88-Year-Old Backpacker Odysseys to Southeast Asia

Robert Mellin in 1977. | Photos provided

Robert Mellin is a man with a thousand stories.

He once punched a pickpocket and dragged him to a police station in Colombia. He went to Cuba at the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s traveled — sometimes for years at a time — through Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India. Mellin is now 88 years old, and he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

Robert Mellin in front of a ruin in Thailand on his most recent trip to Southeast Asia. 

This summer, he toured Southeast Asia for three months, with nothing more than an orange backpack and a shoulder bag. He went through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore.

“I called it my odyssey,” Mellin said. “I looked up the word in the dictionary. Yeah, I was going on an odyssey, a sojourn, an adventure.”

Mellin is a seasoned backpacker, but it had been a while since he had last gone on such a long trip. He figured that if he was going to travel to a place so far away — it takes about a day to fly to that part of the world — he should take his time.

“I had never been there before,” Mellin said. “It’s a very interesting part of the world, and I’ve always wanted to see the ruins of Angkor Wat.”

When he first started serious traveling in the early ’70s, it was an unusual thing, he said. No one in his family traveled. He grew up in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, and a trip to Texas would have been considered exotic.

“Today, it’s so popular,” Mellin said. “It’s a good thing and relatively cheap. They make it possible for the average Joe to go anywhere.”

He was inspired to start traveling by an Australian backpacker he met. Listening to her adventures abroad sparked his wanderlust, and he soon bought a ticket on a German freighter to backpack through Europe.

He figured that since he wasn’t married, and he had a bit of money saved up, there was no reason not to go.

Not too long later, he was back at it again.

On his way back to the United States, he met an American Jewish couple coming back from Jerusalem. They inspired him to make a trip to Israel for seven weeks. From there, he went to Turkey and continued west. In Copenhagen, he met a man who told him about his travels in India, so he headed to India, where he spent the next two years. From there, he took a boat to eastern Africa. On that trip, he heard about Macchu Pichu from other travelers, so he went to Peru and spent a year traveling through Latin America.

“I like to go to new places and experience new things and meet new people,” Mellin said.

Mellin said his signature travel style is budget traveling. For his first trip to Europe, he followed the advice of a book called Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer. Now, traveling on $5 a day is impossible, but Mellin still does his best to keep his travels as low budget as possible.

That’s where the idea of Mellin’s GoFundMe came from.

His grandnephew, Michael Keen, came up with the idea that he could raise some money through a GoFundMe for his trip. Documenting and sharing stories and photos from his journey with his donors would also provide him with a reason to go.

The GoFundMe raised $1,815, and Mellin shared his experiences on a Facebook page called “Robert Mellin’s South East Asia Odyssey.”

“This old guy, traveling around far-off, weird places, all by himself with a backpack, no reservations, on the cheap,” Mellin said, “people go, ‘Ahh.’ Everybody I meet, they go ‘Ohh.’ That’s the reaction I get. Until this trip, I never told anybody my age, never discussed it. Did I keep it a secret? No, I just didn’t get into it. Now, it’s out.”

Mellin’s favorite part of traveling is meeting new people. On his trip to Southeast Asia, he met people from a diverse array of backgrounds, such as Chinese, Malay and the hill tribes who live in the mountains of Vietnam and Laos, as well as fellow travelers from around the world.

“Maybe I make more friends traveling than I do at home,” Mellin said.

Despite being the experienced traveler that he is, he still learned something new on this last voyage. He generally doesn’t stay in hostels because he likes his privacy, but this time that changed.

On a sleeper bus in Vietnam, he met three Irish girls who were staying at a hostel. A bus had come to pick them up and bring them to their hostel, and Mellin rode with them. He saw everyone having a good time at the hostel, so a week later, he decided to stay at one himself.

“That was after two months of traveling,” Mellin said. “The last month, I was a hosteler, and I stayed in hostels, and it was wonderful. Important thing is I am now a hosteler. From now on in my travels, I’m going to be going to hostels.”

Keen, who calls Mellin “Uncle Rocky,” traveled to Venezuela with Mellin in 1998, which he said changed his life. They arrived in Caracas on the day Hugo Chavez was elected, and they saw celebrations in the streets. Keen also remembers paragliding, eating different kinds of food and meeting Venezuelan people. He recalls walking all over town, looking for the cheapest hotel in their quest to be budget travelers.

Robert Mellin about to jump off a cliff in Venezuela in 2007.

The experience made Keen a serious traveler as well, and when he goes somewhere — such as on a trip through South America with his wife — he asks Mellin for advice.

“He traveled for 25 years in the ’70s and ’80s,” Keen said. “He’s always traveling, and he wants to keep going.”

In the back of his mind, Mellin is already formulating his next adventure — maybe to Eastern Europe, where he could travel through Romania, Albania, Kazakhstan and some other countries.

“I wouldn’t mind going in a couple months,” he said. “Two, three months. I really wouldn’t mind it. I’m ready to go.”  

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