The plan had been to quickly stop by the Negombo Fish Market on the way out-of-town, only that didn’t go to plan.
On the west coast of Sri Lanka, between the capital Colombo and the International Airport is the city of Negombo. Known for its canal system and lagoon – left by the Dutch, the resorts that line its beachfront, and its seafood.
One of Negombo’s most popular sites is the fish market, known by locals as “Lellama“; the second-largest in Sri Lanka. It gives tourists the chance to meet the local fishermen, watch the daily fish auctions, organise fishing trips or boating tours of the lagoon and ocean beyond. A trip to Negombo’s Fish Market is even better when you meet Raja.
Beckoned over by a local fisherman who saw me wondering between the rows of drying fish stretched out on long kohu lanu (coconut fibre) sacks atop the beaches sand, Raja seems to act as the markets tour guide.
I knew that on the kohu lanu cloths spread far to my left and my right fisherman were drying fish. Seemingly thousands of tiny sardines and other small fish, big fish chopped into pieces, and even a few squids lay baking under the warming Sri Lankan sun. Raja seemed to know each species by name.
You could tell that he was a man who had been doing this job for many years. While others were turning fish – the fish lay on one side, drying in the sun for a few hours, before the fisherman come back to flip it over to dry on the other side – or laying out their latest catch, Raja set about explaining to me about drying times for different types of fish and what sold the best.
To me all the fish look exactly the same, all smell the same; a small that even as I write this I can remember vividly. Seeing the look on my face Raja pointed out their differences between two drying fish, one had a brown stripe running, nearly indistinguishable, along its side.
As I kneeled among the mats taking photos, I heard someone talking to me.
I turned; there was a young girl holding a drying fish out to me in her outstretched hand.
I smiled and took it. She trotted away, seemingly content, and toddled off across the mats.
I went back to taking photos, but only a few seconds later, I heard her voice again.
It had become a game.
She passed me the fish, I smiled; she laughed, trotted off and returned a few seconds later with another smelly, half-dried fish. My hand was soon full, but still the fish came.
Raja had spotted me kneeling among the mats and was talking to her Mum, sitting nearby and laying out fish on the mats. Raja must have made a joke because she laughed loudly.
As I said goodbye, Raja seemed insistent on taking me somewhere else and, throwing caution to the wind, I followed him. He took me to the real wet market, not just where they dry fish on the beach, just next door to the beach.
The thud of knives breaking down fish, people loudly calling out trying to sell their catches, and the smell of fresh fish having sat under the warm sun. This was the inside of Negombo’s wet market.
Raja explains some of these fish have been brought in fresh by local fishermen from the sea and Negombo’s lagoon and some have been bought wholesale from a larger commercial market this morning brought here to be sold retail.
Along the tables is all manner of sea creatures. Alongside the crabs and squids, there are sharks, barracuda, and dozens of other animals I don’t recognise. Raja picks them up, explaining what they are while chatting to the stall owners – mainly women sitting on little plastic stools.
He tells me I came late. It’s about 9:00 am but the real action begins at 4 or 5 am when the boats begin to bring their catches in. Then, the auction begins. The best fish is sold to local hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Then, some are sold here at the local market. Others are dried on the kohu lanu sacks stretched out along the beach.
I found that – like across most of Sri Lanka – the locals are happy for tourists to come to visit their market and take photos of their foods. They smile, try to make conversation with my very limited Sinhala not extending past “hello” and “thank you”. They smile when I try, repeating the phrases perfectly.
But Raja is the star. He knows every stall holder, every fish, and shares stories as he manhandles the fish.
The question of money for his tour never came up but, as I returned to the car, I gave him a small amount, about equivalent to $5. He kissed it and shared one of his trademark smiles.
“I never ask for anything but I always appreciate it.”
Negombo Fish Market
Selby Road (West side)
It’s near the Negombo Fort.
From research, I believe the Negombo Fish Market runs 7-days a week. The market has a different feel on Fridays (when Muslims have their holiday) and Sundays (when the Catholics have their holiday).
Where to stay in Negombo, Sri Lanka:
During my time in Negombo, I stayed at Jetwing Blue. The only five-star hotel along Negombo’s beachfront, and Jetwing’s first hotel in Sri Lanka. The rooms are huge, incredibly reasonably priced for the service and what you receive, and you can go from swimming in the ocean to the hotel pool in less than 30 seconds.
Jetwing Blue is also one of the greenest hotels I’ve stayed in. They are proud to be making their chain of hotels across Sri Lanka cleaner, greener and more environmentally friendly by doing everything from installing shower heads that use less water, to put light sensors in the car park and public toilets, and asking hotel suppliers to use less packaging. They even let you know when you’re using solar power.
If you want to see more of Sri Lanka but don’t want to join a tour, talk to Jetwing Travels about putting together a customized itinerary for you. They are fantastic and the drivers speak a variety of languages.
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I travelled with a friend who was a guest of Jetwing Blue, but I was not asked to write anything.
All thoughts, opinions, and meeting of strange men at the Negombo Fish Market was, as always, my own choice.