Thursday, May 23, 2013

Retail therapy for intrepid travelers to Sri Lanka - Part 1

When people come to visit me in Sri Lanka, particularly for the first time, I usually get asked what there is to buy here.

Usually, they want to know what is worth buying:
  • for themselves (or others); or
  • is unique to Sri Lanka; or
  • is cheap because it's made here; or
  • makes for a good gift or souvenir

Part 1 kicks off with the items that Sri Lanka is well-known for.

Products unique to Sri Lanka:

Ceylon Tea

Sri Lanka is the world's fourth largest producer of tea and accounts for about 12% of the GDP, generating roughly US$700 million annually. The tea industry was introduced in 1847 by a British planter  James Taylor who arrived in 1852. The climate (i.e. humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall) in Sri Lanka's central highlands provides favorable conditions for the production of high quality tea.
Useful information: Sri Lanka has six principal tea planting regions. When purchasing Ceylon tea these regions are important as each region produces distinct tea flavours, aromas and strengths. See below:

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Tea Board
  • Kandy region teas are said to be particularly flavoursome. The region produces a broad range of strengths and styles: estates at lower elevations produce a larger leaf with gives a stronger-flavoured beverage, while those higher up grow a smaller leaf that yields a more subtle and delicate flavour. Kandy teas tend to produce a relatively bright infusion with a coppery tone. Though lighter in the cup, they present a good deal of strength and body.
  • Nuwara Eliya tea has a rarefied and refined quality that easily sets it apart from lower-grown varieties. The infusion in the cup is the palest among all the regional varieties of Ceylon Tea, with a subtle golden hue and a delicate yet fragrant bouquet. Excluding certain exotic varieties, the most sought-after is whole-leaf orange pekoe (OP); slightly less costly, though still expensive, is broken orange pekoe (BOP).
  • Uda Pussellawa tea is sometimes compared in character with that of Nuwara Eliya, though it appears somewhat darker in the cup, with a pinkish hue and a hint of greater strength. Also produces a tea that tends to have a medium body and rosy taste. 
  • Uva tea's unique character is recognized and acknowledged all over the world. Think of Thomas Lipton's famous teas. The mellow, smooth taste of Uva tea, once known, is easily distinguished from that of any other. Estates in the Uva region also produce a substantial amount of green tea from Assamese stock.
  • Dimbula teas, like all high-grown teas, are slow-growing and small-leaved. The region produces a fine golden-orange hue in the cup, with a distinctive freshness to the flavor that leaves a clean feeling in the mouth after the tea is drunk.  
  • Sabaragamuwa produces a fast-growing bush with a long leaf, very black when withered and well suited for ‘rolling’. Teas are dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint in the dry season, though lightening somewhat with altitude. Teas show a little more variation from the Ruhuna product, with the aroma showing a hint of sweet caramel.
  • Ruhunu teas are defined as ‘low-grown’. The soil of Ruhuna, combined with the low elevation of the estates, causes the tea-bush to grow rapidly, producing a long, beautiful leaf that turns intensely black on withering and is particularly suited to ‘rolling’. 

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Tea Board

Sri Lankans are tea drinkers, however, the "best" quality tea is not readily available/sold in supermarkets to local tea drinkers. The top quality tea is largely exported and made available to international markets. As a tourist (or even a local), top quality tea is available for purchase from leading Sri Lankan brands by visiting specialist or branded tea centres or tea factories.  Some supermarkets do stock some of the quality products but in smaller quantities.

The Sri Lanka Tea Board has quite a good website providing futher information - click here
The Ceylon Tea Museum is also quite interesting if you are visiting the Kandy area.


The gem industry in Sri Lanka has existed for over 2500 years with some of the rarest of gem stones taking pride of place in the Crown jewels of Kings and Queens from the time of Great Roman Emperors. Ratnapura  is the centre of a long-established industry of precious stone mining including rubies, sapphires, and other gems. Gem pits are a common site in this region.

It is possible to purchase gemstonesready-made jewelry or have something made to a design of your choice. Note that getting jewelry made will take upwards of three weeks (if pushed, two weeks is possible, however quality may be compromised).
Tip - Please do your research before purchasing gems or jewelry - either speak to locals in the know, check the internet or shop around Colombo to get an idea on price, before finalizing the purchase  Discounts are often offered, but as a rule of thumb, keep asking for their best offer until you are satisfied. Often I've found particular jewelry shops in Colombo have designated shop assistants who specifically serve foreigner clientele. They're very good at their job. Don't be swayed, make sure you bargain!
The Living Colombo Guide has a listing of most of the jewelers in Colombo - click here

If you'd like my personal recommendations on quality workmanship and reputable jewelers feel free to contact me via email. I am in no way affiliated with any commercial businesses.


