Pita Kotuwa – The Cheapside of Sri Lanka (an insider’s look)

Pita Kotuwa. Pettah. A chaotic mess. Yet beautiful in its own way. It’s vibrant, and bubbly. It’s the most ‘oh-so-happing’ market here in Ceylon. Pettah is insanely crowded apart from Sunday afternoons. It’s a bit less crowded in early mornings. Yet, the best (and the safest) time to visit Pettah, surprisingly is, when it’s crowded.

2nd Cross Street. Image Credits: Zinara
2nd Cross Street. Image Credits: Zinara
The Pettah streets are often dominant by hawkers selling some crazy stuff for cheap money, porters carrying goods, wooden wagons and trishaws. It’s safer to always walk on the payment which is only fifty something centimeters wide because you never know when you can get hit by a wooden wagon. And try to give space to the porters because what they are doing for a wage deserves insane respect. Also folks, never bring your car or any kind of vehicle to the streets of Pettah. It’s the most ridiculous thing you would do in your life if you bring one. Walk, always. Trust your feet. Wear comfy shoes and apply some sunscreen if you don’t need to be suntanned.

Wooden Wagons. Image Credits: Zinara
Wagons. Image Credits: Zinara
If you bring the Colombo 07 attitude to the streets of Pettah, you won’t get through. But if you walk with the right kind of attitude, you would end up making some good friends with some of the most interesting characters in Colombo.

Image Credits: Zinara
Image Credits: Zinara
What if you are a girl wandering in Pettah? That, too, alone? Well, we advise you to actually do it if you want to create some good memories. Pettah is safe for a girl when it’s insanely crowded. But get ready to be stared at, ogled at and maybe even catcalled at by hawkers, shopkeepers, porters and every kind of men. Pettah is an everyman’s land. It’s dominant by men. You will rarely find women vendors selling stuff in makeshift tables. It’s men. Men. And men. Everywhere, men. Mostly, men. That is Pettah. So if you feel a bit uncomfortable, accompany a guy with you. But ladies, you will still get stared at and ogled at.

Image Credits: Zinara
Image Credits: Zinara
It’s safe for foreign ladies, too. Make sure you avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. When my Canadian friend Joanie visited Pettah last year, she was being told some insanely ridiculous things. “Do you want my Banana?” was one. And that, too, from a guy who was showing his half-eaten banana to her. Yes, (verbal) sexual harassment exists here just as it does in the rest of the island. Sad truth. But hey, that’s for another day to talk about.

Be it a man or woman, if you are a foreigner wandering in Pettah actually to buy some stuff, take a local friend alongside. Otherwise, be ready to buy stuff ten times pricier than its actual price.

Men, men and men. Image Credits: Zinara
Men, men and men. Image Credits: Zinara
When we try taking a photo of a porter, the next door shop keeper shouts and tells him to pose, and smile. And another runs in front of our camera, telling us to take a photo of him. A hawker selling toy rabbits who swim yells at us to not post his photo on the weekend newspaper. Pettah, a wonderland of story-telling corners, it is.

Here in the main street, you will find dozens of shops selling leather goods, i.e. shoes, bags. Titus Stores is a good place to shop for dirt cheap home supplies such as kitchen equipment and containers. My favourite was their mason jars; even the biggest costs less than Rs. 300 and the tiniest being Rs. 50. You will find number of shops selling sweets, imported from the Middle East and India.

Image Credits: Zinara
Image Credits: Zinara
1st Cross Street has all sorts of electronics from mobile phones to kitchen electronics. Market on the 5th Cross Street has veges and fruits. Walk into Prince Street for crazy toys and Maliban Street for stationary. At the end of the Main Street in Khan Clock Tower Roundabout, you will find the good old Expographic Bookshop. Those who are in need for textbooks, it’s the place. And then you get a street of shops selling saris, maxi dresses, skirts, wallets, clutches and local Louis Vuitton bags.

Image Credits: Zinara
Image Credits: Zinara
In Pettah, you will find roadside kades selling tea. And some small joints where you can sit and eat short-eats and other street food. Don’t forget to sip a thambili when you are there.

Image Credits: Zinara
Image Credits: Zinara
You will also find mobile carts selling achcharu (pickle) and samosas. And an aunty selling jaggery in front of the Red Mosque.

Achcharu. Image Credits: Zinara
Achcharu. Image Credits: Zinara
If you notice, Pettah is home to some architectural masterpieces. The famous Red Mosque – which doesn’t allow ladies inside – is one. 4th Cross Street and the Khan Clock Tower Roundabout are also home to authentic architecture from the Dutch colonial period. That is insane beauty lies in the depth of madness.

The red mosque. Image Credits: Zinara
The Red Mosque. Image Credits: Zinara
Some of you will love Petttah. Some of you will absolutely hate it. If you are a westernized Lankan with an American attitude, this, sadly, is not your place. Pettah is for those who love to discover the chaotic beauty in Colombo with a local heart and a fondness for everything mad.

Image Credits: Zinara

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Written by Zinara

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Zinara is a freelance content and blog writer. She hopes to spend her twenties in a meaningful way after quitting science school (sorry ammi) and turning into literature. You could meet her in quiet coffee shops in Colombo almost any day.

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