Wherever travellers go in Cambodia, certain things will stick in their minds and leave a lasting imprint. Travellers will remember the warm hospitality shown through ever-present Cambodian smiles, the sense of spirituality never far away, and the awe-inspiring architecture of iconic temples. Through it all, in the photographs and in the memories of travellers, there will be the ubiquitous krama.
The versatile, sturdy garment is omnipresent across Cambodia. Our of our guides on the ground, Bunnak Khun, insists that every single Cambodian possesses krama.
“It is, in fact, considered a symbol of national identity.”
Simply put, a krama is a piece of woven fabric.
Yet, it’s so much more.
Among its most common uses are as a scarf, a towel, a type of sarong, a bandana, a hammock for children, a papoose for babies… there are incredibly creative ways in which Cambodians use this fascinating item in their everyday lives.
Travellers will see farmers in the fields wiping their brow with a krama, their tuk-tuk driver may be wearing one to shield his head from the sun, a fashionable lady walking down the streets of Siem Reap may be donning a fine silken krama as a skirt.
A krama is made of either synthetic threads, cotton, or silk, and comes in a range of styles and patterns. However, the most common are of checkered design and feature the national colours: blue, red, or white, or a combination of all three. Travellers will see plenty of designs in various sizes in any market they care to pass through in Cambodia.
Cotton kramas are the best bet for travellers wishing to buy one as a souvenir. These are often stiff, abrasive, and thin at first. Yet, after some use and a few washes, these cotton kramas take on a much denser texture and soften up nicely. They improve with use and last for a considerable amount of time. A decent quality large cotton krama will only set you back around $3.
Krama features heavily in the intriguing Cambodian martial art form of bokator. Believed to be the precursor to many other Southeast Asian martial art forms, bokator dates back to the pre-Angkorean era in the 9th century A.D. Bokator fighters actually feature on the walls of Angkor Wat.
The martial art is based on the movements of various animals and uses all parts of the body. Its popularity had been dwindling, but the historical-cultural tradition has enjoyed a resurgence in recent times.
Krama is used by the fighters as belts signifying the combatants’ abilities, with white being first grade, followed by green, blue, red, brown and finally, black. A gold krama is awarded for a select few grandmasters of the martial art – a highly coveted prize.
On a Discova tailor-made tour of the Cambodian countryside, with one of our local guides, travellers may observehildren playing a unique version of dodgeball – the deadly weapon? Of course, a rolled-up ball of krama.
During the time of the Khmer Rouge, all ‘pure’ Khmer were required to wear red krama as a marker of their ethnic purity. However, today, men, women, and children of all ages and social status wear their different versions of krama and use the ultimate multitasking material in increasingly innovative ways!
Bunnak goes on to point out: “Wearing a scarf in this way is actually unique to Cambodia in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting that no other Southeast Asian nation has adopted the distinctive practice of scarf-wearing!”
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