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‘Bangkok just keeps getting better and better.’
Gems in this
Raised with a connection to nature and sustainability, Bill Bensley has made his life’s work an organic understanding of design. Now a giant in the world of hotels and design — not to mention an artist in his own right — he has carved a niche as one of Southeast Asia’s premier creative talents.
From hotel gardens to hotels themselves, his work has taken him halfway around the world, and encouraged the ethos of ‘if it isn’t fun, don’t do it’. With a drive to preserve the environment and nature at the heart of his work, he has also taken up arms (in some cases almost literally) to protect the world’s wildlife, even personally buying a swathe of rainforest to conserve. Calling Bangkok home since the 1980s, Bill runs a studio there, and in Bali, with an international reach that’s now extending across to Europe. We chat with landscape designer and architect Bill about finding his place in Asia, work that fits with Mother Nature and his Bangkok Travel Playbook.
On growing up and growing food
I was born in Orange County, California when there were orange trees there. I’ve gone back in the last five years and I could not see even one orange tree. It's a totally different place. I grew up on a small farm where we kept chickens, ducks, quail, mushrooms, bees, apricots and oranges, of course. We were completely self-sustainable. My mom and dad were from England and they immigrated over right after the war, so I had the benefit of their knowledge of growing things. By the time I was three, I was out there helping dad weeding the gardens. I think that's where I get my understanding of what we need to do with Mother Earth, the very basics of it. What's made the difference in the architecture we produce is that it has an organic understanding.
On finding your way to Southeast Asia
It was graduation day and I was sitting next to my classmate Lek [Bunnag] in Harvard Square. He’s from Thailand, and during all of the announcements and boring stuff, I asked him, ‘Where are you going after we graduate? Like tomorrow?’ And he says, ‘I'm going to go to Singapore’. I asked ‘Where’s that,’ and he said ‘It's kind of south of China. I'm going to go there and teach’. And I said, ‘Can I come?’ He scribbled down his address and where he was going to move, and four months later I hitchhiked through Europe, went through Russia and through Malaysia. I arrived on his doorstep with about 17 bucks in my pocket and said, ‘I'm here! Now what?’ The next day I got this job with an American landscape architecture company who was doing resort work, and I was going to Bali on a weekly basis.
On falling for Bali
My first project was actually the Bali Hyatt, and I worked with Michael White or Made Wijaya. He passed away a few years ago, but he was a great designer and a great gardener — the gardens he did for the Hyatt in Sanur were exceptional. I learned a lot from him. And I became a Bali-ophile for about five years.
On finding a place in the world
At one point, there were seven hotels going up in Indonesia and we were doing the gardens for six of them. I’d cornered the market; I learned the language and would present in Indonesian. But I could see I was being put into this Bali box — call Bill Bensley if you want a Bali garden — and that was not going to be my future. So I moved to Hong Kong and did some work in China, but Hong Kong was way too dense for me. I hated it. So the same friend, Bunnag, said, ‘Hey, why don't you come with me to Bangkok?’ I went to work for Dusit Thani, a hotel company in Thailand, and then another friend gave me space in a lightless parking lot. So I had my studio in a parking garage with no natural light, and it was great because it was mine.
‘At Bensley, we have this model: if it's no fun, don't do it. There's no ‘putting in the box’ — everyone's free to do what they want, what they love.’
On Bangkok’s evolution
I've been here since 1984, and I would say Bangkok just keeps getting better and better. And I can't say that about every single city in the world. We keep fixing the problems we have. We used to have terrible traffic problems, now we've got a great underground system and trains. Bangkok keeps getting more and more complex, but it manages to hold on to its character. For example, not everyone speaks English, and that's fantastic. I used to speak Balinese, I also speak Indonesian, but I go to Bali now and I have a hard time remembering. Everybody wants to speak English. For me, as a traveler, that's not that compelling. But here in Bangkok, the taxi drivers and so forth know some basic English, but for the most part, everyone here is Thai.
On your design philosophy
At Bensley, we have this model: if it's no fun, don't do it. And that applies to everybody. If you're a landscape architect and you're not having fun, do architecture, do interiors, be an artist. In our studio now, we've got artists that used to be architects, and we've got landscape architects that used to want to be interior designers. There's no ‘putting in the box’ — everyone's free to do what they want, what they love, and are encouraged to do so.
