While most would endeavour to backpack only in their 20s, Singaporean Merine Chung started her journey at 55 and caught the travel bug for the next four years — and she’s not planning to stop.
We can all agree that backpacking is best done while you’re free of job and familial responsibilities, or while on a gap year before, during or after university. After all, backpacking has always been the “grittier” way of travelling, with a general consensus that it’s only reserved for those with genuine shoestring budgets.
That is especially why the ones who buck the paradigm stand out from the crowd — 58-year-old Singaporean Merine Chung is one of them, who is a working professional, wife, and mother to one daughter and two dogs. She is literally a living example of how “adulting” shouldn’t stop you from travelling.
When she turned 55, the Malaysian-born quit her job as regional manager for a global fast fashion retailer, and embarked on a seven-week Scandinavia and Europe trip with her sister. Addicted since, barely a year later, she spent 25 days traversing Southeast Asia solo, from Singapore to Hanoi, Vietnam entirely via land — the only flight ticket was her trip back.
Merine found her passion for travelling in her 20s, but never actually got around to backpack until she turned 55. “Backpacking has always been on my bucket list, and while I loved travelling when I was young, one part that was missing was backpacking. I never had that opportunity because first I didn’t have the money, and also I didn’t have the friends to go with me.”
As she grew older, family came into the picture and work erased any further thoughts of backpacking. “Suddenly I realised that I want to backpack when I’m still able. If I wait till I retire at 65, I don’t know if I can still do it.” This realisation further resonated within her at her last job. “I was travelling a lot for business. Business travelling is very lonely because you travel alone, but I got used to it. Even then, business travel is totally different from leisure travel. So I told myself that if I were to leave this company, the first thing I’ll do is go backpacking.”
And backpack she did. Immediately after she resigned from her high-flying job, Merine wore the mantra of “better late than never” on her sleeve, and flew to Scandinavia. Her last Facebook status before she flew? “It’s going to be life-changing!”
Why backpacking is the best way to see the world
Though financially stable enough to comfortably afford holiday luxuries like hotels and air-conditioned tour buses, Merine would never go back to that life. The reason is very clear to her: “You are more in touch with the country there. When you go for package tours, everything is pre-planned for you, and you see the usual sightseeing places. For me, it’s more than sightseeing.”
Aside from wanting to truly explore a city beneath the veneers of commercial tourism, Merine wants to fully immerse herself in a country’s culture, and eat what the locals eat. “[On package tours], they even plan your meals for you, and with Singaporean companies, even if you go to America, they will give you Chinese food,” she quips.
On her Southeast Asia backpacking trip, Merine spent S$2.50 on a six-hour train ride that took her from Bangkok to the Thailand-Myanmar border, choosing to rough it out and watch the countryside’s way of life. The train had just ceiling fans and open-air windows, with local villagers pacing up and down aisles peddling food. “It’s like a mobile pasar malam (night market)! … When you do package tours, you will never experience these kinds of things.”
That trip was a particularly memorable one for Merine, because it started from Singapore itself. From Woodlands, she went across the checkpoint and took a bus to Ipoh, followed by a train to Padang Besar the next day, where she then entered Thailand via Hat Yai.
Her trajectory then took her from Bangkok to Myanmar, to Cambodia where she ticked the Angkor Wat off her bucket list, to Phnom Penh, before finishing off in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. That was where she took the only plane ride of her journey, which was back home.
“It’s never too late to experience things. I’ve seen the sunrise at the Angkor Wat. It’s so beautiful. And then I went canoeing in Halong Bay, which was on my bucket list!”
Documenting her travels
Throughout her journeys, Merine only posted her progress on Facebook to share with family and friends. But they weren’t the only ones who were curious about how someone over 55 could do it.
“Even the youngsters at backpackers’ hostels were curious. They’d ask, ‘Why don’t you let the world know you’re doing this?'” Back home, even strangers she’d meet and regale her stories to would say the same thing. “That’s how it got me thinking that I should write a blog. It’s also good for myself so that I can remember.”
Aptly naming her blog “backpackingabove55.blogspot.com“, Merine sat down and wrote blow-by-blow accounts of her stories. “I think it’s also a good example for the older people. It doesn’t mean that when you are 55, everything stops. That’s why in my blog, I always say it’s never too late. It’s whether you have the willpower.”
Definitely not worry-free
As with every lone wolf who ventures into the unknown, backpacking isn’t without its challenges. For Merine, it isn’t so much about health. Rather, she’s more concerned about safety. “Of course, you have to be savvy about the places you go. I don’t wander around [at night] like it’s my HDB. I’ll be in my hostel resting, or make some friends to go out clubbing together.”
She’s not the only one concerned about her safety either. When Merine first broached the idea of backpacking alone, it sat well with her husband and daughter — they’d regularly communicate via FaceTime on her travels — but not her mother.
