While the urban centres of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are modern hubs, a trip into the sprawling countryside reveals a whole different side to Cambodia. The pace of life is much slower, traditional dress is worn and signs of the modern world – aside from mobile phones – are scarce.
It is here that you are more likely to see men and women dressed in the traditional attire worn by Khmers. With Cambodia being a predominantly agricultural country, many of the clothes work in the provinces relate to working the land, with kramas – checked cotton scarves – being the most common Cambodian item of clothing found across the country.
The krama is synonymous with Cambodia, and has more purposes than you can imagine. As well as being worn as a fashion item, elderly men and women can often be seen with them wrapped around their heads to protect them from the sun. They also work as a sarong, a towel, can be tied around the feet to protect them when scaling trees or used to carry objects in. Traditionally in mauve and white squares, krama can be found today in many shapes, colours and sizes in the markets that dot the country.
Sampot is the national garment of Cambodia, dating back to the Funan era when important Chinese diplomats asked the Cambodian king to order the people to cover themselves. Still commonly worn today in rural areas, the sampot is worn by both men and women as a form of sarong. There are several variations depending on social class. The sampot measures between five and six feet long, with both ends sewn together. It is then worn on the bottom half of the body, with excess material knotted in front to hold it up.
The sampot chang kben is usually reserved for upper and middle class women and resembles trousers rather than a skirt. It measures more than nine feet long and three feet wide. It is worn by wrapping the material around the waist and pulling away from the body. A knot is then drawn between the legs and held in place by a belt. In modern Cambodia, it is worn by women at special occasions.
Cambodia has a great tradition of silk weaving, with the ancient art stretching back over centuries. Although it had seen a decline in recent years, it is on the rise once again thanks to a series of initiatives. Many items of clothing are traditionally made from silk, with the intricate patterns indigenous to Cambodia. Golden silk is Cambodia’s national silk and there are various projects to retrain artisans that are open to visitors. Artisans Angkor Silk Farm in Siem Reap gives a great free insight into the process and craft, as well as the opportunity to view and buy traditional garments.