Sri Lankan craftsmanship has a long and vibrant history, and a visit to any museum will turn up objects testifying to the skill of the island’s earlier artisans, who have for centuries been producing exquisitely manufactured objects in a wide variety of media, ranging from lacework and ola-leaf manuscripts to carvings in ivory and wood and elaborate metalwork and batiks.
Unfortunately, despite these fine traditions, much modern Sri Lankan craftsmanship has largely degenerated into the mass production of a few stereotypical items, and shopping is something of a disappointment compared to nearby countries such as India or Thailand. The decline in creativity is exemplified by the nationwide chain of government-run Laksala shops, whose outlets are stuffed to the gills with a predictable assortment of clumsily painted wooden elephants, kolam masks, ugly batiks and other tourist tat. It’s not all bad news, however, and there are still a few worthwhile exceptions, especially in Colombo, which is also the best place to buy everything else Sri Lanka has to offer, from books to tea and discount clothing.
Prices and ethic purchases
All larger shops have fixed, marked prices, although if you’re making a major purchase or buying several items, a polite request for a “special price” or “small discount” might knock a few rupees off, especially for gems or jewellery. The smaller and more informal the outlet, the more scope for bargaining there’s likely to be – if you’re, say, buying a sarong from an itinerant hawker on the beach, you can haggle to your heart’s content.
Finally, there are a couple of things you shouldn’t buy. Remember that buying coral or shells (or any other marine product) contributes directly to the destruction of the island’s fragile ocean environment; it’s also illegal, and you’re likely to end up paying a heavy fine if you try to take coral out of the country. Note that it’s also illegal to export antiques (classified as anything over fifty years old) without a licence.
The most characteristic – and clichéd – Sri Lankan souvenirs are brightly painted masks, originally designed to be worn during kolam dances or exorcism ceremonies and now found for sale wherever there are tourists (though the sheer quantity churned out means that many are of indifferent quality and sloppily painted). Masks vary in size from the tiny to the huge; the vast majority depict either the pop-eyed Gara Yaka or the bird demon Gurulu Raksha, though if you hunt around you may find other designs. Some masks are artificially but attractively aged to resemble antiques – a lot easier on the eye than the lurid colours in which most are painted. The centre of mask production is Ambalangoda, where there are a number of large shops selling a wide range of designs, some of heirloom quality.
Second in popularity are elephant carvings. These range from small wooden creatures painted with bright polka-dot patterns to the elegant stone carvings sold at places like Paradise Road in Colombo. Batiks (an art introduced by the Dutch from Indonesia) are also widespread. Designs are often stereotypical (the Sigiriya Damsels and naff beach scenes are ubiquitous), though a few places produce more unusual and interesting work.
A number of other traditional crafts struggle on with a little help from the tourist trade. Metalwork has long been produced in the Kandy area, and intricately embossed metal objects such as dishes, trays, candlesticks and other objects can be found in all the island’s handicraft emporia, though they’re rather fussy for most foreign tastes. Leatherwork can also be good, and you’ll find a range of hats, bags, boots and footrests. Lacquerware, a speciality of the Matale area, can also sometimes be found, along with Kandyan-style drums and, occasionally, carrom boards. Wooden models of tuktuks and other vehicles are another local speciality and make good souvenirs or children’s toys. They’re most commonly found in Negombo, but are also increasingly available in Colombo and elsewhere on the island.
Finally, if you’ve a day in Colombo, it’s well worth seeking out the modern handicrafts found at a few Colombo boutiques.
Wood or stone Buddha carvings of varying standards are common. For something a bit more unusual, the brightly coloured posters or strip-pictures of Buddhist and Hindu deities which adorn tuktuks and buses across Sri Lanka are sold by pavement hawkers and stationers’ shops everywhere and make a cheap and characterful souvenir, while a visit to Kataragama or a trawl along St Anthony’s Mawatha in Colombo will uncover an entertaining assortment of other religious kitsch, from bleeding Catholic saints to illuminated Ganesh clocks.
Tea and spices
Most top-quality Ceylon tea is exported, but there’s still plenty on sale that is likely to satisfy all but the most dedicated tea-fancier. The main local brand is the Dilmah, though look out too for the Tea Tang range, comprising a first-rate selection of speciality teas, ranging from standard Sri Lankan blends through to some rare connoisseur varieties. Alternatively, for a real taste of Sri Lanka, look for unblended (“single estate”) high-grown teas – a far cry from the heavily blended and homogenized teabags that pass muster in Europe and the US. You’ll also find a wide range of flavoured teas made with a huge variety of ingredients, including standard offerings like lemon, orange, mint and vanilla, as well as the more unusual banana, rum, kiwi fruit or pineapple.
The best (and cheapest) place to buy tea is in a local supermarket; Cargills supermarkets islandwide usually have a good selection, including unblended single-estate teas. The specialist Mlesna tea shop chain has branches in Colombo, Kandy, Bandarawela and at the airport, although they concentrate on more touristy offerings including boxed tea sets, flavoured teas and the like.
Sri Lanka’s spice gardens, mostly concentrated around Kandy and Matale, pull in loads of visitors on organized tours and sell packets of spices, often at outrageously inflated prices. You’ll find identical stuff in local shops and supermarkets at a fraction of the price.
Gems and jewellery
Sri Lanka has been famous for its precious stones since antiquity, and gems and jewellery remain important to the national economy even today. This is nowhere more obvious than at the gem-mining centre of Ratnapura, where locally excavated uncut gems are traded daily on the streets. All foreign visitors to the town will be offered stones to buy, but unless you’re an expert gemologist there’s a strong chance that you’ll end up with an expensive piece of coloured glass. Another variant on this scam is that you will be persuaded to buy gems at a special “cheap” price, with assurances that you will be able to resell them back home for several times the price you paid for them. Again, unless you’re an expert, steer well clear of these deals.
Ratnapura apart, you’ll find gem and jewellery shops all over the island – the major concentrations are in Negombo, Galle and Colombo. These include large chains, such as Zam Gems or Sifani, and smaller local outfits. If you are going to buy, it’s worth doing some homework before you arrive so you can compare prices with those back home. You can get gems tested for authenticity in Colombo (see Department stores and shopping malls).
For silver and, especially, gold jewellery, try Sea Street in Colombo’s Pettah district, which is lined with shops. These see few tourists, so prices are reasonable, although the flouncy designs on offer aren’t to everyone’s taste.
Clothes and books
Sri Lanka is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to clothes, and doesn’t boast the gorgeous fabrics and nimble-fingered tailors of, say, India and Thailand. Having said that, the island is a major garment-manufacturing centre for overseas companies, and there are lots of good-quality Western-style clothes knocking around at bargain prices. In Colombo, places to try include the fancy Odel department store (see Clothes) or the more downmarket House of Fashions and Cotton Collection. Colourful but flimsy beachwear is flogged by shops and hawkers at all the major west-coast resorts – it’s cheap and cheerful, but don’t expect it to last much longer than your holiday. Most Sri Lankan women now dress Western-style in skirts and blouses, but you can still find a few shops in Colombo and elsewhere selling beautiful saris and shalwar kameez (pyjama suits) – these shops are usually easily spotted due to their enormous picture windows stuffed with colourfully costumed mannequins.
Books are relatively cheap: new paperbacks are about two-thirds of European and North American prices, and there are also lots of colourful coffee-table books and weird and wonderful works on Sri Lankan history, culture and religion that you won’t find outside the island. The Vijitha Yapa bookshop has branches islandwide, and there are a number of other good bookshops in Colombo – Barefoot’s is the best.