The Krama is the unofficial national garment of Cambodia, a woven scarf made of tiny squares, a bit like a chequered table cloth. Not particularly ornate, soft, or indeed beautiful, kramas come in a range of colours. They are soaked by the sweat of peasants as they work in the fields, they lend elegance to the silhouettes of bathers in the soft light of dusk, they wrap children’s lunches and they lie in horrifying tatters, mixed with human remains in mass graves.
Vying for the popularity on the Cambodian catwalk is the sampot, or sarong. There are many variations, worn according to class, the regular sampot being typically worn by men and women of lower class. It measures approximately one and a half meters, both ends are sewn together and it is wrapped around the waist and tucked in. It is usually made of printed batik-patterned cloth from Indonesia.
It mystified me as to how the Khmer manage to squat in their typical way whilst cooking, chatting and going about general life tasks, but to do it wearing a tucked-in sampot, without an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction is quite special. I did try, and found the squatting position difficult to hold for more than 30 seconds. Less to do with the sampot and more to do with my western muscles which have been neither natured or nurtured to sit that way.
The sampot chang kben outstrips both krama and regular sampot in both elegance and style, being made of hand-woven silk and worn by Royalty and government officials with a formal jacket on special occasions. Silk that is woven on looms by women in wooden houses in small villages.
I visited a silk farm in Siem Reap. Being a craft enthusiast, I loved seeing the process of transformation from fuzzy cocoon to shining reels of thread. The women were skilled (although looking a touch bored) and the range of clothes and scarves so shimmeringly beautiful, I would have bought the whole Aladdin’s cave if I could. You can see the process, in my short video.
Silk is also used in religious cloth, although the everyday wear of Buddhist Monks and Nuns is much more modest. The go-to colour for monks is the striking saffron orange, although it varies from a bright burnt orange, to a grubby brown. A more golden yellow colour seems to be more common threaded with sparkles into ceremonial material. Nuns, in contrast, are traditionally in plain white although some have no uniform apart from their shaved heads and eyebrows.
Cambodia exudes religion and spirituality of one sort or another, although the people seem to have adapted both themselves and religion, resulting in a curious mix that sensibly suits modern-day practicalities.
Wats and Pagodas abound, usually being the most richly bestowed building in a town or village. Typically painted in bright colours and finished in gold, with walled enclosure containing a sanctuary, living quarters and in the grounds, stupas spiral skywards, pointing the remains contained within toward their heavenly paradise.
For the first thousand years of Khmer history, Cambodia was ruled by a series of Hindu kings with an occasional Buddhist thrown in. There seemed to be no problem with alternating and amalgamating the two religions. Many of the temples of Angkor, like more modern wats, are engraved with carvings of Hindu myths such as the “churning the sea of milk” and the Reamker, which is a version of the Hindu Ramayana epic, adapted to Buddhist themes.
You can almost smell the clouds of incense and hear the echoing chant of a thousand monks, as you stroll through the stone chambers at low light.
The French discouraged the Buddhist faith – they imported ideas suggesting that the earth was round – a problematic notion for Traditionalists, and when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, they tried to eradicate religion altogether.
Temples were destroyed and Monks murdered or forced into exile. Some say numbers fell from around 70,000 to 3,000. Wat Nokor near Kampong Cham, has blackened laterite walls, not through age, but from black paint, daubed there by the Khmer Rouge.
It was not until 1991 that Buddhism was re-declared as Cambodia’s ‘state religion’ and to an outsider like me, it’s complicated to say the least. My feeble attempts at learning could not even scratch the surface, but in a very small nutshell, today it seems that there are two main schools of thought – Traditionalists who stick to the practices and teachings centred on merit-making ceremonies and concentration meditation, and Modernists who have re-interpreted Buddhist teachings in light of modern knowledge and are using it for social development.
There are also the “Young Monks” a politically active movement. Since the 1993 elections, monks have been permitted to vote in Cambodia, although since a monk is sacred, he is also outside the normal civil laws and duties that affect lay people. So, it seems, it is possible to have it all ways….
In December, Monks, young and old had reason to make themselves heard. The country’s only relics of the Buddha – said to be hair, teeth and bones – were stolen from the former royal capital at Odong in Kandal province. The relics were, in theory, guarded, but would have been highly sought after by some collectors.
