Travel Review: Pettah: Colombo’s Mad Market (2015)

Pettah is Colombo’s only massive market place. It is a modern bargain gala thrown together with buildings that have been around since the 1900s. It offers everything from street food to clothes to electronics; it’s colourful, crowded and hot. Either you’ll hate it, or you’ll love it, there’s no in-between.

At first glance, this part of the city is going to look like utter chaos: stalls set up at random junctions, people scurrying at every corner, vendors yelling out bargains. But if you just look at your Google map, and you know what to get where, this place has almost everything to offer at a great price. It’s kind of like a grid, structurally, following the old British style of street planning.

Visually, Pettah is fascinating – you get a couple of old Victorian buildings, handpainted signboards from the ‘90s, and then neon signs and big billboards that have dominated old spaces. It’s mostly occupied by Muslim vendors, and knowing a bit of Tamil and honing your haggling skills can help you get around here. Also, know that it’s mostly a man’s world in Pettah, but I’ve personally been there loads of times and have never felt threatened; you’re alright as long as you don’t mind being ogled at by some curious shop keeper every now and then.

Here’s a summary of what to get where in Pettah.

Main Street runs along the back of the Pettah grid and like the name suggests, it’s the main street for bargains: you get a lot of the bigger clothing stores, materials and leather bags, shoes wallets and jackets here. Another leather-central is Front Street.

1st Cross Street is lined up with electronics – everything from chargers, to phones, to laptops, to everyday household equipment. The prices are great here, and a lot of it is imported from China. If you can handle the heat and you’re a good haggler when given the chance, this is the place to consult for your electronic problems. Prince Street is also a big electronics hub, while it’s also known for its toy shops.

2nd Cross Street is also big on clothes, shoes and bags. You get those gaudy saree shops, but don’t let looks deceive you, look hard and wide and you’ll find some great materials at surprising prices. There’s a reason why Pettah gets so crowded, after all. Pettah is a wonderful place for stationery needs, from kent paper to scrolls and special sketch pens – either get them in shops on 2nd Cross, or more famously on Maliban Street.

Go right down 2nd Cross to reach the Red Mosque, and somewhere nearby is the Kathiresan Kovil, two very populated religious spaces in Pettah. Watch out for fresh fruit stalls and Faluda shops where streets turn into junctions, and particularly try out the samosas, achcharu (Sri Lankan mango pickle) and isso vade (prawns embedded in vade) outside the mosque. If you are looking for great crab, I must recommend Mayura Hotel opposite the Kathiresan Kovil, it is by far the best crab (with fresh rice and curry) that I have had in the city, for LKR 430.

If you’re looking for party equipment – party hats, confetti, banners, etc, China Street is the place to go.

5th Cross Street is one long vegetable and fruit market. You’ll get that strange smell of packed veggies in the air, men in sarongs carrying large sacks into trucks, against the incongruous backdrop of faded, British 20th century buildings.

Pettah is a lot of fun, if you give it a real shot. With the right attitude, you can walk away with a great pair of pants or a saree at a ridiculous price, and with memories of interesting characters, like the young boys selling achcharu or the man at 2nd Cross who sells beach balls. It’s definitely an interesting experience and there is nothing like it anywhere else in Colombo, and at least for that if nothing else, it’s worth the visit.

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