Negombo fish market, Sri Lanka
Raja suddenly appears next me, seemingly out of nowhere. Big smile, hand outstretched, he introduces himself and immediately launches into an explanation of what’s in front of me.
I could tell that it was a large hessian sheet covered in fish, I didn’t need Raja for that. But as he starts to go into the detail of how long the fish will stay out here to dry and what happens after that, I find myself interested.
I begin to ask Raja questions.
The plan had been to quickly pop into the Negombo fish markets on the way out of town.
This Sri Lankan beach, close to Colombo’s main airport, is seen as a holiday destination because of its long sandy beach. But before the resorts went up and the more recent Europeans arrived, it was a traditional fishing village.
For many of the locals, it still is – and I had been keen to get a glimpse of that.
As Raja points at some different fish on more hessian sacks, drying in the sun, he tells me they’re a different variety to the ones I was looking at when he arrived.
I can’t tell the difference until I look closely and see a slightly darker shade on one batch.
Where had Raja appeared from?
I quickly think back over the past few minutes and remember a man I had been making some small talk with shout out across the patchwork of drying fish sheets.
He must have called for Raja, who I’m quickly realising is the self-appointed local tour guide of the markets.
While he seems nice and I’m finding his information interesting, I have already spent longer here than planned. So I thank him, shake his hand, and wander off towards the car.
Before I get there, I spot something else and make a detour to get some photos. Raja appears next to me, suddenly and silently again.
He keeps talking, explaining. He asks where I’m from and I tell him “Australia”. He seems to like that answer and I ask if he’s ever been.
“Only as far as Christmas Island,” he responds.
If you know anything about Australian immigration law, you know what that means. I change the topic.
I feel like I’m invested in Raja now and so let down my guard and follow him when he suggests we head into the actual fish market building. So far all I’ve seen is the large areas outside it where there’s drying and some storage under wet sacks.
The market is square and doesn’t have a roof, as such, just a covered area along each of the four walls. In the centre, the sunlight and the heat streams in but, thankfully, the smells escape.
Some of these fish have been brought in fresh by local fishermen and some have been bought wholesale from a larger commercial market this morning and brought here to be sold retail.
The collection of sea creatures on display amazes me. This is not like my local fish shop.
There are sharks, barracuda, and dozens of other animals I don’t recognise. Raja leads me to each of the little stalls, most of which seem to consist of a woman on a small plastic stool.
He knows them all and they have a chat and a joke amongst themselves.
He picks up their wares, shows them to me, tells me what they are. Most are species of fish I have never heard of.
It’s about 9 o’clock in the morning so most of the market isn’t too busy – the real action happens at 4 or 5am. But there are enough people coming through to keep the small vendors happy.
In one corner, though, there are a lot more people gathered around, jostling and shouting. This is a fresh catch.
Everyone smiles as I walk by, they seem happy to pose for photos, and they don’t mind their fish being manhandled.
I guess it’s partly because I’m with Raja. He seems like a bit of a man around town at the Negombo fish markets.
When we’re done and I’m walking back to the car, I brace myself for the question of money. He’s going to want something for the tour he’s just given me.
I don’t mind… but I hate the hassling and that pretense of best friends that drops as soon as you hesitate to pay.
But, with Raja, it never comes. In my head I had thought about what would be reasonable (about $5) and so I decide just to go ahead and give that to him.
His big smile gets even bigger and he holds the money in his hands and kisses it. I start to wonder if I have given him too much but I’m happy enough. And so is he.
“Thank you, Michael,” he says.
“I never ask for anything but I always appreciate it.”
I suppose I feel the same. Raja’s friendliness and expert tour through the markets made me smile too. I didn’t ask for anything but I really appreciated it.
Where should you stay in Negombo?
There is a lot of choice for accommodation in Negombo.If you’re looking for a budget option, Ripple Jay is clean and comfortable. Whereas Hangover Hostel is also great and is very close to the airport, not the beach, if that’s more convenient.
A cool but well-priced option by the beach is Mama Beach.
For a lovely boutique hotel, have a look at Tranquil Negombo Boutique.And if you would like a bit of luxury, Jetwing Blue is one of the nicest on the beach.