Why visiting a wholesale produce market is better than a tourist attraction

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Why visiting a wholesale produce market is better than a tourist attraction

Dambulla wholesale market

at the Dambulla wholesale market (5)


Tourists don’t normally enter the Dambulla wholesale produce market. There isn’t anything there to buy. It’s just a bunch of guys loading and unloading fruit and vegetables from different regions of Sri Lanka. Others, in shirts and ties, sit in the one-room offices located to the side. The whole place is unattractive, resembling three aircraft hangers butted up together.


This is exactly why I went there.


I like sights and tourist attractions, don’t get me wrong. But occasionally, I leave with an empty feeling—the feeling that I made no personal connection.

Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Wholesalers trading produce at a market in Sri Lanka.


I like normal (consumer) markets a lot. Even if I don’t need to buy anything, they are still a worthwhile place to look around and learn about a place. Buying fruit and other food is a necessity for travelers and a good way to interact with vendors and try your hand at bargaining.


Wholesale markets are different. There’s nothing for sale for regular consumers.


Enter the Dambulla wholesale market


One serious-looking buyer (or seller) stopped what he was doing and approached me. After asking where I was from he posed this question to me: “What is different about this wholesale market from one in your country?”

Trucks of produce at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Unloading vegetables from a truck.


“Well, umm, I don’t really go to wholesale produce markets in my own country. So I don’t know what they’re like.”


But I said I thought that everything was packaged into boxes and loaded into bigger trucks.


He admitted that was one of their problems. Produce here gets damaged because it’s not shipped properly.


Lots of bananas were sitting around, along with piles of coconuts, truckloads of sweet potatoes, crates of tomatoes, papayas, and even dried fish. We were several hours from the coast.


“Where is it from?” I asked the man, who was happy to lift up a few of the salted fish to show me.


“From Jaffna, in the north.” Jaffna is a Tamil-majority city, which suffered much during the civil war.

Fish being sold at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

A man shows me dried fish from Jaffna.


Inquiring about the origin of each product was typically my ice-breaker with these buyers, sellers, drivers, and unloaders. Not that I needed one. An American and a Korean walking into a market create enough attention simply by their being. Even people who were occupied, stopped what they were doing to inquire who we were and where we were from.


The problem with typical tourism


A tourist typically only interacts with those in the tourism industry—hoteliers, tuk-tuk drivers, servers in restaurants—all people in the service industry. Many of these people are friendly. Most want your business. A few—mostly the tuk-tuk drivers—are annoying, and occasionally aggressive and dishonest. These interactions may leave the foreigner with a tired outlook of the country.


Guys having a laugh at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Guys having a laugh at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.


Stepping into a wholesale market puts the traveler in contact with a bunch of ordinary people—workers on the job—who have no agenda except making a new friend and some brief conversation.


Except…a few of these traders and workers went beyond that. They gave us a free sample of whatever it was they were dealing. They were proud of their produce and were happy to meet us. And we could say the same about them. It was a refreshing change of pace from the typical tourist trail.


We returned back to our guesthouse with a random assortment of fruit and veggies.

Men unload bananas at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Unloading bananas.

More bananas at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Bunches of bananas wait to be sold off.

Coconuts at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

A pile of coconuts.

Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

A vendor with cauliflower.

Papayas at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

A cart of papayas at the Dambulla wholesale market.

Guys showing us there tomatoes at Dambulla wholesale market in Sri Lanka.

Showing off their tomatoes, before giving us a couple to try.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. Maria says:

    The common consumer market is a great place to go and like you, even if I don’t “need” anything, I’ll check it out. They’re wonderful for people watching and it’s often an easy place to engage with locals, learn something about the area or get the local scoop that’s not included in a guide book. Loved reading this post and viewing your photos.

  2. Angela says:

    These are the places that really show you what life is like in a country. A tourist attraction can be fun but it’s nothing like day to day life. Not a lot of tourists go to a wholesale market, making it all the better.

  3. Suzy says:

    I always like going to food markets and grocery stores in other countries too. You see a whole side to a place, perhaps its everyday life, that you don’t always see at tourist attractions.

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