Pettah is Colombo's biggest, most functional market space. It's loud, crowded and infinitely full of interesting and useful things – it's one of those places you either love or you hate (it was the former for us).
At first glance, the place seems chaotic and bordering on mad, what with the streets being packed inch to inch by trishaws, hawkers and wooden wagons. But if you know Pettah and know what to get where, you can walk away with some very cool stuff at ridiculous prices. Also with the right attitude you can make friends with some very interesting people here.
We've tried to put together a guide to Pettah here. We obviously haven't covered every single thing about the place – there are continually new businesses popping up and little old shops in corners that are yet to be discovered. But we've tried to give you an overview of Pettah streets to help you navigate through the busy market block.
- Congestion: Pettah is extremely congested during the day. You can avoid the crowd if you get there before 10AM but then the middle of the day is when you'll meet all the street hawkers and their cool random-ass stuff (dancing toy lobsters, swimming toy squirrels, kites, bubble blowers).
- Traffic: Try to always stay on the little bit of 5-inch pavement next to the shops, because there are always trucks, wagons and trishaws trying to impossibly maneuver themselves on the roads. No point bringing a vehicle here, get here by foot.
- Parking: If you do have to get to Pettah by car, you can go around the Khan Clocktower and park near there.
- Man's market: Though there are a lot of women shopping for saris and stuff here, it's mostly a man's domain. The hawkers and most of the shop keepers are men, and so are the street vendors and the workers carrying loads to their trucks. It's generally very safe if you're a girl wandering through, but just prepare yourself for being stared at as though you're a sparkly unicorn with two heads.
- Make a list: If you're here to shop and not just sight-see, then make sure you have a list and a rough idea of where to get these things (our guide will help). Because there's just so much going on here, you could get confused and distracted.
- Learn some Tamil: Or take someone with you who knows Tamil, although Sinhala works too (though they warm up to you if you're a Tamil speaker since that's the first language of a lot of the shop keepers in Pettah). You need this to bargain – if you bargain right, you can get what you want at any price you have in mind.
- Old buildings: If you pay close attention, particularly at the Clocktower roundabout, Bodhiraja Mawatha and 4th Cross Street, you'll find some beautiful ancient architecture from the Dutch period amidst the hustle and bustle.
- Fruit vendors at junctions: You'll find refreshing thambili, oranges, durian, watermelon and grapes at many of the junctions between streets, if you want something to energize you after all the walking. Also look out for Bombay Sweet houses for tasty Faluda (the best is on 1st Cross Street).
Where to get what
Leather: Front Street, Main Street
Clothes, Shoes, Bags: Front Street, Main Street, 2nd Cross Street
Electronics: 1st Cross Street, Prince Street
Party stuff: China Street
Toys: Prince Street
Stationery: Maliban Street, 2nd Cross Street
Vegetables, Fruits: 5th Cross Street Market
Here's our easy-navigation Pettah map – click a street on the map for a detailed description of what you'll find there. Also, don't forget to check out the gallery at the top of the page for pictures of all the stuff you can get in Pettah.
Clothes and accessories though generally cheaper, good jackets, bags, sunglasses, the Norris Hotel Bakery where you can sit in and eat short-eats and drink Milo (it's next to 2nd cross street).
Front Street (now called Malwatta Road)
The crumbling old Victoria Building of 1929, the Indramalee Hotel Cream House where you can stop by for food and drink, good quality leather bags and shoes, great watches, luggage, Batik Centre that doesn't sell batik but good camera equipment, shiny bangles.
Electronics, light fittings of all kinds, fake wigs (blue ones, yellow ones, multi-coloured ones), toy stores, the Dutch museum – a quiet space with a old rickety staircase and an unexpected green garden, wallets, carrom boards and checker boards, the Fancy Mahal shop dedicated to a range of Eastern cologne, roadside tea, thambili, small restaurants to have a meal at.
1st cross street
Mobile phones, mobile covers, mobile batteries – you name it, other electronics (there's a whole shop dedicated to webcams), the kite-man, Bombay Sweets Faluda, rambuttan in June-August (Rs.100 for 15), Postman's Market a shop that's got a huge variety of rare materials.
2nd cross street
Clothes, especially saris – both cotton and shiny (they go for as low as Rs. 150), stickers, the leggings-guy who you might find has randomly set up shop behind a van on the road, Supreme Stationers where you get stationery and rubik cubes, a wide assortment of alice bands, swimming toy squirrels for Rs. 250 (they look real and creepy!), achcharu guy with a big glass case of achcharu assortments (at the junction with Keyzer street), the distinct checkered Red Mosque (which sadly only has a men's section), isso-vadey guy opposite Red Mosque, short-eats, curd and samosas opposite Red Mosque during Ramadan.
3rd cross street
Mostly retail and wholesale shops here, big textiles shops, and a little shop for padlocks and doorknobs.
4th cross street
This place is just a trading street – mostly huge trucks and workers with loads on their shoulders, and onions and potatoes and spices everywhere. But you'll unexpectedly find a little shop selling very good and cheap maalu paan and muffins at the junction with Keyzer street. Also beautiful old, old buildings.
5th cross street
Fresh red rambutan (in June-August season), the Safni Snack Bar (biriyani, noodles, paratha, kottu), pineapples, the long vegetable/ fruit/ grain pola under a big yellow metal tent, the Golden Fresh Fruits shop, mangosteen (Rs. 100 for 8), the pansal.
Bigger showrooms, Sequins a tiny shop for craft equipment and materials (it's in a niche, ask anybody and they'll point you in the right direction), coats and suits, clothes and shoes, umbrellas and raincoats, luggage bags, leather, banks and ATM.
China Street didn't seem as crowded as the rest on our visit. It's got a lot of the stuff that's generally there in Pettah but particularly stores for party equipment (hats, wrap, banners, balloons, candles), and a few for chinaware.
There's a whole bunch of shops here dedicated solely to wedding cards, so you can also get special paper here if you're into craft, also gift wrap and heaters.
Artificial flowers of all kinds, surgical equipment and chemicals (Spectrolab/ Geekay), a cool skeleton on display, official uniforms (if you want to masquerade as a doctor or pilot a la Catch Me If You Can), sparkle dust at Art and Craft, Oriental Saloon for an inexpensive haircut, Dawood's buttons shop, Hotel Bankshall, Colorcraft Center for all your art equipment, the pera man at the junction with St Johns Road (he moves because, he says, the police comes and tells the fruit vendors to move).
Khan Clocktower roundabout
The clocktower, Expographics bookshop from the 1980s where you get a large collection of textbooks, a long street of stalls that sell an assortment of inexpensive cotton maxies, saris, wallets and luggage.
This is hilariously hard to find at first glance from the main Olcott Mawatha, because there are rows of stalls of colourful plastic that have filled up both sides of this street, leaving only a small gap between to walk down it. You'll find toy cars, kids' bracelets, colourful junk jewellery, giant posters of babies, phone memory cards – and then when you walk out at the other end into open space – cotton maxies, massive tshirt sales (Rs. 250), the bubble blower man, drummer-rabbit toys, the dancing lobster toy, translucent slippers, pol rotti at Viva, Hansagiri Restaurant and Bar and the beautiful and spooky Old Town Hall (walk in to check out the neglected museum inside).