Pettah Floating Market – Colombo, Sri Lanka - Atlas Obscura

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Pettah Floating Market

Pettah's beautiful floating market was once a stinky canal in a sketchy industrial area. 

The Pettah Floating Market is a recent development in Bastian Mawatha, which lives in the Pettah neighborhood of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Now a calm spot for shopping and a quiet stroll, it was once a chaotic canal-side area of rundown warehouses, stinky water, and dubious characters involved in equally questionable activities.

In the 1990s, the area now occupied by the floating market was one of the most dangerous zones in Pettah. Dilapidated buildings and abandoned factories lined the old colonial canal side, and pushy hawkers, drug dealers, and other nefarious types had turned the area into a place most people tried to avoid.

In the last few years, as Colombo began a series of ambitious beautification projects, this part of Pettah was a prime target for redevelopment. The local council brought in the Urban Development Authority (UDA) to tidy up the area, who in turn contacted the Ministry of Defense for assistance. Engineering units were brought in from the Sri Lanka Army and Sri Lanka Navy, who began to redevelop this part of Bastian Mawatha.

Looking to transform the area, the UDA then called on a young architect named Thushari Kariyawasam. His vision led to today’s floating market, an oasis of calm in busy Colombo, with smooth cement paths and polished wooden walkways running along and over the widened—and cleaned—canal.

Along these walkways are a series of red-roofed pagodas, in which more than 90 stalls have been allocated to local street vendors, many of whom were uprooted during this and other developments, but who were allowed to move back into the new stalls. They had to pay rent, unlike before, and some, unfortunately, didn’t last for long—but those that remained have found a far more relaxed way of making a living.

The stalls sell a wide range of products, including electronics, clothes, shoes, jewelry, local handicrafts, fruit, and vegetables. Some are also snack bars selling local specialties to hungry tourists and amorous locals out for romantic sunset strolls along the walkways.

The redevelopment project hasn’t been a total success. Traders still complain about high rent and low sales, and stalls often remain shut for long periods of time. Some visitors, meanwhile, are somewhat put off by the occasionally smelly water, which can become overly malodorous especially during the heat of the summer. Still, it’s a fine place for a quiet wander, some casual shopping, and pretty photos at sunset. 

Know Before You Go

You don't have to pay to enter the Pettah Floating Market. There are entrances at the west and east ends; the main entrance is on the west side, but either will do. It's open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. To get there, take a bus to Pettah Bus Station or Bastian Mawatha Bus Station. For the best photos, head to the market around 5 p.m. to catch the golden hour.

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