Going To “Little Rome”
By Raisa Wickrematunge – Photos by Gazala Anver
The air is full of noise. “Fish, fresh fish!” some call, shouting prices, inviting you to stop and look. Their wares are spread out before them, scales gleaming metallic in the early morning sunlight. There are squid, prawns, even sting ray. Not far away, some women lay fish out in neat rows, drying and curing them. Others cast nets. The smell, of course, takes some getting used to.
A visit to Negombo, though, wouldn’t be quite complete without at least a passing glance at its fish market. Negombo is after all a fishing town — the sea is their lifeblood.
You can sense that by walking through the market, which is colourful and buzzing with activity. It’s worth noting that the prices are also cheaper than Colombo; as long as you don’t mind lugging around bags of fish.
If you’re not a fan of wandering through fish markets, though, there are plenty of other things to see or do in Negombo.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Negombo is “beach.” Many weekend travellers flock to Negombo for a taste of sea and sand that’s also fairly close to Colombo.
The beach is not the most spectacular, but still decent. The hotels often have touts exhorting you to take a ride from a catamaran, go windsurfing, or visit the nearby turtle-hatchery. If none of those appeal, just clamber up onto the rocks and relax.
If you’re looking to explore further, there’s the Negombo lagoon; over 3000 hectares of watery expanse that yields much fresh seafood, including prawns and cuttlefish. It’s possible to take a boat out, but it’ll cost you — enterprising fishermen quoted Rs. 5000. However, the colourful boats on the lagoon make for some good photographs.
The lagoon is part of the larger Muthurajawela marshes, a diverse ecosystem boasting many varieties of fish, butterflies, birds and crocodiles. Excursions to the marshlands are also possible, though we were put off by the high boat prices.
Close to the fish market are the ruins of the old Dutch Fort. It’s now a prison, so it’s not possible to get a peek inside — unless you’re willing to commit a crime!
Apart from fish, Negombo is known for its churches, many of which dot the town. In fact, it’s known to some as ‘Little Rome.’ Of these, the best known is St. Mary’s Church close to Main Street. The ceiling is covered in beautiful paintings, and the stained glass in the windows colours the white walls during the day.
Connected by the lagoon bridge is the island of Duwa, which is well-known for the passion plays it puts on during Easter. It too has a very peaceful old church (a well on the premises was marked 1932). You’ll know it by its beige walls with pink detailing. This church, with it’s pleasantly peeling walls, is a stark contrast to St. Mary’s. There’s a clock tower here which you can climb at certain times.
East of town, around a kilometre away down Temple road, is the Angurukaramulla temple. It’s a bit of a distance, but worth it for its eye-catching décor and large six metre Buddha. The entrance to the temple is through a yawning lion’s mouth. Inside, it is a riot of colour, with scenes from Buddha’s life before enlightenment, as well as a shrine room, filled with more ornate statues. Nearby, there’s a small building filled with paintings of scenes from the Mahavamsa. This building is sadly neglected, with some of the paintings peeling off.
On the premises is a dilapidated library, declared open by Sir Andrew Caldecott in 1941. This, too, has a pleasant musty air of neglect. There are still a few dusty books on display, and it’s possible to climb the wood staircase, which will take you to a balcony of sorts, overlooking the road. Towards the back is the Siddha Sooniyam Devale, for those who want to pay homage to Hindu gods.
The stretch from Lewis Place to Porutota road offers many little eateries and pubs. There’s Italian, Western, seafood — pretty much anything you want on offer. This stretch can get a little pricey though; but explore a little as you never know what you might find.
You can take a bus or train to Negombo, either will take you about two hours. A normal bus will cost you around Rs. 55, an air conditioned one around Rs. 100. Second and third class tickets on the train are around the same price. All in all, Negombo is a good choice for a quick day or weekend trip; but the beach isn’t the only thing to see.