While tourists flock to InterContinental Khao Yai Resort for its proximity to UNESCO World Heritage Site Khao Yai National Park and the chance to spot elephants in the wild, there’s another draw: the whimsical architecture of Bill Bensley.
The well-established Bangkok-based architect has created more than 200 unique hotels worldwide, including Capella Ubud, Bali; InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort; and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. But Bensley is having a moment. InterContinental Khao Yai, his latest Thai project, opened in November 2022 to great fanfare. And the highly anticipated Bensley-designed Shinta Mani Mustang hotel will welcome guests to the Himalayas in August. His first major art show, “The Faroese Chronicle,” wraps at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River this month after a sold-out run, with all proceeds going to Shinta Mani Foundation outreach projects in Cambodia.
Consider Bensley’s career as a bo tree with branches that seek individual paths to the sun. Amid myriad interwoven roots, two massive strands provide stability. The first is his philosophy of mai mun, mai tum — Thai for “if it’s not fun, I won’t do it”— and from that, the Indonesian concept of lebih gila lebih baik, meaning “the crazier the better.”
“I first preached ‘lebih gila lebih baik’ to my architects in 1989, when I started my atelier in Bali, as a way of telling them that we are not going to do the normal in any sense of the word,” Bensley said. “That principle has worked all over the world. Why should a client hire us if we are to create the expected?”
That said, you can expect a Bensley resort to deliver a feast for the senses, imbued with whimsy. Also, he loves collecting and refurbishing treasures that others may overlook.
The principle that one person’s trash is another’s treasure most dramatically features at InterContinental Khao Yai, where Bensley upcycled abandoned train carriages into pool villas, restaurants, bars and a spa. To provide context, he concocted the story of Sombat, the resort’s fictional founder, a local kid who loved trains so much that he became a conductor and established Khao Yai Station, the elaborate reception area. Here, touches like the old Siam white elephant flag and antique railway equipment help make the fantasy experience real. The palette of our train car suite was rich and warm, bursting with oranges, purples and reds — it transported us to a golden age of rail travel.
Given Bensley’s background in landscape architecture and the working partnership he shares with his husband of 35 years, horticulturist/designer/artist Jirachai Rengthong, it comes as no surprise that flora abounds in his Thai resorts. At the InterContinental, we borrowed a bicycle and rode around Swan Lake’s botanical gardens, past sculpted waterfalls and alongside a peacock aviary. One of the beauties of the railroad paradise is you could remain content soaking up the comforts close at hand; the resort makes it simple to venture deep into Thailand’s oldest national park, where in addition to possible elephant sightings, the jungle awaits.
In the concrete jungle of Bangkok, Bensley cast similar charms in The Siam. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel evokes the jazz era while simultaneously featuring three vintage Thai teak houses. Traditional and vertical gardens interlace walkways, lawns and the pool area, and a massive glass-ceilinged atrium in the main building shelters three-story palms. While InterContinental Khao Yai runs on the tracks of reclaimed train cars, The Siam feels more like a museum, with themed gallery-like living spaces such as the screening room, the car racing room and the amazing Vinyl Room where you can spin Coltrane on the vintage record player.
Occupying three acres on the Chao Phraya, the resort is owned by musician and hotelier Kamala Sukosol, whose father purchased the property in 1973. Her youngest son, Krissada, kept bumping into Bensley at flea markets and antique stores, and finally, the two put their heads together. Friendship led to collaboration, and Bensley designed the 39-suite-and-villa hotel to appear as if it opened in 1912 rather than 2012.
“My artistic sensibility tells me that a historical presence holds more gravitas than the new and trendy,” Bensley said. “I am particularly proud to hear guests ask, ‘How long did it take you to renovate The Siam?’ Ha! It was a new build but one with the understanding of her neighborhood.”
Like The Siam, Bensley designed The Slate in Phuket with an eye to local heritage. “I could have easily built something modern, but I chose to highlight the fact that its site was a tin mine 150-plus years ago,” he said. “I liked that historical aspect. While an unlikely subject or story for a resort, humor made it work.”
The subtle humor comes from details like the breakfast utensils that double as wrenches and the way metal sculpture replaces soft elements — like The Nest, a spa suite that appears to float among the trees, spun of iron strands rather than grasses. Black Ginger, the resort’s restaurant, provides a cool clash of designs. The main building bears the lines of a traditional Thai house, but it’s painted black and set upon an island within a lagoon. You arrive via a torchlit hand-pulled barge reminiscent of the River Styx. And inside, you will find blue, silver and white lighting and sharp angles.
For even more ‘lebih gila lebih baik,’ choose the Bensley Residence, a two-story pool suite with four distinct outdoor seating areas, including a sun deck accessed by a “staircase” of disconnected pillars.
Four Seasons runs Bensley’s three remaining Thai creations, and in each location, he paid particular attention to geography. He preserved all 856 coconut palm trees at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui by designing the villas to fit between and amid them. For Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, he drew on Botswanan designs and created luxury tents that helped reduce the resort’s overall impact on the land. “I like the maturity of the forest up there and wanted to conserve that without change,” Bensley said.
He took a similar approach at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. “I liked the idea of once again extending the mature landscape of the neighborhood, in this case, rice fields,” he said. “We started that project in 1989 when farmers were the vast majority of neighbors. The gardeners were all farmers, and I am still working with those same gardeners today.”