An iconic and ubiquitous symbol of Cambodia, the krama is a piece of cloth, usually about 1.5 metres long and between 40 and 90 centimetres wide with a crisscross pattern that seems to have as many uses as it does little coloured checks. It is the single item of apparel that allows one to distinguish Cambodians from their neighbours, or anyone else.
Traditionally made with cotton woven with contrasting colours of white with red or black, kramas can now come in silk and a rich rainbow of colours and multiple-hued checks, but the basic idea remains the same. Uses include protection from the sun when wrapped around the head while working the fields, protecting one’s modesty while bathing, a sling for babies, a mosquito basher, a sweat-soaker, a fly-swat, a table-cloth, a belt, a pair of sort of knotted shorts, scarf, mini sarong, a ceremonial vestment, an aid for climbing trees, a towel, a sling between the handles of a bicycle for carrying infants (do not try this at home), a tow-rope, a pillow-cover, the list goes on.
They also, of course, make nice souvenirs. Kramas can be found in any one of Siem Reap’s now excessively numerous neon-blitzed night markets, but there are a number of shops that are less like purgatory (the Angkor Night Market is still a pleasure to visit though, as is Psas Chas, also known as Old Market).
But the best way to pick up a krama is at the Prolung Khmer Workshop on the road that leads between Route 6 and Bakong temple (you can also visit ceramics workshops here too). There you can see them being made and choose from a wide selection of beautifully coloured kramas and accessories all made with good quality fabrics.
In town plenty of shops stock kramas that tend to be of better quality than the ones you’ll find in the markets, though are arguably not in the traditional style. Ones to check out include Rajana on Sivatha Boulevard, Kokoon and Senteurs d’Angkor, though there are plenty to be found.
This essay by Francois Grunwald on the uses and meaning of the krama in Cambodian culture and history is beautiful and illuminating.
Prolong Khmer Workshop: Beside Roulos group of temples; www.prolungkhmeraboutus.blogspot.com.
Rajana: Sivatha Blvd, Siem Reap; www.rajanacrafts.org.
Kokoon: Hospital St, Siem Reap; T: (063) 963 830.
Senteurs d’Angkor: Beside Old Market on Hospital St, Siem Reap; T: (012) 954 815; www.senteursdangkor.com.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 19th February, 2016.