Nil recurring in Negombo

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Asia » Sri Lanka » Western Province » Negombo
March 26th 2017
Published: December 28th 2017
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Today we were travelling north from Colombo to Negombo.

We woke at 6:30am, which was remarkably early given the music from Colombo’s Street Food Festival played well into the early hours on the street outside our hotel. We used the remaining hours in our hotel room to catch up on our writing, as we were checking out at midday, grabbing some lunch close by and then travelling by Uber to Negombo, the start of our next Sri Lankan journey.

We headed out for a late breakfast and found ourselves at Heladiv Tea Club in the Old Dutch Hospital courtyard for the second morning in a row. I opted for toast, jam, fresh pineapple juice and tea, while Ren went for the French toast, fresh mango juice and tea. The food was great, although Ren’s French toast was the strangest version of the dish I’ve ever seen – fresh strawberries sliced meticulously on toast with a small jar of maple syrup in the middle of the plate.

After breakfast we headed back to the hotel to organise our packs and check out. We met Damien (our travel companion for the entire Sri Lankan journey) in the lobby and made our way back across the road to the Old Dutch Hospital building for a supposedly small lunch. We chanced upon Ikoi-Tei, a Japanese restaurant and bar that has been ranked 11th in the top 15 Asian restaurants in Colombo. I ordered a chicken cutlet burger, while Ren went for a chicken and sashimi bento lunch box. The early afternoon sun was hot, so I grabbed a draught beer from the bar and Ren ordered an iced lemon and mint tea. We shared a matcha (green tea) ice cream to finish the meal, which was served on a bed of cornflakes. There were some quirky touches to each dish, but overall the food was great, so its ranking in Colombo’s top 15 Asian restaurants is certainly well deserved.

We finished our meal and walked back through the Old Dutch Hospital building to hotel ZMAX Fairway. We grabbed our packs while Damien organised a driver to Negombo on his Uber account. The driver turned up within five minutes, and we arrived in Negombo 45 minutes later. We checked into Paradise Beach Hotel and settled in our room to catch up on some writing. I’ve never used Uber overseas before, but given the low price, the ease of booking, the professionalism of the driver and the comfort of the car, I’ll certainly consider it in the future when transferring between cities.

We headed down to the hotel lobby in the early evening for a group meeting, then walked a short distance to the Coconut Lodge and Restaurant for dinner. We (Damien, Ren and I) shared a rice and curry with prawns and a devilled chicken (a spicy stir-fried) dish. The rice and curry dish came with brinjal moju (fried eggplant pickle), dahl (lentil curry), potato curry, prawn curry and pappadums. The food was fantastic, as was the cold beer. As the night slowly closed in around us, we strolled back to the hotel and retired early. We needed to prepare for a long road trip to Wilpattu National Park and Anuradhapura the following day.

We woke at 5am, as we had one final activity in Negombo before embarking on our journey north-east – an early morning walking tour of Negombo’s fish markets. We’d visited the markets a few weeks previously, and while we knew the smell would be intense, we really wanted to experience the markets again – there were just so many photo opportunities we didn’t want to miss.

We wandered around the crowded, pulsating fish markets in the dawn light, occasionally holding our breath to cope with the intense smell that penetrates your nostrils and infiltrates your stomach. We hadn’t eaten breakfast, and I realised this was a good thing – I’m not sure I’d have been able to keep much down. Fish of all sorts and sizes were being sold in one area and gutted in another – mackerel, tuna, shark, squid, mullet, sprats, stingray, pilchards… the list of fish types went on and on. Fish were being cleaned on the ground, and blood and offal squelched under our thongs (flip-flops). Dogs were wandering through the market, looking for morsels of food and squirreling them away before crows swooped and stole their bounty. This was an intense sensory experience, and we seemed to enjoy it more this time around.

We then headed by minibus to Negombo’s old Dutch fort area, stopping on the way to walk over the bridge spanning Negombo Lagoon and to wander around the old gate of the fort area. We continued on to the lagoon foreshore where we walked in the sand between long hessian sheets where fish were methodically laid out and dried in Negombo’s searing sun. While the smell wasn’t quite as bad as the markets, it was still intense – this was, after all, dried and drying fish.

