has, in addition to providing hospitality trainings, sponsored over 900 piglets, 1,300 water wells and 97 homes for the local community.

Read Also: Shinta Mani Wild Tmor Rung – Designed by Bill Bensley

Shinta Mani Wild in Tmor Rung, Cambodia

Another of Bill’s big projects is the Shinta Mani Wild in Tmor Rung, which combines the glamping experience with genuine wildlife conservation and a farming community with the aim of one day creating a fully self-sustaining entity.

“We started the farm school with this little shack for 10 teenagers to learn about good farming skills and crop diversifications. Then more kids started to come, and within three months, we had 250 kids, some marching from 10 kilometres away. It was crazy! So now we’re expanding to be able to accommodate them, and gave them 60 bikes to use to come to the school,” he says.

The construction of Shinta Mani Wild in Tmor Rung.

The site for the Shinta Mani Willd measures over 700 hectares, for which Bill shilled $2 million to acquire.

The resort would occupy less than 0.5 per cent of the land, while the rest will be dedicated to wildlife conservation. It is safe to call him a philanthropist at this point. Has it always been in the trajectory of his career?

I asked. “We’ve been really successful at what we do, and I don’t need to do anything anymore, basically. But there’s this need to give back, and if you see the poverty in Cambodia and how easy peasy it is to help these people. And the little help that we give goes such a long way. That’s really what it’s all about,” he says.

“My late mother always said, ‘when in doubt, do the kind thing’. I lived by that.”