Perhaps you have heard the old Sinhalese saying, “Sri Lanka: just like India, only better.” If you haven’t, it’s because I made it up, nicking the line from a friend who described Ireland in a similar vein: “Just like England, only better.” The original and my adaptation—both statements feel true.
I first went to Sri Lanka in 2010, and 11 years later, I can confirm it remains just as good, and even better.
Though the pandemic has decimated tourism, and the economy is in shambles, visitors are starting to trickle in again. One of my stops was Negombo, a key port first ruled by the Jaffna kings, then controlled by the Portuguese in the 1600s, by the Dutch 100 years later, and finally taken over by the British by the 18th century. In the 21st century it has fallen to tourists. A beach town on the island’s west coast, just 20 minutes from the country’s main airport, it is the perfect first (or last) stop. Here are six suggestions for a lively Negombo getaway.
Perhaps the most important thing to do in Negombo, is to do not much at all, but pitch up at the beach and plant yourself in the sands with a book or a chair. Dip in the waves, have a walk along the shore. Though a local described the beaches here as “rubbish” compared to the beaches in Sri Lanka’s east, a beach is still a beach. If you need a holiday read, dare I suggest Funny Boy, a celebrated gay coming-of-age novel by Shyam Selvadurai, and Running in the Family, a memoirish account of growing up in Sri Lanka by Michael Ondaatje. I read both while I was in the country and the pleasures are considerably heightened in doing so.
Beach Road is a long stretch running parallel to the beach, though not on the beachfront, stacked with souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores. At one point on the stretch is an unprepossessing stop with the name, Grace Fresh Juice Bar. Here be wonders; mini watermelons the size of shot puts, orbs of wood apple and eggfruit, stately papayas and pineapples all lined up on the counters, awaiting their turn in the juicer.
Grace’s daughter had a robust cheer about her. “What would you like?” she asked. What would she suggest, I asked in return.
“Should I surprise you?”
“Yes! Surprise me. Make it good.”
The daughter disappeared into a room behind a curtain. Some pounding and whipping sounds followed. She emerged with a thick glass of something tall and gloopy, yellow and speckled with black dots.
I can confirm I was surprised. Pleasantly. Who knew a symphony of lime, eggfruit, banana, mango and passionfruit could be this delightful? I left LKR 400/INR 148 poorer and many vitamin doses richer.
Negombo was an important gateway for the cinnamon trade for much of its recent history. A lagoon ride in the morning, to catch the sunrise is virtually a must. Local fauna include swaying palms and thick mangroves and as for the flora, count on monitor lizards, monkeys and fisherman at the bustling morning market. I woke up at 5.30 a.m., and spent the next two hours in a creaky motorboat called Deshan Marine racing through the waters, around small islands and clumps of mangroves. We sped past large boats, as the boatman Udaya explained the fishing economy of the region. At one point he took us aboard one of the larger boats that go out to sea for days on end, where men sleep in tiny quarters at night and fish during the day. We stopped by the market where fish the size of bolsters lay stacked atop each other. On white benches, men in gumboots studied open-mouthed swimmers, supine cuttlefish and slack-jawed barramundi, awaiting their turn on a dinner plate.
Later, as the sun cracked open the sky, in a shallow portion of the lagoon, Udaya, set up a makeshift breakfast spot with a table and stools, and busted out some fruits and jumbo coconuts.
In the lagoon islands, monkeys cackled at receiving their morning breakfast of bananas from the boatmen and thalagoyas (monitor lizards) dashed through foliage. Udaya explained a local belief that those who consumed a thalagoya tongue would see their IQs rise drastically. I declined to put this to the test, and took his word for it. (Auto pick-up and drop from hotel plus boatride rental from Virgin Mary Lagoon Boat Safari, including breakfast: LKR 5,000/INR 1,850)
Negombo, once described as Little Rome, is dotted with churches and chapels given its long colonial encounters. The 100-year-old St Mary’s Church building, originally established by the Portuguese in 1603, is perhaps its most celebrated and one of the country’s largest. The boxy blue-and-white exterior has a strong vibe of wedding cake about it, and the interior has soaring arches, a grand altar and stunning ceiling. Building on this structure began in 1874, but was only completed in 1922. Some of the interior art depicting scenes from the life of Christ were completed by a local Buddhist artist. (Entry free)
Prego is run by a Singapore-returned, Negombo-born chef, and it has some fine Italian food and drink. “The wine is good, I mean European good,” one of my companions remarked one night at dinner. Also good, European-good, is the Italian food: from the Pappa al Pomodoro to the Bruschetta Mista to the Ravioli Ricotta Spinaci. Chef and owner Roy De Cruz is a pleasant presence, and when he isn’t behind the counter, tossing dough or plating delicately, he mixes with the diners, inquiring after people’s meals and quizzing them genially. (Meal for one approx LKR 2,000 or INR 740)
Hoppers are everywhere in Sri Lanka, and Negombo is no different. “Appa Kadai” or hopper shops might be just street-side stalls, with a flame, a few vessels and a mound of batter. One morning I left my hotel room in search of hoppers, hailed an auto and vaguely asked the driver to find me one. But it was a full moon day, so everything was closed that morning. Despite futile rounds through the town, the auto driver was, however, nonplussed. He stopped at what seemed to be someone’s home and asked whether they had appams, and could they please share their breakfast with this hapless tourist from India? The ladies, equally nonplussed by the disturbance, and evidently prepared for this very eventuality, emerged with a small dish with two just-off-the-griddle appams. They offered them to me, but I eventually declined, having neither plate nor condiments to eat them with. Later in the evening though, I did find an appa kadai open, and tucked into a few fresh appams as the stall owner looked on approvingly (LKR 15 or INR 6 each for the plain appams).
A discussion on street fare must also extend to the most royal thing of all, available at every street corner. In Sri Lanka, the kind of coconuts you drink water out of aren’t just coconuts, they are king coconuts. The colour of sunsets and butter, these giant planets of preternaturally sweetwater are a sharp respite from the unrelenting sun. Sip, sip and be transported. (Approx LKR 70 or INR 26).