Sri Lanka has been famous for its spices for quite some time, dating back to the 14th century with evidence of spice trade undertaken throughout the Roman era. The Portuguese, Dutch and English were attracted to the island mainly for its riches in spices, precious stones and ivory. Spices are used widely throughout the island for culinary and ayurvedic medicinal purposes.

Cinnamon is one of the key spices exported by Sri Lanka - the cinnamon plant is indigenous to the island. The first cinnamon plantations were planted in Colombo, Maradana, and Cinnamon Gardens in 1769 by the Dutch.

Other spices found in Sri Lanka include pepper, betel, clove, cocoa, ginger, lemongrass, nutmeg, mace, and cardamon.

If you're interested in learning more about spices in Sri Lanka check out The Spice Council website.

Sri Lanka is also famous for its spice gardens. There are spice gardens around Kandy, Matale and Mawanella that provide visitors interesting insights into spice production in Sri Lanka. The importance of spices in the minor export crops of Sri Lanka consist of fragrant clove, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and pepper are highlighted as they thrive in production in the hills.

As a traveler, you have the option of purchasing spices on your visit to a spice garden, however, I have heard some dubious stories about travelers being scammed and other situations. Personally, I haven't had an issue when visiting, however, I'm also quite firm when I really don't want to purchase something, and I resort to my sinhala language skills to emphasize the point.
Tip - Visit either of these to purchase spices. (1) Local supermarkets (i.e. Cargills, Keels, Arpico, Laugfs are the main ones in Colombo) - where you can buy local cinnamon, clove, pepper, mace, cardamon, nutmeg, and more; and it is all nicely packaged, labelled and priced. You are also have a variety of local brand choices to select from. (2) Spice shops / grinding mill - these are small shops scattered around Colombo where you can buy spices as well as ground curry powders and spice mixes.
The "World Spice Food Festival" is an annual event organized by Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority with participation from local and foreign signature chefs in Colombo five star Hotels & designated Restaurants. It doesn't appear that an event is scheduled for 2013. However, check the Sri Lanka Tourism upcoming events page for up-to-date information.

Traditional Handicrafts

According to a book titled "Sri Lankan handicrafts in the yesteryear" written by George Samarasinghe, the production of local handicrafts in Sri Lanka has a history of over 2,500 years. 

The production of local handicrafts in Sri Lanka is essentially a cottage industry. Local products are made using natural raw materials and applying local traditional techniques. Work is underway by the National Crafts Council of Sri Lanka to foster the development of the local handicraft industry beyond its current levels. 

Traditional handicrafts include:
Image courtesy of
  • Pottery
  • Woodcarving
  • Metal work
  • Brassware
  • Lacquerwork 
  • Batik (Indonesian origin)
  • Handloom
  • Mat weaving
  • Wooden masks*
  • Reed and rush ware
  • Stone carving
  • Jewelry (Galle or Kanyan tradition)
  • Lacemaking introduced by the Portuguese (not indigenous to Sri Lanka)
Sri Lankan masks are a popular collector's item for visitors. They're carved at a number of places, principally along the south-west coast, and are sold all over the island, but Ambalangoda, near Hikkaduwa, is the mask-carving centre.

Sri Lanka’s wide variety of attractive traditional handicrafts can be found throughout the island in shops, street stalls and government-run stores. If you're on a tour then you will probably get an opportunity to drop into a shop/stall/store that sells a selection of traditional handicrafts. Prices are generally quite reasonable, however, be mindful that in more touristy areas there may be some sellers who try to make a little more from foreigners. As such, practice your bargaining skills in those places.
Tip: Laksala (Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board) is well-worth a visit. It is a state corporation under the Ministry of Rural Industries and Self Employment Promotion that was set up to preserve and develop traditional skill of the craftsmen. It deals with nearly 3500 leading master craftsmen/entrepreneurs who are producing handicrafts at a rural/cottage industry level. Laksala operates through 10 branches located island-wide and offers the widest variety of all Sri Lankan products at a reasonable price.
The Living Colombo Guide has a listing of most of the places where you can buy traditional handicrafts - click here

Retail therapy for intrepid travelers to Sri Lanka - Part 2 will cover everything else worth buying! 

Till then.... HAPPY SHOPPING!!!

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