Food always tastes better when you’re hungry, says Tom Kevill-Davies, who is sampling hot pots, herbs and fish on his two-wheeled trek up the Mekong.
Deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, a scruffy Londoner manages to procure passage for a nine-day journey that will carry him and his bicycle down the Amazon River.
But his delight begins to dissipate when he sees his travelling companions: buffalos, pigs, chickens, ducks and other animals. The livestock is crammed below deck, next to the kitchen, while the cyclist joins the humans above.
When the rains come, the water floods the lower deck, causing the animal droppings to rise to the surface and ooze up through the floor planks of the rickety structure.
Atop the boat, people stand in pools of dung as the standard meal is dealt out: a bowl of soup made from riverwater and whichever hapless animal lay within reach of the cook.
“After two bites, my body rebelled,” the cyclist recalls.
Tom Kevill-Davies, 31, ranks this Amazonian culinary experience among his worst ever – and he has plenty to choose from. Disenchanted with his life at a London advertising firm, he hopped on his bike six years ago and sped off in pursuit of the most delicious meal he could find.
After spending two and half years biking from New York to California and on to Brazil, Kevill-Davies put his adventures to paper in The Hungry Cyclist, combining the excitement of biking with the thrill of discovering tasty food inunexpected locales.
This marriage of cycling and eating takes its strength not only from a love of food and biking, but also from the simple tenet that food will taste better to a ravenous cyclist.
Six weeks into a six-month journey around the Mekong region, Kevill-Davies is cycling and eating his way through Southeast Asia, recording recipes where he can, and relying on online translations to assist him.
“I’m interested in the context of food: why people are eating what they’re eating, the herbs, the hot pots, the use of fish in the area around the Mekong,” he said.
Before pushing off to explore Kampot and Kep, the hungry cyclist made the most of Phnom Penh’s delights throughout the Water Festival.
Kevill-Davies raved about the street food – the coconut soups, the “crunchy and chewy” tarantulas and snakes – and about the ambience of the festival, which he rated as one of the best experiences of his life.
Life on the road
But cycling around Southeast Asia is not without its obstacles. Throughout southern Vietnam he had to contend with police and government officials forbidding him to hang his hammock in some areas. With rural families torn between offering him hospitality and breaking the law, he would often be given a meal and sent on his way.
Heat, dehydration, sunburn, vicious dogs, eye infections from dusty roads and culinary disasters are daily hazards.
“I’m not making this sound good at all, am I?” he joked.
Then there is the loneliness. Up at 6am for a solo cycle until noon, a rest and a meal during the midday heat, and then back on the saddle until nightfall, when he sets up camp or finds a guesthouse.
Sometimes he will go weeks without conversation beyond the excited yelps of “Hello! Hello!” from village children.
“But,” he warned, “if you think cycling is lonely, writing a book is really lonely.”
Kevill-Davies described his 10-month writing odyssey as “mentally exhausting”, with days spent at a local London library among secondary school students cramming for exams and chomping on crisps. His sleep was destroyed by middle-of-the-night urges to scribble ideas down.
For now at least, Kevill-Davies is free of the stresses of book writing and is chronicling his journey – complete with photos, videos and recipes – on his blog: thehungrycyclist.com.
He welcomes suggestions of places to eat and visit as he attempts to make his way up the Mekong from Vietnam through Cambodia, Laos and China to the river’s source in Tibet.
And will this latest adventure ever be available in paperback?
“We’ll see,” he said. “First I’ve got to find out how it ends.”