On my way back from an early morning stroll around Nuwara Eliya's tea gardens, the sound of Beethoven’s Fur Elise pervades the calmness of the countryside, as the warmth and golden hues of a rising Sun illuminate the lush mountain slopes.
The hill city is located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, about 180 kilometres east of Colombo, and 80km from the sacred city of Kandy. Dubbed Little England, this once-colonial destination is famous for its flavoursome Ceylon tea, vintage cottages, sacred Hindu kovils amid mist-shrouded mountains and cascades, winding roads dotted with colourful tuk-tuks, and breathtaking vistas.
As Beethoven's tune plays from afar, I decide to wait, as the tuk-tuk blasting out the melody comes closer, so I can buy some freshly baked goods from the vehicle, known as a choon paan, and pair them with a morning cuppa in the comforts of my room at The BlackPool hotel.
Choon paan in Sri Lanka is a musical tuk-tuk or other vehicle that drives around delivering freshly baked goods from as early as 5.30am. Its passenger compartment is refitted with glass cabinets to display the wares, while the driver plays Beethoven’s 1810 classic through a loudspeaker, announcing his arrival to potential customers.
Choon means music or tune, while paan is bread in Sinhala. Thus, "choon paan" loosely translates as “‘tune bread” or “music bread”.
More often, these tuk-tuks are mobile extensions of a larger bakery, catering to a wider customer base, according to Nishada Dunuwila, my co-traveller who hails from Piliyandala near Colombo.
She joins me as I wait, hoping to buy her favourite bread.
“Choon paan was the source of our daily bread during the lockdowns”, she says.
Nishada says although these tuk-tuks are a constant in everyday life in the country, they regained popularity only during the pandemic after suffering a slump for about a decade. The resurgence is thanks to the freshness of the baked products, and the fact they can be bought at one’s doorstep.
“It is all about convenience,” she says. “Why walk up to the bakery when it is being delivered to your home?”
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have discovered these colourful musical bread sellers if it weren't for a recent road trip across Sri Lanka.
From the outskirts of Colombo to Jaffna in the northern province, I saw mobile bakeries catering to even the most remote of alleys in villages and towns of Sri Lanka, circling the neighbourhoods many times in the mornings and late afternoons.
They're a boon for travellers like me, who might not know the nearest grocery to buy a quick snack while on the road.
“They taste better than the packaged buns," Kuru, my chauffeur had said a day earlier as he bought half a dozen buns filled with seeni sambol (caramelised spicy onion) on the outskirts of Kandy as we ascended the mountains to reach Nuwara Eliya.
Interestingly, it was only in the early 2000s that these customised colourful three-wheelers made their appearance on Sri Lankan roads, using Beethoven’s most popular composition as their signature tune – blaring it from their mobile phones over a loud-speaker.
However, during my road trip, I observe that it is not only classical tunes these bread-trucks play, but also Christmas carols. Of late, drivers also seem to have switched to playing Tamil music, especially in the Jaffna region.
“The children in Jaffna listen to a lot of Tamil music,” says Kayan, a choon paan man in Jaffna. To attract more customers, he switched to playing the latest numbers from Tamil movies.
Standing near our hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Nishada and I feel similar excitement to that of a child at Christmas, waiting patiently for Santa Claus to arrive.
We spot a red tuk-tuk meandering around the nearest bend, blaring the signature tune, then briefly halting to sell its goodies.
I greedily browse through the freshly baked confections stacked symmetrically behind the glass shelves. While the seeni sambol-filled buns lining the first rack look appetising, my gaze turns to the delicious cupcakes on the second rack. I point at them.
The choon paan man opens the glass door and a heavenly waft of freshly baked aroma engulfs me. How I wanted to hoard them all. Yet, like an obedient child, I buy a couple of cupcakes – their tops glistening and decorated with colourful candied peels – while Nishada gets her toast.
"Da na na na dananana danana" … and off it goes, the tune of the choon paan as it leaves, until we meet again.