The krama, more than any other item of clothing of everyday use, is quintessentially Khmer. No other country in Southeast Asia uses this scarf-like head-wrapping, and it is arguably a sign of Cambodia’s ancient links with India, the land of turbans.
Krama, which are made from cotton or silk, are most commonly found in red-and-white or blue-and-white check, and have a considerable variety of uses.
Cambodians like to claim that the tradition of wearing krama dates back at least as far as the Angkor period. Certainly the Chinese Ambassador, Chou Ta-Kuan, who visited Angkor in the 13th century, commented that “every man or woman, from the sovereign down, knots the hair and leaves the shoulders bare. Round the waist they wear a strip of cloth, over which a larger piece is drawn when they leave their houses.”
Just about every province of Cambodia produces krama in its own distinctive patterns. Kompong Cham produces large silk krama in shades of burgundy, maroon, crimson, indigo and emerald. Some krama are said to resemble Scottish tartans, others are more stripy. Quality varies from the simple, coarse cotton chequered scarf used by the poorest peasants to elegant, finely woven silk krama with gold-fibre edgings. The colours of the cheaper cotton krama are usually duller, coming in shades of ochre, ginger and chocolate brown, which are generally produced using natural dyes. The colours of the more expensive silk krama are often much brighter, today utilising chemical dyes which allow a wider range of hue. Such variations in colour took on a distinctly menacing tone under the Khmer Rouge, when special blue krama were issued to inhabitants of the Eastern Zone contiguous with Vietnam. These unfortunates were considered by the paranoid leadership to have “Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds”, and the wearing of one of the special blue krama marked the possessor for eventual execution.
Cambodians claim that there are more than 60 documented uses for krama. They are worn to provide protection from sun, dust, wind, cold and rain, and they may be wound around heads, necks, shoulders or hips. Wherever you go in Cambodia you will see them wrapped, knotted, slung casually over the shoulder or worn as elaborate turbans – often in conjunction with hats. They are also regularly pressed into service as skirts, sarongs, aprons and even shorts.
Krama are also good for carrying things. Mothers use them to carry babies, children use them to heft kittens and puppies around, women going to market use them to carry bundles of chickens and other small livestock. They make excellent shopping bags; they are useful as covers for pillows, beds and chairs; they can be used as improvised fly-whisks and can be strung across the hood of a cyclo to rest the head of a weary driver. Folded, they form ideal cushions for the head on which large or heavy loads can be placed en route to market. In a sadder capacity, they can be used for leading blind people around as they seek charity.
In some villages almost every family has a loom, often tucked beneath the stilts of the house to take advantage of the shade, where fine cotton and silk krama can be produced. These krama are taken for sale in nearby markets where there are always ready buyers.
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Read more about the cultural features of Cambodia in Insight Guides: Laos & Cambodia
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