Asia Travel Writing

The journey of Sri Lanka’s Choon Paan Man

I scream, you scream, we all scream for… bread?

Sweltering in humid temperatures that often soar upwards of 30 degrees, visiting Sri Lanka is a sweaty affair. So, it is to the delight of most travellers when they hear the high-pitched, metallic jingle wafting in the distance for the first time.

As they rifle through their pockets, looking for spare rupees and dreaming of icy relief, the musical machine in question rounds the corner and their faces move through states from excitement, confusion, to disappointment and finally settle on amusement.

In most countries, the strains of music you hear being broadcasted through the streets means ice cream. Yet in Sri Lanka, the drifting tunes of Beethoven’s Für Elise signify the coming of one thing: The Choon Paan Man.

Translated literally to ‘tune bread,’ they operate in much the same way as our ice cream trucks. Both children and adults run into the streets to hail down the Choon Paan Man. But instead of having freezers full of frozen treats, these specifically outfitted tuk tuks boast glass cabinets displaying the day’s menu of baked goods.

From sleepy villages to the bustling streets of Colombo, you can find Sri Lanka’s bread tuk tuks anywhere. Just stop and listen.

In the morning, drivers will come around, blaring their melodies over the megaphone often as early as 5:30 am. However, with a variety of freshly roasted pastries and breads, this early wake up has become part of an everyday routine for Sri Lanka’s workforce.

Lining up, wiping sleep out of their eyes, people order their breakfasts and lunch. Fish curry buns, spicy sambol buns, savory vadai donuts and godamba roti are in hot demand for a hot day’s work.

For a country where bread is present in almost every meal, having a mobile bakery, which boasts pretty much everything except ice cream, is a widespread convenience.

Yet many grumble about the incessant and unnecessary noise. For braying animals, honking horns and the clamor of every day life can be cut through by the fanfare of the bread man.

Choon Paan Man selling his daily wares
Early in the evening he makes his final round to all the restaurants, delivering the unsold, stale bread. This gets cut up, fried and used in Sri Lanka’s beloved national dish, kothu roti One bite of well-prepared kothu and you’ll be praising the cacophony rather than cursing.

While the amplified sounds of Für Elise coming around the corner might excite tourists, locals and long-term travellers know better. Morning, afternoon and evening, the streets of Sri Lanka are ruled by the humble – and noisy – journey of the Choon Paan Man.

• • •

Originally published in South East Asia Backpacker


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