Ever since news of the inaugural Bensley Art Trail broke, it has been the haute topic among well-heeled and artistically inclined travellers with a penchant for philanthropy. Fans of hip, luxe hotels, however, need no introduction to Bill Bensley, whose talent has contributed to the creation of iconic properties around the world, including the Park Hyatt Siem Reap in Cambodia, the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, India, The Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico and, on home ground, even a private commission by Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, to design Istana Syarqiyyah at Bukit Chendering in Kuala Terengganu.
Those who know the American-born, Bangkok-based interior and landscape designer will also be well aware that a sense of purpose features heavily in everything he does. As a long-time supporter of the Shinta Mani Foundation, an innovative programme founded by Cambodian businessman Sokoun Chanpreda, he made it the aim of the first-ever Bensley Art Trail to provide 32 full scholarships for the Shinta Mani Foundation Hospitality School’s class of 2024. This is on top of his existing and regular fundraising for both the Foundation and the Wildlife Alliance, an NGO that the former collaborates closely with and whose armed rangers patrol and protect the 865-acre forest and wildlife at Shinta Mani Wild, under increased threat from loggers and poachers since the pandemic.
“I had come to Asia as soon as I graduated from school and sort of fell into designing hotels the week I arrived,” Bensley tells Options by email. “It was 1984, and my first employer in Singapore had put me on a plane to Bali. I was smitten. Later, I met Sokoun, who is now my business partner. He hired me to design his hotel, which we named the Hotel de la Paix (now the Park Hyatt Siem Reap), in 1994. It was then [that] I saw the ravages of war, and it was not a pretty sight. Cambodia, even today, is a very poor country, but [it has] very rich neighbours. So, about 20 years ago, I promised to help them as much as I could.”
Scheduled to happen from Nov 28 to Dec 10, the inaugural Bensley Art Trail will take a small group of guests on an artistic adventure spanning three countries and five Bensley-designed hotels,
Asked whether covering five properties over three countries was ambitious, he pooh-poohed the notion, saying, “Not really. You should see my yearly schedule. In fact, I am writing this from Greenland right now!”
On what originally inspired the idea of an art tour, Bensley says: “It is a great adventure I have been meaning to do for more than five years but, somehow, Covid-19 got in the way. It was the positive reactions from travellers to the hotels I have designed that inspired this trip. In fact, many of them suggested such a trip.”
For someone so obviously creative, it would surprise many that it was only as recently as four years ago that Bensley took up painting.
“I have been designing hotels all my life but, yes, it was just four years [ago] that I first picked up a paintbrush. But creating art is not very different from creating a hotel.”
The catalyst for Bensley’s artistic epiphany, however, came in the form of his dear friend, Caribbean-based artist Kate Spencer.
“Kate had visited us in Bangkok for Christmas and just shoved a paintbrush in my hand and ordered me to paint. I always do as I am told,” he laughs.
“Since then, I have yet to relinquish the brush. I fell down a rabbit hole, you could say. I even built a little studio at home, a glasshouse complete with chandelier, where I spend early mornings and most weekends painting.”
It was also Spencer who, in some way, inspired Bensley’s first artwork, a rather large painting measuring 2m x 2m. “It’s called I Could Murder a Beer Right Now, which Kate says a great deal about, and features a heavily tattooed Asian man lying face down on a blow-up raft in a paradisiacal sea, speaking freely to all the creatures around him. His beauty was so great that the animals and insects brought gifts to court his favour. The painting was bought by a couple from Hanoi the very day I hung it up at the Bensley Outsider Gallery at the InterContinental Danang,” he says, sounding well pleased.
“I like painting stories — images that one can look at and wonder about for a long time. I’ve also done several painting holidays with Kate and always carry a sketchpad and pencils with me wherever I go. So, on this art trail, I want to share my enthusiasm while encouraging guests to release their inner child and having a ton of fun along the way as we travel, draw and paint in some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful places.”
The Art Trail will begin at the recently opened InterContinental Khao Yai resort, just a 2½-hour drive from Bangkok. The resort made waves for its use of upcycled train carriages complemented by a charming concept and narrative. “It is our custom that when we design a hotel, we don’t just leave after it is completed and open for business,” Bensley says. “We help the management troubleshoot maintenance issues, renovations and the like. All five managers of the hotels were, of course, pleased as punch to know we are bringing an art tour to their doorsteps!” At Khao Yai, guests will begin their artistic immersion via workshops run by Bensley as well as joining him in activities such as forest conservation walks and talks by guest artists. He will also organise different muses for each day.
From there, the group moves on to the Rosewood Luang Prabang, Laos, for two nights. “My favourite village in Asia is in Luang Prabang,” Bensley enthuses. “I love the delightful place because the temples, monks and hill tribes are so very unique, making great subject matter for compositions.” Cambodia beckons thereafter, specifically the Shinta Mani Angkor and Bensley Collection Pool Villas in Siem Reap, as well as Shinta Mani Wild, nestled within the Cardamom Mountains and National Park.
The Art Trail ends at The Siam Hotel Bangkok, complete with a grand finale dinner at Baan Botanica, Bill and Jirachai Bensley’s private Bangkok residence that they share with their five Jack Russell dogs: Sammy, Chuck, Frank, Tommy Bahama and Jesse James. He muses: “Our home is such a special place with, perhaps, one of the nicest residential gardens in Bangkok. So, I thought, ‘Why not?’”
On the joys and rewards of painting, Bensley believes that “as an architect and interior designer, the worst thing that can happen to your career is stagnation … to run out of ideas. Luckily, I have never had that problem, as I stay curious, travel a great deal to new places, paint while there and, at the same time, figure out how to translate whatever I am learning into architecture. It sounds complicated but it isn’t. Likewise, the greatest reward for me from this art trail is to show someone that they really can paint and the joy it brings them. But I do foresee some tearful goodbyes at the end of the trip.”
Once the art trail wraps up, it will be back to settling into a regular routine of painting at his home studio. “But seeing as it will be Christmas and New Year’s soon, it will more likely be a case of paint, paint, paint and party!”
The Bensley Art Trail is priced at US$25,000 (about RM117,050) net per person, based on double occupancy, with an additional US$4,500 for a single supplement. All regional flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and activities are included, as is a US$10,000 contribution per person towards the Shinta Mani Foundation. A total of 12 rooms are available for art and travel adventurers on this fun-filled expedition. For more information and bookings, contact luxury travel company Smiling Albino at [email protected].
This article first appeared on Sept 25, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.