How to Stay at a Five Star Resort for Free!

Last month, I had the incredible opportunity of living at a Five-Star Resort Cost-Free for 3 weeks!  


It all began when my friend Tom and I first arrived in Langkawi, an island off the west shore of Malaysia.  We had just finished a delicious Thai meal at a restaurant called Tom and Jerry’s Cafe, where I spent a whopping $4 USD (14 Malaysian Ringgit) on a flavorful plate of Pad Thai Noodles accompanied by a large Tom Yum Soup.  


While leaving the cafe, Tom noticed a sign for a volunteer opportunity.  It was to help build a sustainable community for Burmese refugees living in Malaysia called 100 Hands (if you are in Langkawi, I highly recommend looking into the project).  We began discussing our interest about the project out-loud which caught the attention of a local Malaysian couple (Sham and Eza) who were breaking their fast at the table behind us.  


They mentioned that they had heard good things about the project but that it could be difficult for us to get involved with because they usually look for long-term volunteers.  However, Sham said that he and Eza were property managers for a now defunct Five Star Resort called the Seri Chenang and were looking for volunteers to help them with general maintenance in exchange for housing.   


Not knowing exactly what to expect, Tom and I met Sham at the resort the next day to tour the property and discuss what help they needed. Immediately upon walking through Seri Chenang’s gates, I knew we would be in for a treat.  The property has 7 full-sized houses each designed after classic Malaysian architecture found in 7 different Malaysian provinces.  Each house is equipped with modern furniture, rain showers, A/C, and a wrap around porch.  Talk about luxury!



We asked Sham what his expectations for us would be.  He said that as long as we cleaned up the house we were living in and maintained the resort grounds for 3-4 hours a day, then we were free to stay for as long as we needed to!  Our work hours would be up to us and we just needed to keep the place looking clean.  Asking how the resort came to be “abandoned”, he explained that the owner was trying to sell the property after deciding to close operations 2 years ago.  Therefore, helping with general maintenance would be a big help in making sure the property was presentable to potential buyers.



Deciding it was an opportunity too good to pass up, Tom and I

returned the next day ready to start!



Sham walked us over to the house Tom and I would be occupying: Rumah Trengganu.  After stepping through its heavy, ornate wooden doors, we were impressed by the size of room and height of the ceilings.  Considering we had been living in hostels for the previous 2 months, we were beyond stoked.


Rumah Trengganu: Our residence for 3 weeks!

Rumah Trengganu: Our residence for 3 weeks!

The luxurious rooms at Seri Chenang 

The luxurious rooms at Seri Chenang 


The only downside upon arrival was that many of the houses had been sitting for the last two years unoccupied (apart from a few uninvited “guests” including friendly bats and bees).  There was a bit of dust around the house and the critters we would have to "take care of", but besides that, the house was in incredible shape.  


After only a day of intensive cleaning, we had the house looking and feeling like the five-star accommodations that it once was.  


My morning view of Plumerias 

My morning view of Plumerias 

While staying at the resort, it felt great to have some responsibilities and purpose.  Two full months of traveling and socializing had left me craving something productive to do.  


We helped drain and scrub the pool, maintain the houses and gardens, and name the 3 separate litters of feral kittens that had been adopted by Seri Chenang.  We kept busy.


Dato Zainal: The Man, the Legend

Dato Zainal: The Man, the Legend

A day later we met the owner, an 80-year-old architect from Kuala Lumpur named Dato Zainal Abidin Mohamed Ali (Dato is an honorary title in Malaysia).  


Dato has a wild appetite for tennis, karaoke, and live music.  I have no idea where he gets his energy at his age!  His brother in-law, Mahathir Mohamad, was the Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years and Dato took us on a tour of the Prime Minister’s Museum which is also in Langkawi.  It was clear that his family is well regarded and connected in Malaysia.  

Dato was even generous enough to invite us out one night to see some live music in town where he chauffeured us around in his Malaysian built Proton until midnight on a Tuesday!  We spent the evening smoking cigars, chatting with his friend Kartini, and even joining him in singing on stage.  I hope I have the same vigor and enthusiasm when I'm 80!


Dato also invited us to "break-fast" at his local mosque (which he designed himself) and made us feel like family at one of its Ramadan celebrations.  It was incredible to share his energy and open attitude, especially with his local community.  


He is genuinely interested in meeting and socializing with all types of new people, showing that age really has no limits to the type of person you can be.  His hospitality and generosity is something that I truly admire.  


I feel very fortunate to have spent close to a month at this wonderful place with some interesting and kind people.  My experience at Seri Chenang showed me the beauty of serendipity and keeping yourself open to all types of opportunities.  Especially if the ability to live at a Five Start Resort crosses your path!

Shaun McCreedy