The Lost Paradise Resort located on Penang’s coastal stretch of Batu Feringghi is a bit of an oddball character.
If hotels were high school stereotypes, the Shangri-las would be the “rich kids of Instagram”, the budget hotels would be the “normies” and the Lost Paradise Resort would be that artistic drama club kid who dresses funny.
That’s because The Lost Paradise Resort is not your typical hotel. On one hand, it has all the right amenities – beachfront property, gorgeous rooms, swimming pools, bbq pit, free breakfast – but it doesn’t look like any hotel I’d ever seen and it doesn’t pretend to be a regular one either. For example, the owner’s clothes are padlocked in the walk-in closet of the Royal Family Suite (I’ll explain this later).
How does one even attempt to describe weird and wonderfulness that is The Lost Paradise Resort? It’s a bit of a mission, but I shall attempt.
Right off the bat, its interior design is allllll over the place. Minangkabau roofs, Balinese doors, multi-coloured walls, Majapahit-era bedpost, Egyptian papyrus paintings, and colourful tile designs that come out of nowhere; the entire place looks like it was created on the whim and fancy of a wealthy man with good taste. Which I learned during my five-day trip here, was exactly what happened.
An onsite surprise
The Lost Paradise Resort was never meant to be a resort, it used to be a family home. After making his fortune, pediatrician Dr. Chew Yu Gee purchased this beachfront property at Tanjung Bungah to build a dream home for his wife and five children. The current resort lobby was their living room, the Royal Family Suite was their bedroom (hence their clothes padlocked in the closet), and the medley of furnishings was their personal collection from their travels.
They were happily settling into their new home with dreams of starting a children’s hospital, but one family holiday upended their plans and changed the course of their life – they found a calling to start an international school with a difference; it would welcome both special needs students and mainstream students.
I would have loved to study in a place like The Lighthouse Academy. What makes this special needs school unique wasn’t just the individualised lessons plan that caters to each student’s learning capability, it was the fact that it mixes special needs students and mainstream students together, creating an inclusive society that we yearn so much to live in.
No one knew, but I was holding back tears when I watched the kids play during recess. Autistic, Aspergers, ‘normal’, the kids were all playing football together, reading together, looking out for each other without noticing any difference between them. I could not discern which kid had mental disabilities until the school principal, Melody, pointed them out to me.
And all these took place with hotel guests milling in and out of their rooms, taking a dip in the pool and doing other tourist things in the background. Yep, the Lighthouse Academy and The Lost Paradise Resort are located on the same site.
The reluctant hotel
Although the 40-room resort now takes up most of the 90,000 sq-feet property, the Lighthouse Academy had existed long before the resort came to be. It existed when the resort was still the Chew family’s private residence.
But in 2012, Dr. Chew fell sick and needed medical attention. The school started to face financial problems and desperately needed an alternate source of income or risk closure. Blessed with a prime beachfront property, Dr. Chew did what every entrepreneurial businessman would do – he declined all offers to sell the land for an insane amount of money that would allow them to retire comfortably. Then, he built a resort with the sole purpose of generating income to sustain the school.
Dr. Chew and his family moved out of their home, turned it into a resort, and moved into a smaller place. “I call it a reluctant hotel,” Dr. Chew, who still works full-time a local hospital, said.
He tells me how the resort is expensive and difficult to manage but without it, the school cannot afford to stay open. Without it, these special needs children would miss out on an education that our public schools do not provide.
“It’s great for the students too,” Melody, who is also Dr. Chew’s wife, said. She tells me the children get to have swimming lessons because of the resort swimming pool, that the resort supplements the school’s utility bills, making the school fees affordable. “Sometimes, we invite interesting guests to give a talk to our students, so our students get to learn from them too.”
Not all heroes wear capes, some run hotels
The Lighthouse Academy is not a business, but a mission for the Chew Family. Here’s why: Dr. Chew and wife Melody’s, second son is autistic. Over the years of providing him with the individualised care and education that addresses his disorder, he overcame his learning disability and grew to become a successful doctor.
Melody, who is an educator by profession, felt blessed that her autistic son had the opportunity to develop his skills, but was also painfully aware that other special needs children, especially those from poor families, do not have the same opportunities. After that fateful family trip, she decided to sacrifice her very cushy tai-tai life to start The Lighthouse Academy.
I asked Melody how much do the students pay but she couldn’t give me a definite answer. It’s not expensive for regular families, she said, but the school provides tuition fee waivers for underprivileged families. “Depending on the family’s situation, some students pay 30% of the school fees, some pay 80%, we even give free education to poor families.”
During my five days with Dr. Chew and his family, I went camping with his sons, met the students, visited their home and listened to their stories, and every day they surprise me with the altruistic work that they do.
“We sponsored two of my son’s best friends, both at-risk teenagers, to study a degree in theology in the Philippines,” Melody casually said.
“There’s a small children’s clinic here where impoverished families can get free treatment,” Dr. Chew cheerfully mentioned in passing.
“Most of our resort staff couldn’t get jobs elsewhere because of their background or disabilities, but we believe in giving them a second chance,” Dr Chew’s son, Dr. Iise Chew, mentioned.
I have never met a family with a heart of gold as the Chew family. His children, four of whom are also doctors, were so kind and wholesome that I needed a drink after a day out with them (in a good way because I am not the most wholesome person in the world).
Despite all the charitable work behind the scenes, The Lost Paradise Hotel and The Light House Academy work silently, a hidden gem hiding in the shadows when it needs to be celebrated.
As a hotel, The Lost Paradise successfully delivers what every resort promises to, and does it even better. Upon entering the beautiful orchid-filled driveway, the property filled with greenery, fish ponds and a solid sea view immediately whisks you away to paradise in the manic bustle of Penang city.
The most wonderful part of the experience here is that the resort guests and the school students exist harmoniously hand-in-hand. Most resort guests love the uniqueness of the place and have no problems with the small on-site school, as the students keep to their building and do not bother the guests at all. Their joyful laughter in the background is music to the ears, but if you are not a child-friendly person, the property is big enough for you to find a secluded spot away from the world.
Personally, I love that the school is in sight but still far enough that it doesn’t affect my stay. In fact, it adds to the Lost Paradise experience. I even relish in the visual impact of seeing my tourist dollars going directly to supporting education and not a rich CEO’s new Mercedes Benz.
The Lost Paradise Resort promises a good night’s sleep in its comfy beds, but the good night’s sleep you’ll get is from knowing that you’re supporting to a good cause while on holiday. And there’s no better slumber in the world than that.
But one question still begs to be answered – Is it a resort within a school or a school within a resort? That is for you to decide when you come and visit this eccentric but oh-so-wonderful place yourself.
Disclaimer: This was a sponsored trip but the thoughts expressed here are 100% my own (I don’t endorse crap). After spending 5 days with the Chew family, I genuinely think they are doing great work. The more guests at The Lost Paradise Resort means more tuition fee waivers for underprivileged special needs children, so do think of this resort for your next trip!
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