Sustainability has this expensive aura around it — ‘Oh, sustainability is gonna cost me more’ — and developers are afraid of it because ‘I'm not gonna be able to make a profit’, and that's absolutely not true. When you do a hotel for Hyatt, for example, they will send you a big document, like four inches thick, that tells the architects, ‘This is what we want’. About two years ago, I went through all of those documents, and found hardly anything about sustainability. Not even simple things like, let's get light from two sides of a room, instead of having to turn on the light in the bathroom all the time. I asked the Head of Global Design Asia Pacific at Marriot International, Michael Wang, ‘What percent of your hotels have light from two sides,’ and he says, ‘Bill, it's only yours’. So I did this white paper called Sensible Sustainable Solutions, and it's been picked up by numerous hotel companies, especially by a lot of small firms like Kempinski and Six Senses. It’s basic knowledge that grandpa would have known, that's just been lost.
‘Without being prompted by the client, I decided to do this entire project and keep every single tree… It took a lot of extra thought, but it really worked out.’
On completing everything from A to Z
One of the first projects was the Four Seasons in Koh Samui. There was this fantastic existing forest there and there was a small private cove and something like 856 coconut trees on this beautiful property overlooking the ocean. Without being prompted by the client, I decided to do this entire project and keep every single tree. So we numbered every one and I came up with an idea that allowed us to build the buildings around the coconuts so they could go right through the roof; the trees actually go up through the swimming pools in some places. We put this hula skirt on top of the roof to shed the rainwater off, and that allowed us then to keep every single tree. It took a lot of extra thought, but it really worked out.
On buying your own slice of rainforest
The Cardamom National Forest in South Cambodia is one of the few rainforests that are still left somewhat intact in Southeast Asia and I personally purchased a large portion. I don't know to this day how the hell we did it, but we got it. It included something like three kilometers of raging rivers with waterfalls that are four and five storeys high. I did a project called Shinta Mani Wild, which is my own branded hotel. We put the tents up on really strong stilts so they don't get washed away; the next year, a huge flood came through and there was one inch between the top of the floodwaters and my floor level.
On protecting the forest’s wildlife
Something like two million hectares of land is national forest and supposedly a protected area, but the government does absolutely nothing to protect it other than allow a private party — us — to enforce the laws. It's illegal for Cambodians to poach wild animals there, so we work with the Wildlife Alliance NGO, basically a 115-person private army, carrying AK-47s, and we catch people all the time. We pick up something like 50 meters of snares per day, that kill clouded leopards. They killed a baby elephant last month, and they trap gibbons. It's like a war, a war very few people know about. And if we didn't have that private army, all of our forests in Cambodia — like Laos and Vietnam — would be completely dead.
‘I believe we already have enough buildings in this world: we don't need to build more, we need to renovate and upcycle.’
On taking conservation further afield
We are working on another project in the Congo, a place David Attenborough has brought to the world in his series Our Planet. It's a place where the elephants have for thousands of years created these openings within the very dense lowland rainforest — called a bai. They come there to eat the salts and minerals. During the full moon they'll come to socialize as well. You'll also see gorillas, but right now the poaching is uncontrolled. So we're doing a six-tent camp, something like $3,000 per person per night. Astronomical, but it's had a very high impact as far as the ability to pay for rangers, and a low impact on the environment.
On upcycling accommodation
I also believe we already have enough buildings in this world: we don't need to build more, we need to renovate and upcycle. Almost every day I go to the airport, I drive past this field of railroad cars that are just sitting there, rusting. And there's fields like this all over Thailand — because of Rama V, Thailand and Southeast Asia had a much more extensive railroad system than they do today, but rail travel isn't nearly as popular as it was 80 years ago. So I had this idea to use those cars. But the width of the car is only about two and a half meters. We’re eliminating that long corridor, because you don't need it, so the room will have the full 2.5 meters by 22 meters. Our Presidential Suite is 44 meters by 22.5 meters.
On inspiration striking while traveling
I'm walking down the back streets of the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, the flea market in Paris, and it's grungy and whatnot, and I look into this secondhand clothing shop. I see up on a pedestal this Vietnamese bamboo hat, covered in white-and-red polka-dotted fabrics, which tells me it’s 1920s. I rushed into the shop and bought it because something clicked inside the Bensley brain that this was going to inspire an entire hotel. And it did, because this hat was proof that the hill tribe people of Vietnam were inspiring the fashion of the 1920s and 1930s all the way over in Paris. That's how the MGallery in Sapa, in the very north of Vietnam, was born. So buy first, think later! When you're traveling, if you see something — as a designer especially — that you've never seen before and you know it'd be inspirational, buy it! Don't even think about it, act on your instincts because I've learned that I'll regret it.
