The most popular and stereotypical Sri Lankan souvenirs are brightly painted masks, the most popular location for mask production is Ambalangoda where you will find a large variety of shops selling a range of designs. Elephant carvings are extremely popular and found in Colombo. Metal work such as dishes, trays, candlesticks and other objects has long been produced in the Kandy area but also can be found island wide.
Wooden models of tuktuks and other vehicles are another local speciality and make good souvenirs or children’s toys. They’re most commonly found in Negombo, but are also increasingly available in Colombo and elsewhere on the island.
If you’ve a day in Colombo, its well worth seeking out the modern handicrafts found at a few Colombo boutiques, such as Paradise Road, The Gallery Café or, especially, Barefoot, whose range of vibrantly coloured fabrics have become synonymous with modern Sri Lankan style.
Tea and spices
The majority pf the top quality Ceylon tea is exported, however there is still plenty on sale in Sri Lanka. The main local brand is the Dilmah or for a real taste of Sri Lanka, look for unblended (“single estate”) high-grown teas – a far cry from the heavily blended and homogenized teabags that pass muster in Europe and the US. You’ll also find a wide range of flavoured teas made with a huge variety of ingredients, including standard offerings like lemon, orange, mint and vanilla, as well as the more unusual banana, rum, kiwi fruit or pineapple.
The most affordable place to buy tea is in a local supermarket; Cargills supermarkets islandwide. The specialist Mlesna tea shop chain has branches in Colombo, Kandy, Bandarawela and at the airport, although they concentrate on more touristy offerings including boxed tea sets and flavoured teas.
Gems and jewellery
Sri Lanka has been famed for its exquisite stones since ancient times, and gems and jewellery remain important to the national economy even today. This is nowhere more obvious than at the gem-mining centre of Ratnapura, where locally excavated uncut gems are traded daily on the streets.
Gem and jewellery shops are all over the island – the major concentrations are in Negombo, Galle and Colombo. These include large chains, such as Zam Gems or Sifani, and smaller local outfits. For silver and, especially, gold jewellery, try Sea Street in Colombo’s Pettah district, which is lined with shops.
Clothes and books
Sri Lanka is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to clothes, and doesn’t boast the gorgeous fabrics and nimble-fingered tailors of, say, India and Thailand but you can still pick up a good bargain. The garment trade is a large aspect of Sri Lankan economy and you will find lots of good quality clothes brand names clothes knocking around at bargain prices. In Colombo, places to try include the fancy Odel department store or the more downmarket House of Fashions and Cotton Collection.
For more traditional clothing they are a few shops in Colombo and elsewhere selling beautiful saris and shalwar kameez (pyjama suits) – these shops are usually easily spotted due to their enormous picture windows stuffed with colourfully costumed mannequins.
Books are relatively cheap: new paperbacks are about two-thirds of European and North American prices, and there are also lots of colourful coffee-table books and weird and wonderful works on Sri Lankan history, culture and religion that you won’t find outside the island.