“To my mum, I’m still a young girl. She’d say there are many rape and robbery cases, and that I’d get killed overseas. She was quite negative.” But as a woman who’s set her mind to it, she went anyway, especially on the behest of her friends. “A lot of my friends don’t have the guts to do it, but they kept pushing me to do it,” she says with a laugh.
Training for a backpacking trip
To ramp up her physicality before trips, Merine brisk walks six days a week, up to six months before departure. Rain or shine, she makes the effort to walk to and from her Jurong West flat and Chinese Garden. On some weekends, she’d go trekking at MacRitchie Reservoir, Labrador Park or Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with her siblings and friends.
But that’s not all she does. For Merine, she believes you can never be too prepared. “Nearer to the day [of travel], I will put weights in my backpack and walk with the bag. Walking is one thing; when you are backpacking it’s another thing.”
Age not really just a number
No matter how young at heart you may be, you can’t totally fight the laws of nature. Merine still needs to be very careful of what she eats before her trips to avoid falling sick, and while walking poses no problems, she’s unable to run. One experience also led her to realise she had a condition called the “trigger finger”.
“On my first journey I carried a 65-litre backpack, and it was quite heavy; I didn’t notice that at first. There’s a loop at the top of the backpack that I would always hand carry with just my middle finger. When I came back, I realised that whenever I bend my middle finger, I wouldn’t be able to lift it back up.” Merine only recovered with the help of regular exercise and calcium pills.
Her unforgettable experience in Norway
“Whenever I tell people about this incident, they’d tell me: ‘This is one experience I don’t think anybody else would’ve experienced.'”
On her Scandinavia trip in Norway, Merine was supposed to take a 6:18PM train bound for Trondheim with her sister, from Lillehammer. Arriving early at about 6PM, Merine decided to buy dinner from the nearby convenience store, when her sister quizzed her about a train that just arrived at their platform.
“The clock read 6:10PM, so I thought the train was early. I grabbed my bag and went up the train. I didn’t see where it was going.”
The first red flag was when she found someone else sitting on her reserved seat. The conductor dismissed her, telling her to just grab any empty seat as the train was leaving.
Not realising the second red flag that the train was leaving before its scheduled departure, it became apparent to her after noticing every other passenger was dressed in suits with briefcases. “I asked the person next to me where the train was going. He told me the train was going south, to Oslo.” Merine was supposed to head north to Trondheim.
Flustered, she waved to the conductor to explain her predicament, which was only met with: “Well, you are going to Oslo tonight!” Not wanting to make this an expensive mistake, Merine requested to alight at the next stop, even though the next train due north was only the next morning. “I said I’ll sleep at the train station. Buying another ticket from Oslo to Trondheim would have cost me another bomb.”
Shortly after, the conductor gestured for her and her sister to bring their backpacks and follow him. Turns out, the conductor had contacted the train they were supposed to take, and agreed to have them hop off and hop on even though the train was not meant to stop.
“He told me, ‘We’re going to stop the train for you. You go down, and when your train comes, jump on the train.’ Then I looked outside. There’s nothing! Only trees and jungle!” Trusting her faith in humanity, she did as she was told, and true enough, her train came. “Right then, another train was coming right in front of me. The door opened and an elderly, male conductor asked, ‘You’re going to Trondheim?’ I was so touched, I gave him a big hug.”
The age-old question
They say to never to ask a woman her age, but when you see someone who doesn’t remotely resemble an undergraduate exchange student in a hostel, just like Carrie Bradshaw, you wouldn’t be able to help but wonder.
Merine recounts her experience in Berlin on a pub crawl her hostel organised. “All these kids were young people; we were talking but I never divulged my age to them. Suddenly, my age came up. I asked them, ‘How old do you think I am?'”
The answers? Between 35 and 40 — a far cry from her actual age of 56. “Maybe in the dark they can’t see my lines (laugh). Eventually when I told them, they were so shocked. They said I’m like their grandmum.”
What made the reactions especially golden was because of what she was doing with them on the pub crawl. “We just kept drinking and doing shots. We even played table tennis where you have to do shots. I was dancing with them and we even went to a burlesque club together. They really thought I was 35.”
The truth about hostels
Having always enjoyed the community spirit of backpackers’ hostels, Merine thinks the stigma of dirty beds and rowdy inhabitants are misconceptions. “They say it’s not safe, or that people will steal things from you. Not at all. I haven’t even lost five cents. Everyone is as normal as you and me.” The only precaution she’d advise is for travellers to carry an additional padlock.
Merine was especially impressed with one hostel in Myanmar that only cost US$8 (~S$10.90) a night, and said it was the cleanest she’s ever stayed at. “The inside is so clean, you can even lie on the floor. They always say there are bed bugs or whatever. There are none!”