On Bangkok treasure hunting
I’ve done this frequently for 40 years: a place called Chatuchak or the Weekend market. And just outside of Chatuchak, there's a place called the Red Building. Everybody knows it, it's just a really ugly building, but inside is probably 300 vendors of all different things, from antique Swedish chess to Thai railroad maps to memorabilia to photographs of the King of Thailand. I highly recommend it, it’s a great place to go.
‘When you're traveling, if you see something that you've never seen before and you know it'd be inspirational, buy it! Don't even think about it, act on your instincts.’
On getting your culture fix
Definitely go to River City, that's a huge complex of art galleries. River City changes constantly, so every month there's a new artist. At any one time, you could probably see 100 Thai artists there, including myself as a fine artist (laughs). I would highly recommend going to a place called the Ancient City, which is outside of Bangkok. The reason I love it is because I can bring my dogs. You can drive in, rent bicycles there and the dogs can bounce along beside your bicycle. The thing that makes that place special is that they've got hundreds of different examples of Thai architecture, over a millennium of history. That's well worth the extra half an hour that you need to take to get out of the city.
On Bangkok’s canals
I still take a long-tail boat down the khlongs [canals] on the west side of Bangkok and have it stop at every single one of the wats [temples]. These temples are overgrown and have been there since the 1700s. To get there by way of a long-tail boat, private hire is like $20 an hour. Head to Jack's Bar in Charoenkrung, and you can get one from there. Otherwise most hotels can help arrange — there is no one company that is best known. During Covid, when there were no tourists, we were the only people on the river doing this — I haven't had that experience since 1984. It's been wonderful, having Bangkok to ourselves.
On getting out of the city
During the cold weather over Christmas, we go down to a place called Wat Arun, which means the Temple of the Dawn. I find that place very inspirational. We take a hotel room right on the river and open up the windows and let the cool breeze come through. And I'll sit there on the balcony and paint the various temples I can see, because from that one particular hotel I can see perhaps a dozen different temples. Then I'll get down and wander through and I'll just go sit with my watercolors.
On where to eat
My favorite restaurant is right here at the house! I have two Thai cooks and they compete with each other! I'm sorry, I'm drawing a blank now because my favorite restaurant just closed. Almost every day I'll get my lunch down from the local market. I eat street food all the time and street food is everywhere. It is the most delicious too. So come to Bangkok, eat, and try all the street food.
On a place not to miss
Last week, I just went to the National Museum Bangkok, and it has redone its decorative arts wing. They have the most amazing Thai puppet display now, it's mind-boggling. Even if you're not a fan of puppets and whatnot, just the attention to detail and artistry is great. I spent three hours there. They've also opened up many new exhibits about the history of the Sukhothai and the history of Ayutthaya, which are Thailand’s old capitals. The displays are magnificent. Costs basically nothing to get in, and it is a world-class museum. For the last few years, I've been going every six months because they open new exhibits every six months or so. I highly recommend it.
‘Bangkok National Museum has the most amazing Thai puppet display, it's mind-boggling. Even if you're not a fan of puppets, the attention to detail and artistry is great.’
On where to stay in Bangkok
Hands down I would stay at The Siam Hotel. It's on the river. It's a very small hotel, with 30 rooms. It’s chock-a-block full of memorabilia from the turn of the century in Thailand. It's near the Grand Palace and all the wonderful things that are surrounding the Grand Palace. Bangkok is really going through a new renaissance, with all of the palaces and the wats being renovated beautifully. Now is the time to go.
On what you’ve learned on your journey so far
That it’s not as complicated as you might think. Keep it simple, you know, go back to the basics. And don't get hung up on technicalities.
On window or aisle seat
If it's a long flight, I might be window and if it's a short flight, I'm an aisle.
On a song that best represents Bangkok for you
It's a song that came out in the 1970s and it's by my friend Carabao. The name of the song is ‘Made in Thailand’ and it is a classic.
On Bangkok in one word
I think Bangkok is deliciously filthy because one can be very naughty and get very fat, very quick.