Having captured as many fish-themed photos as we possibly could in this malodourous environment, we jumped into the minibus and headed back to the hotel to shower and prepare for our long day of travel. We quickly organised our packs and headed down to breakfast, where I rushed through some cornflakes, an omelette, toast, jam, juice and tea before leaving Paradise Beach Hotel at 8:30am. We were finally on our way to Wilpattu National Park.

We woke just before 7am and spent a relaxed morning in our comfortable Colombo hotel room writing notes and packing, as we were heading to Negombo after lunch. We were starting our next Intrepid Travel trip that evening and we were focussed on having a quiet day.

We had another relaxed breakfast at Heladiv Tea Club in the Old Dutch Hospital. The juices and pot of English breakfast tea was very welcome and helped rehydrate us after our slight excesses the night before. This time I ordered the French toast with maple syrup. I was expecting some variation of bread soaked in eggs and milk then fried… but what came out was buttery toasted baguette with sliced strawberries. It was very tasty, but not what I was expecting. I know it’s a small thing, but it made me remind myself that travel is much more exciting when I don’t have preconceived ideas or expectations. 😊

We checked out at midday and met Damien at reception. We headed out to Ikoi-Tei for a Japanese lunch that Damien had read good reviews of. Andrew loved his chicken burger and my chicken karaage and tuna sashimi bento box was quite lovely, with sides of potato and fish. However, my dessert of matcha (green tea) ice cream was a disappointment, and the fact that it came on a bed of not-quite-crisp cornflakes was just plain weird. Regardless, Ikoi-Tei was a lovely (and popular) spot for lunch.

We got comparative quotes from a taxi company and a hotel car to take us to Negombo, and in the end concluded that Uber was much cheaper. So Damien called an Uber, and it was at our hotel in four minutes! I can’t remember much of the 45 minute trip to Negombo, as I was asleep before we’d even left the traffic mayhem of Colombo.

Negombo hadn’t endeared itself to any of us the last time we were here, and I wanted to approach our second visit with an open mind…but within seconds of walking into our barely clean hotel room, I was in a grump – which wasn’t a great start. The Paradise Beach Hotel was soulless and uninspiring. I think it also suffered from the fact that we’d just come from a very lovely hotel with fluffy white towels and soft linen. Like our last hotel in Negombo (which was just down the road), Paradise Beach Hotel opened out directly onto the beach, and I would say that was its only redeeming feature.

At 6pm we went downstairs for our Sensational Sri Lanka Intrepid Travel trip’s first group meeting. We met our group leader Bala and five members of the group – Paul and Grace (Aus), Collin and Anne (Aus) and David (British but now living in Aus). Damien, Andrew and I made up the eight members of the group. There was supposed to be a ninth member, but his flight had been delayed; and Mark (from Aus) didn’t join us until the next day. My initial impression of Bala was that he was knowledgeable and passionate about tourism. His opening group meeting was very comprehensive, but it was very clear that as an ex-teacher, he still used his secondary school teaching methods. 😊

We headed out to Coconut Lodge for dinner, and Bala recommended the rice and curry option which came with dahl (lentil curry), potato curry, prawn curry, devilled chicken (a spicy stir-fried dish), brinjal moju (fried eggplant pickle) and pappadums. It was an enjoyable meal. As we walked back to the hotel we realised we had the same driver (Anil) and bus assistant (Hemantha) from our last trip – we were very happy, as they’d been fabulous.

We tried to have an early night, as we had a 5:45am start the following morning to visit the Negombo wholesale fish markets. We’d already experienced this activity during our last trip, but thought we’d go again in case it was different. My head hit the pillow at 10pm, and the next thing I knew the alarm was going off at 5am. After a quick cup of tea in our room, we left for the markets. Getting to the fish market at 6am was a very different experience to when we’d arrived at 6:30am on our last visit – the stocks of fish were higher and the market was much more frenetic. It’s amazing how quickly the fish are sold as they’re brought in off the local boats.

We crossed the road and walked into the large area where the bigger boats had unloaded their deep sea catch. There weren’t as many large tunas as the last time, but they seemed to have brought in a bountiful catch of rays and small sharks. As we watched, a three-wheeler (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) was loaded up with about fifteen cleaned and beheaded sharks for delivery. I wouldn’t want to be the next passenger on that three-wheeler!