About 200 monks besieged a meeting of senior members of the Buddhist clergy, demanding action. The relics were reportedly found on Monday, on the kitchen table of the accused!
As well as partaking in a demonstration or two, Monks can be seen pretty much everywhere in Cambodia. Monks on scooters, Monks on buses, Monks taking a Sunday afternoon stroll, Monks eating breakfast at a street stall, Monks crowding a tuk tuk, Monks enjoying the view at a tourist spot, Monks asking for donations for temple restoration, and most commonly, Monks calling at houses for their daily ration. Householders scurry to ladle food into the pot carried under the saffron robe, a few words (I assume a blessing) are uttered, and the Monks continue to the next stop on their breakfast-time safari supper.
There are also undercover Monks (or ex-Monks) who walk among us as we go about our daily business. A large number of Cambodian men have served, if only for a short time. A son’s temporary ordination brings merit to his parents, and men who have spent time as a monk are traditionally sought after for marriage, having had their rough edges smoothed.
But even for the upwardly-mobile Monk sacrifices must be made. No eating after midday, sleeping on a luxurious bed, watching TV or handling money, although those begging at the bus station seem happy enough to do so.
Temples can also provide an education, a home, food and shelter for those who cannot afford it. I was cycling in town one day when a university student came up beside me for a chat. He had moved to Kampong Cham to study agriculture but could not afford to support himself, so lived at the Wat.
So Buddhism, like many religions, provides a metaphorical rock for some sectors of the population, and its teachings still shape the nation; it takes a view that deference and fatalism are superior to rebelliousness or hope, perhaps unhelpfully encouraging the prevailing lack of ambition in society. It offers explanation for past and future lives but little guidance on solving the dilemmas of this existence.
But it’s not all about Buddhism. Most Khmer also believe in spirits and nearly every home, no matter how rich or poor, has a spirit house, some disproportionately grand in comparison to the prevailing human living conditions. Food is left as a gift to the spirits and offerings range from fruit to tins of Pringles to whole chickens, and the flies are very grateful.
Superstition, it seems, gives answers when there are none elsewhere.
New “signs” are discovered regularly – the Cambodia Daily reported before Christmas that a boy found the pattern of a face in crab shell, and pilgrims came from far and wide to see the holy crab.
Most Khmer believed in magical shirts and protective scarves during the troubles of 1970s but despite this even the weavers of the magic cloth were exterminated, and the craft of weaving, along with culture in general suffered major destruction.
Small nuggets of arts and culture have survived and are beginning to glint again. The traditional art of shadow puppetry, all but lost during the 70s is being re-learned in pockets and the plays usually tell old stories from the Ramayana. The puppets are made from tanned buffalo or cow skins which are cut and punched with holes to make elaborate patterns and characters.
But the most visible traditional art is Apsara dance, which is performed in lavish extravaganzas for tourists in Siem Reap and by children’s charities and groups across the land, in attempts to pass on the tradition. The dances have largely agricultural and fishing themes, giving thanks for the harvest. The dancers wear rich silks, some use props like sticks and coconuts, and nearly all incorporate the graceful lotus hand movements that little girls can be seen practising outside houses throughout the country.
Whilst little Cambodian Cinderella’s dream of becoming an Apsara dancer, singing is a widespread and much more accessible pastime in modern Cambodia. Karaoke clubs can be found easily in any town. The Khmer are not shy in coming forward to show their vocal talent and singing seems as engrained into modern-day life as any religious ritual. There are versions of The Voice and other TV programmes searching for the next singing star and whilst the style is an acquired taste, they score ten out of ten for glamour.
But the modest renaissance in Cambodian art and culture seems yet to have travelled much further within the country than the tourist centre Siem Reap and the capital Phnom Penh. The rest of the country is more worried about where their next meal is coming from.
The film director Rithy Panh is an exception in that he has not only gone Cambodia-wide, but international – he was recently nominated for an Oscar for his film The Missing Picture in which he uses clay figures to re-enact scenes of life in the Khmer Rouge camps. This follows a previous film The Rice People, about people worrying about where their next meal is coming from.
It’s a pity he didn’t win the glittering award. It would have looked right at home next to the glowing shrine in a Cambodian house, and rivalled any temple cornice, Apsara dress or shimmering ceremonial thread.
However maybe it is just as well, if even Buddha is not safe when under guard, then I’m not sure who or what is…