Even budget travellers should treat themselves
Because Merine travels extensively on her savings, she’s always finding ways to stretch her dollar. She’d cook a heavy breakfast and dinner with groceries from a supermarket, and eat street food for lunch. She does, however, make it a point to splurge on just one thing in every city she visits: an atas (high class) meal.
“Before I leave each city, I’ll go around and see what’s the best food they have and splurge on it. I want to try their gourmet meals, as well as their wine.”
Backpacking tip: omit and reduce
On Merine’s first trip, just like any rookie backpacker, she erred on the side of caution and brought a 65-litre backpack filled to the brim, only to realise she didn’t use many of the items she packed.
Now, she carries a 45-litre that was a Mothers’ Day gift from her daughter. “When I did my two-week trip from Hokkaido to Tokyo, I only brought a 35-litre, and I could even fit in souvenirs like the seasonal Kit Kats.”
The secret in shedding that extra 30 litres was to firstly remove everything people initially advised her to bring, one of them being a sarong. “They told me I could use it to change anywhere, as a blanket, or even a bed linen because maybe hostel beds are dirty. But they’re not! They’re so clean, and they give you fresh sheets every time you check in. Now I totally omit sarongs from my list.”
Next, was to reduce the volume of her essentials. “Instead of a big towel, I bring a small, absorbent towel that’s made from special materials [like microfiber].” She also halves her number of clothes, and launders every day instead. “Nowadays I just wear one pair of jeans and bring another. That’s it.”
Words of wisdom
Taking the first step
Merine understands that not many people her age would dare venture on a trip like hers. “It’s fear of the unknown. Maybe at my age, people also fear of safety, and fear eating the wrong food and getting sick. There’s also the fear of theft and rowdiness in hostels. They think they cannot take it.”
Regardless of age, backpacking takes courage, and mustering it is always uncomfortable. However, Merine insists that once you get out, everything will fall in place. “It’s totally fine! [With backpacking] you can go at your own pace. Nobody is going to rush you. If i want to sleep in late, I can sleep until 10AM. Nobody will tell you to wake up and go somewhere.”
Young backpackers, don’t expect anything
If there is one advice she’d give young, aspiring backpackers, it’s to have zero expectations. “Go and enjoy your life. Don’t expect anything. In your 20s, you have a lot of expectations about life. Don’t. Have an open mind. It’s a lifelong learning journey that you’ll never get in university.”
Acknowledging that not everyone’s backpacking experience will be all roses, Merine also advises to take negative experiences in your stride. “If you meet nasty people, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. If people get angry with you, it’s because there’s a misunderstanding. You’ll learn, and the next time before you do anything, you can explain and present yourself better.”
Even for the homebodies, Merine would encourage people to gain new perspectives overseas. “The whole world is not only Singapore. You learn a lot of things outside. I’ve learned a lot of things, and become a wiser person. At my age, I’ve become more tolerant because of my travels.”
How her life changed in more ways than one
Since embarking on her adventures, Merine learned to eat healthier and omits fried food from her diet, which helped her become more energetic. “I’m not even a health freak; I’m health conscious. When I went back to the workforce this year, everyone told me that I lost so much weight. I only lost maybe 4kg since I stopped working, but it was a gradual process throughout the four years because it’s made me healthier.”
Merine attributes this change to the land of the rising sun. “When you go to other countries, you see how people eat — look at the Japanese, they can be 100 years old and they still take the bus by themselves. And what do they eat? They eat very healthy food. Singaporean food is not the healthiest in the world, because a lot of it is oil-based.”
Now that Merine has witnessed how healthy eating can lead to a long, quality life, she’s proactively taking steps to eat even healthier now. “Lately, I also reduce my meat and sugar. I want to live long, enjoy life, and still go backpacking in 10 years’ time. I still have a long way to go.”
Next on the bucket list
Fortunately for Merine, she says that three quarters of her bucket list have already been completed. “At my age, there are not many items in my list already. But I still have some that I want to do.” Next year, Merine aims to hop on the Trans-Siberian Express, as well as visit Meteora in Greece when the right opportunity comes.
“I also haven’t visited Indonesia yet. I want to backpack the whole of Indonesia; I’ll do it one day,” she added.
You never stop learning about the world as a traveller; Merine never fails to count her blessings with every journey she makes. “Especially in Singapore, we are never worse off than any other people in the world. We are very blessed. Be thankful for what we have.”
“To me, I see the world so differently now. With every situation, there is always a solution. Life is what you make out of it. If you choose to be happy, you’ll be happy.”
Feeling inspired? Read the stories of other travellers who break the mould:
Life Of Travellers After Having Kids — Parents of Singaporean Momo Twins @Leialauren
Is Travelling Solo Scary? Not For This Singaporean Deaf Traveller — Mairah
Young Singaporean travels to work with rioters and refugees around the world
All images credited to Merine Chung.