It’s amazing how quickly you can get used to things, I thought to myself, as I sidestepped a mound of fish fins and carefully stepped over the rivulets of water and blood that ran through the area. A very similar scene had churned my stomach on my last visit, but this time I saw it for what it was – a fast moving and tough workplace, where workers had a quick few hours to do their day of work (rather than my imaginary scene of a mass murder, with randomly strewn carcases). I’m grateful when I can recognise and drop my preconceived filters and see places for what they are, rather than what my sensibilities tell me they should be. I think all the fish and seafood loving tourists should be open to seeing the reality of where the food on hotel buffets come from, and meet the people who toil to provide it.

We then revisited the retail fish market and fish drying area on the beach. It was earlier in the day and the sun hadn’t warmed the drying fish, so it wasn’t as pungent as the last time… but it was still pretty stinky! We saw the process of brining, where fish are put into brine in big plastic vats before they are dried for an average of two days. The extensive drying operation is managed by ten owners who control the whole process. I thought I heard the workers speaking in Tamil, but Bala explained that the Tamil spoken here was a dialect that mixed Malayalee words, as many of these workers had come from southern India.

Due to the ‘fishy’ nature of this activity, our discussion of whether we would revisit the fish markets had been lengthy… and I’m so glad we both decided to go back. Firstly, I think I was more relaxed and much less confronted by the whole process, and secondly, Bala’s explanation of the whole chain of commerce was also very interesting.

We arrived back at the hotel at 7am and quickly showered and packed, before rushing through a breakfast of crusty bread rolls with spicy omelette and pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime). I also tried a piece of date and nut cake, which was seriously delicious.

Sadly, even after a second visit, Negombo hadn’t endeared itself to us. If anything, it confirmed that we really don’t like places that try to replicate ‘that backpacker vibe’ from south-east Asia.

Next we head north-east to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, via a stop in Wilpattu National Park.


1st January 2018

Not a beach destination!
Very much agree with your views on Negombo. We booked two nights because I assumed it would be a good introduction to the country. I was wrong, and regret not driving farther south to clean beaches. If wasn't so close to airport and Colombo, I don't think tourism rates would be so high.
1st January 2018

Re: Not a beach destination!
Yes I agree with you that Negombo's popularity has a lot to do with the location. I was so surprised to see tourists swimming in the sea, even with reports of effluent in the water... Thanks for your comment Farook :)
2nd January 2018

We hadn't heard many nice things about Negombo, therefore skipped it. The fish markets sound like an unusual adventure.
3rd January 2018

Re: Negombo
The fish markets are an integral part of the Negombo economy, and it was fascinating seeing it in action. But definitely not an activity for anyone with a sensitive olfactory system :)
4th January 2018

Fish Tales
Great photos of the fish market guys, and love the fishy tuk tuk, it now makes me realise perhaps why our bags smell so bad, or perhaps that is just from me. As for Ice cream and soggy corn flakes that is just plain wrong.
4th January 2018

Re: Fish Tales
Further proof that there really is nothing a tuk tuk can't do! I was more comfortable taking photos of the fish market this second time... as I wasn't as squeamish about standing on a blood soaked floor :)
6th January 2018
fish market

This is one of my favorites
I love, love, love this one. I love showing the locals working their craft.
6th January 2018
fish market

Re: This is one of my favorites
This fish market showcased the local industry very well. I was mesmerised by this guy's knife skills! :)
6th January 2018

Farewell to Negombo
Your blog will save people from going to this town and heading further south. I've enjoyed all the photos of life in the fish market. Some towns capture our hearts and others don't do a thing.
6th January 2018

Re: Farewell to Negombo
It was a very happy final farewell! Despite our misgivings, Negombo is very popular with many tourists who like its proximity to the airport... Andrew and I likened it to the tourists who drive out of Hobart Airport and stop suddenly in the middle of the road when they see a small flock of sheep; not knowing that a few kilometres up the road there are hundreds more, in much more beautiful paddocks (and with much safer ways to photograph them) :)

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