As I'm walking around the fish markets here in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Raja suddenly appears next to me. Without prompting, he points at the fish laid out on a burlap sheet and starts telling me about how they were caught and are now being prepared. His detailed information suggests he is a fisherman himself — or, at least, has been at some point in his life. He has rough and leathered skin, but in the middle of his face is a big beaming smile.

The fish market in Negombo is a must-see for any traveller in the region.

The fish market in Negombo is a must-see for any traveller in the region.

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Meet Raja, my impromptu guide.

Meet Raja, my impromptu guide.

By now I have become accustomed to the friendliness of the Sri Lankan people. Travelling through the country, it never takes long in a new place for someone to chat with me and tell me about the area. Although tourism is growing in the country, it is still a relatively new industry since the civil war here officially ended in 2009. The locals are generally pleased to see international visitors and go out of their way to make a good impression.

I hadn't planned to stay long at the fish markets here so I thank Raja for the brief chat and move away.

Negombo is a beachside town near the main airport of the capital, Colombo. It's seen as a holiday destination because of its long, sandy beach. But before the resorts went up and the more recent Europeans travellers arrived, it was a traditional fishing village. For many of the locals, it still is —and getting a glimpse of that is what has brought me to the fish markets this morning.

Raja is suddenly by my side again, chatting once more about a different collection of fish that I'm looking at on the other side of the open-air market. Again, the information he's sharing is quite interesting and I quickly find myself enjoying his commentary.

The collection of fish at the market amazes me.

The collection of fish at the market amazes me.

The collection of sea creatures on display amazes me. This is not like my local fish shop. There are sharks, barracuda and dozens of other animals I don’t recognize. Raja leads me to each of the little shops, most of which consist of just a table and are run by local women who are often perched upon a small plastic stool. He knows them all and they have a chat and a joke amongst themselves. He picks up their wares, shows them to me and tells me what they are. Most are species of fish I have never heard of.

This is not like my local fish shop.

This is not like my local fish shop.

Everyone smiles as I walk by, they seem happy to pose for photos, and they don’t mind their fish being manhandled. I guess it’s partly because of an innate tendency towards hospitality — but also because I’m with Raja. He seems like a bit of a man-around-town at the Negombo fish markets.

Everyone here seems to know Raja and that makes for relaxed setting.

Everyone here seems to know Raja and that makes for relaxed setting.

I'm enjoying the tour and getting lost in the moment. The sights and sounds of a fish market are rather intoxicating and it's easy to find yourself forgetting about everything except what is right in front of you. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when I realize that Raja has stopped talking and we have reached the end of his impromptu tour.

Raja’s friendliness and expert tour through the markets makes me smile.

Raja’s friendliness and expert tour through the markets makes me smile.

We start walking back to the car and I get prepared for the question of money. I have already accepted that this will come and I'm happy to pay him for his time and excellent guiding.

But the request never materializes.

With the absence of the expected hassling I am a bit shocked. So I take the initiative to offer him some cash — quickly working out in my head what an appropriate amount would be.

His big smile gets even bigger and he holds the money in his hands and kisses it. I start to wonder if I have given him too much, but I’m happy enough. And so is he.

“Thank you, Michael,” he says.

“I never ask for anything, but I always appreciate it.”

Raja’s friendliness and expert tour through the markets makes me smile, too. I didn’t ask for anything, but I appreciate it. It's a side of Sri Lanka that I have come to love and shows the best of the country.

Getting There

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