The krama is Cambodia’s most ubiquitous textile. Traditionally a long, wide piece of cotton, krama are usually woven with a simple two-tone palette, where warp and weft interlock to create a gingham pattern.
A krama can be worn as a scarf, as a headdress or a body sash, but they are also used for all manner of practical tasks – from carrying babies to hauling fruit in the market. During Khmer Rouge times, when smoke from a cooking fire might have revealed your location, people who sought refuge in the forest often employed their krama to steam rice in underground pits.
Krama are still worn and used throughout Cambodia today – especially in rural areas but equally on the streets of Phnom Penh. However, it’s becoming more difficult to see the scarves being made.
A few businesses have reintroduced artisan cotton and silk weaving for export or the fashion industry (as I saw in co-ops in Koh Dach and Takeo); but traditionally, krama were made by everyday Cambodian women at home and sold to supplement the family’s income.
This practice is still alive and well at Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village on the outskirts of Kampong Cham.
Cheung Kok is a fully functioning, self-sustained Cambodian village of 700 people – and a very pretty one at that. You can find similar settlements dotted across the country; the major difference at Cheung Kok is that the locals have made a business of welcoming outside visitors. In a rather generous gesture, the 150 families who live here all agreed to open their village to tourists about a decade ago. Since then, all kinds of cultural, livelihood and infrastructure projects have taken root.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of a French NGO called AMICA. Initially AMICA built a health clinic and a school at Cheung Kok. By 2009, they had secured piped water for every household. Then AMICA introduced sericulture, coconut shell carving, banana wine making and weaving as alternative income sources for residents who have traditionally relied on subsistence agriculture. Guided tours, volunteer programs, homestays and home-cooked meals for tourists soon followed. It’s a brilliant project and one of Cambodia’s many community based tourism success stories.
Aline grew up in Cheung Kok and now works in the village to coordinate visitors and lead free guided tours – often with a little helper in tow…!
I was drawn to visit Cheung Kok when I heard about the krama weaving, and the upright looms were indeed one of the first stops on our tour. Like at Koh Dach, looms are set in cool, shady spots under tall stilted houses. Aline introduced us to one weaver who was more than happy to share her story and demonstrate her skills. She learned the craft from her mother when she was a small child, Aline explained, and still uses her family’s ancient loom almost every day. Always with cotton, she weaves multiple scarves (up to 10) on the same warp, leaving a bolt of fabric at the end of the roll to support the next set of krama. Once woven, the fabric is removed, cut to size and finished – either it’s hemmed, or the loose warp threads are rolled and tied.
I once heard the small squares of the krama beautifully described as a motif that represents the light and dark in Cambodian history. At Cheung Kok, weavers also fashion contemporary designs, like the bold block-coloured scarves pictured below.
Krama have also evolved to take on different shapes. While traditional krama are woven up to a meter in width, newer designs are long and skinny, reminiscent of a Western-style scarf. I purchased a super-wide krama from the village and have since used it as an emergency blanket! So I for one can attest to the fact that a wide scarf can come in very handy in Cambodia.
I learned some fascinating facts about the krama at Cheung Kok which I’d never heard before. Alongside the story about steaming rice during Khmer Rouge times, Aline also told us about the red and white chequered krama. You see it wrapped around the necks of Khmer Rouge cadres in old photos; but contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t devised as part of their uniform. The Khmer Rouge did co-opt the red and white krama, but before that (and maybe because of it), the palette was symbolic of rural Cambodia and worn by people who lived on the land. This explains why many Cambodians are still happy to sport this classic colour combination today.
Aline demonstrated for us the many different ways the krama can be worn on one’s head. Wrapped a certain way, it will shield your face from the sun; draped loosely, it will cover your mouth and filter out toxic traffic fumes. One of the Aline’s most touching stories describes how ‘country people’ sometimes wear the krama to conceal their faces when they travel into the town or city. Rural women in particular do this if they feel bashful. Kampong Cham is of course home to the majority of Cambodia’s Cham Muslim population, but the krama isn’t worn as a religious garment.
The final stop on our tour was the small Cheung Kok boutique – a refurbished shed where many of the handmade village products are proudly displayed. Here I found one of the best collections of krama I’ve seen anywhere in Cambodia!
How to visit Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village
Cheung Kok is located about 20 minutes from central Kampong Cham town in Kampong Cham province. Get in touch with Aline via phone (+855 69 555 115) one or two days before your visit to organise a tour. Admission (and indeed the tour) is free, but I recommend you either make a donation at the end or purchase something from the boutique. Aline speaks perfect English and is very accommodating! There are small information signs posted around the village, but you will learn much more with her as your guide. She can also organise lunch in one of the homes or an overnight homestay in the village.
A tuk-tuk to Cheung Kok from our hotel cost us $12, including a 1.5 hour wait at the village and a stopover at Wat Nokor on the way back into town. The village is well-known in Kampong Cham; most people know it by the name AMICA.
Cheung Kok is managed remotely by AMICA staff, and you can contact them via Facebook if you have any questions.