No garment is as distinctively Cambodian as the krama. A garment made of cotton or silk, the krama is worn by men, women and children in every social class across the country, with designs from the unassuming to the painstakingly elaborate.
This fascinating fashion item is also one of the finest displays of the artistic gifts of the Khmer people (along with silversmithing), and travellers can discover the making of the krama as part of a Mekong river cruise.
The krama also showcases the creativity of the Cambodian people to its fullest, judging by the thousands of ways the garment is deployed in their everyday lives. See if you can spot it being used as a hammock for small children on your next trip to this country.
The history of karma
With the lack of written history in Khmer culture, it is not certain where the krama originated from although historians believe it may have to do with Cambodia’s ancient ties to the Indian Subcontinent, where scarfs made of silk and wool have long been popular. After all, the Khmer civilisation is Hindu in origin, before gradually transitioning to Buddhist beliefs sometime in the 13th century.
It’s also interesting to note that no other country in Southeast Asia has historically worn a scarf, making the krama a distinctive aspect of Cambodian cultural heritage.
How karma is worn and used
Unlike the Sikh turban, a scarf that is deeply religious in meaning and functions solely as a headgear, the krama is non-religious and non-political. It is purely cultural, and in Cambodia the Khmer people even call krama the “soul”, using it for anything they can think of — from carrying babies to acting as a sheath for weaponry.
The krama is also relied upon in bokator, a traditional Khmer martial art. During spars, bokator fighters wrap krama around their waists, heads and fists. At the same time, mothers use krama to swaddle their babies and hold them close as they go about their daily business, fostering strong maternal bonds as time goes by.
Most commonly, though, you’ll see the krama put to use as a scarf, as protection from the sun or a bandana to cover the face. At Aqua Expeditions, one of our native Khmer guides, Hoeum, swears by the krama. Ask him how to make it part of your Outfit of the Day!
When our guides take you around villages and residential areas, you might even catch kids throwing a rolled-up ball of krama at one another, playing “Cha-ol Chong” — a uniquely local version of a dodgeball. Everywhere you look, you’ll see that the scarf has become a ubiquitous part of Cambodian life.
Krama as a status symbol in Cambodia
Krama that is entirely handcrafted from silk is especially prized by those who can afford it in Cambodian society. Sometimes, silk karma may even take on the role of an engagement ring for men who would like to ask for their partners’ hand in marriage!
“Cambodians see the silk krama as a kind of family heirloom,” says Hoeum. “Especially for ladies, it’s important to own at least one silk scarf, as they see it as a representation of digity when they attend big events such as weddings.”
Visit a silk weaving village with Aqua Expeditions and you’ll see first-hand why a silk krama is so sought after, with each piece being sold for up to US$200, depending on the intricacy of the pattern. The majority of the profits of every krama sold goes back to the craftspeople who design and make them.
How Cambodian artisans make krama
Krama is an age-old endeavour that demands teamwork and individual skill with a great deal of concentration and dedication to the craft. Guests on the Aqua Mekong cruise ship have the opportunity to discover the entire process of traditional Cambodian silk weaving at Koh Oknha Tey village, where a large number of silk artisans live.
There, silk is first harvested from silkworm cocoons (also known as chrysalis) and roughly spun into bundles of fibres. After a dyeing process, the extracted silk fibers are then finely spun around a krama wheel using a contraption that resembles an inverted bicycle, preparing the silk for weaving.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of silk production is the weaving itself. Seeing the weaving process in action is hypnotic, and it’s a feat how silk weavers, with decades of experience behind team, maintain monk-like levels of concentration and razor-sharp focus with each motion.
And when it involves intricate patterns such as traditional elephant motifs, an artisan may take up to two-and-a-half months to finish a standard 70-inch scarf — hard work that keeps an centuries-old Cambodian tradition alive and well.
Learn about the entire silk weaving process from silkworm to finished product as part of a Mekong river cruise, and let the immense cultural gifts of the Mekong river basin enthral your senses.