Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shopping in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is primarily known for its 3 Ts (Tea, Textile and Tourism). In fact, this forms the base of the country’s GDP. But, if you are visiting this tropical paradise, then you can take back much more than just memories. At a high level, tourists typically stick to the gift stops in their hotels or souvenir shops in the main city market to buy souvenirs back home. But, if you really explore, you will find great variety and excellent quality at good value for money.

To start with, Ceylon Tea is Sri Lanka’s most famous export. If you like tea without milk, try the Orange Pekoe and if you prefer your tea to be strong and with milk and sugar, then go for the broken Orange Pekoe. Every Tea estate at various locations in Sri Lanka (Kandy, Bandarawella, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, etc.) have their own flavour and one can get a taste of it right there. Do keep in mind that the Sri Lankan Tea is a milder, but more aromatic form of Tea when compared to the Indian varieties. The Long Leaf varieties are milder, but make a great hot cup of relaxing tea. Though, the Orange Pekoe makes for a great brew, my personal favourites are the Chinese Herbal Green Tea and the flavoured Long Leaf varieties (available in flavours such as Passion Fruit, Cinnamon, Lemon, Mint, Vanilla and others). You might tricked into buying low quality tea at some tea estates, but for the premium and authentic stuff, buy from a Mlesna, Tea Breeze or Dilmah outlet. Personally, I prefer Mlesna over the others.

Aromatic spices also make for great buys as they constitute the soul of the Sri Lankan cuisine. For special stuff, head over to the Spice Shop at Majestic City, Bambalapitya on Galle road, Colombo. Authentic stuff is also available at supermarkets like Cargills, which are located at many places around the country.

Cashew is another important cash crop in Sri Lanka. Plain or roasted cashews are sold all over the island. Young girls sell them on the road to Kandy from Colombo and nearly all the markets and street shops in the island sell them. For the best cashews, head to Expo Shoppe, Liberty Plaza Shopping complex in Colombo.

Buffalo Milk Yoghurt
Next on the list is buffalo milk yoghurt (curd). You may not be able to carry it to your home country, but you can sure enjoy it while you are holidaying in Sri Lanka. The buffalo milk yoghurt is famous in the South and South West part of the island and is sold in earthen pots all along the highway from Thissamaharama to Thangalle on the west coast.

A lot of global brands and spirit types are available in Sri Lanka, but those are not native to this island. If you wish to carry home the local spirit, then I would recommend Mendis Old Arrack (18 years old), Rockland Old Arrack and Rockland Red Rum (a local form of slightly sweet rum). Most of these spirits contain 37.5% alcohol. These can either be bought at the Bandaranayake airport duty shop or any of the large shopping malls like Crescat Boulevard at Colombo – 3.

The tropical paradise of Sri Lanka has had a long association with precious gems and this was even before its colonial times when smugglers used to bring them from the Far East and the Middle East. The assortment of gems found here is phenomenal, but the pick of them is the blue sapphire. Star sapphires and star rubies are also quite popular as people like them in their rings and pendants. Alexandrites, Cat’s Eye, amethysts, garnets, aquamarines and moonstones are some of the other popular stones available here. When it comes to buying these gems, please do exercise extreme caution as I personally know at least five people who have been cheated. Ensure to check for hallmarks, weight and proper bills. Shops in five star hotels would be your best bet in terms of quality, though the Aida Gems and Jewellery shop on Galle road, Bentota comes with a solid reputation.

The handicraft list is quite exhaustive with items like mats, masks, drums, coconut-shell dolls, porcupine-quill boxes, lace, reed, basket and bamboo-ware, lacquerware, wooden figurines, shell crafts and silver and brassware. Additionally, there are interesting low cost items like cushion covers, hand-woven cotton sarongs, colourful doorstops and floating candles. Apart from the village supermarkets that stock not so great quality products, the best places to buy these handicrafts in Sri Lanka would be Laksala (government handicraft shop), Lakmedura on Colombo 7 and Lakpahana on Colombo 7.

These batiks are something that every tourist will see right from the time they land at the Bandaranayake airport and walk out of immigration and by the duty free shops to every market and shop in the country. The varied representations of the Sri Lankan elephant is a hot favourite as they are available in different designs or are carved from ebony. Other colourful batik designs involve motifs of peacocks and Kandyan dancers. These can be seen in wall hangings, tablecloths and songs. The government handicraft shop Laksala is the most authentic place to buy these, though it can be tad expensive.

Sri Lanka is one of the worl'd’s low cost textile centres. Clothes made here are exported all over. Quality, thickness of cloth, colours, et al vary with cost. Interesting designs and colours can be found all over the island nation. But, if you wish to wear the best, then head to ODEL Fashions, the house of Sri Lankan fashion. I am personally am a big fan of their goods. In fact, such is their aura that I end up spending more than my prescribed budget. Their souvenirs make for excellent gifts for your family and friends. If I remember right, the main ODEL showroom is in Colombo 7, though other branches are in other parts of the city too.

If a tropical destination like Sri Lanka doesn’t pique your interest, then may be you should explore the Mediterranean, especially Morocco Holidays

Note: Most of the places selling touristy goods have a built-in commission structure, so do learn to bargain hard even in big shops and start at 25% of the quoted value of goods for the road-side ones. Shops are generally open from 10 am to 6 pm, though the shopping malls are open for slightly longer. And these are Colombo timings. Shop times at other locations may vary slightly.

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