The Krama: A Cambodian Patchwork

From near and far, the kramas grace the Cambodian people with their own special character. The humble Khmer garment, a scarf made up of thousands of tiny squares, resembles Khmers' own history: it is a patchwork of contrasting hues - dark and light, sad and joyous.

After living and working for years with Khmers, one cannot help but have seen a thousand and one morsels of this material on a thousand and one different occasions. Some kramas - black and white - bespeak tragedy. Others, made of bright silks, are merrily worn to pagoda festivals. There are a plethora of kramas that reflect the many events that make up Cambodian life.

There are kramas soaked by the sweat of peasants, who mop their brows as they carry out their harsh work in the fields... plowing, harrowing, harvesting. Their kramas also know the sweat born of long and terrible days of work under the yoke of the Khmer Rouge... cutting the forest, digging canals, building dams.

There are the kramas that color the marketplace. Worn in a thousand and one different ways, these lend elegance to the silhouettes of women waiting for the ferry that will carry them from Prek Kdam to Kompong Cham.

Kramas are gently when transformed into hammocks and suspended between two sugar palms, protecting infants from the wet rice fields while their mothers, doubled over, cultivate the paddies. Kramas can be tender, too, when a yey (grandmother), gums reddened by bethel, uses one to dry the cheeks of a child in tears.

Kramas are close to pain when they are used to cinch a leg torn off by one of thousands of land mines that will, for years to come, continue to kill and cripple. And, too, kramas become stretchers when several, tied together and attached to long bamboo poles, are used to carry the wounded, a sick person, or a woman in labor.

There are terrifying kramas, worn by the sinister silhouettes of kramaphibal and yothear (loyalists and soldiers) of Pol Pot.

Then there are the horrifying kramas, found in tatters and mixed with human remains in the mass graves strewn throughout the country.

Kramas of heroes: the quasi-customary piece of uniform of the men that take part in the conflicts between the superpowers and small regional hegemonies. Soldiers of Sihanouk, Hun Sen, Son San, or even Khleu Samphan: how you resemble each other, draped in your bivouac kramas, turbanned in these scarves of tiny squares as you march in the season's dust, or when, to bathe in the river by the soft tropical light of dusk, you drape you drape your krama modestly around your hips.

Kramas of humiliation are scattered among the long lines of refugees waiting, often in shame and despair, and now with all too frequent resignation, for their ration of international aid. Some have been in exile for nigh on 10 years... How many children born in these camps are carried in a krama noosed about their mothers' shoulders? How many have only known the rice cooked from a plastic sack their mother has received as a ration...?

Knapsack kramas contain everything for the voyage to the work areas that stretch from K.5 to the Khmer Thai border. Many return trembling from these forests (think with guerrillas and Pol Pot soldiers) - sick with tropical fevers, clutching their kramas about them for warmth.

Kramas become parasols when they are stretched between the masts of thousands of wagons during the great seasonal migrations that irrigate whole villages at the start of the dry season. Their shade protects Khmers as they travel toward the miraculous fishing shores of the Tonlè Sap at the mouth of the Oudong, and Prek Phnow - upriver from Phnom Penh.

During the great purges of 1978, deportees from the eastern part of the country were marked as traitors by green and blue kramas. These kramas created fear among and about those they designated as secret agents, as enemies to be spied upon and persecuted without mercy. Kramas of fear, kramas of the yellow star.

Wrapped around hips, and in between legs, kramas are a pair of makeshift shorts for a round of volleyball until, with a particularly vigorous swipe at the ball, the krama will fall, lifting waves of laughter and jokes from the audience. The matron of the marketplace in O'Russey extracts her worn riels from the krama that serves as her only purse. Her gesture is reminiscent of so many others - the slight, young refugee girl selling doughnuts in Khao-I-Dang... or the manageress of the small shop in the Site Two refugee camp, a little bamboo city that is the second Khmer city after Phnom Penh... A neak srae, a man of the rice fields, unknots his krama for a pinch of tobacco, which he will roll into a "Sangker" leaf, picked by the side of the road.

Some kramas are hoisted onto children's backs as schoolbags. Tied at all four corners, filled with a few crayons, a notebook, and some books, they are carried along the roads of Srok Kmer, parallel to the corridors of the refugee camps. On both sides of the border, there are only a few schools in bad condition; they are, nonetheless, greatly treasured - so great is their pupils' hunger to learn. Young girls carry their kramas gingerly, with the grace and modesty they are taught, while boys sport theirs in haste, slung over their shoulders to speed their progress toward the football field. Priests wear kramas, too, folded across their chests. Dressed in black pants and collarless white shirts, their figures and serene smiles dress the Cambodian landscape; they are a part of its active religious life, a part of the nation's spiritual joys and suffering.

Some kramas are used as handcuffs, tightened around a prisoner. Others share in hope, swaddling a still wet newborn.

This article is dedicated to everyone who wears kramas.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990