Beneath the warm Cambodian sun, a person's productivity relies heavily upon the suitability of one's dress. Since little is accomplished in blisteringly hot clothes, Khmer people for generations have tied kromas around their waists to work and play in cool comfort. The Khmer scarf, woven from cotton or silk, has been a fashion staple since Ancient times. While some claim the thin cloth, wrapped around one's head or neck, is used primarily to wipe the sweat from a hot face, others say wearing a kroma is as 'Khmer' as wearing a necktie is American.
Srey Yar Savdy, head of the Buddhist Institute's Mores and Tradition Department in Phnom Penh said that the kroma has had a home in Cambodia since the first century reign of Preah Bath Hun Tean. It is not clear when exactly the kroma hit the streets, but it has been a symbol of the Khmer kingdom and its people ever since.
"Nowadays, people are more particular and they like to have some quality instead of the less expensive kroma they used to use," said Channavy, the co-manager of a small weaving business. She said the demands of discerning customers have compelled her to prepare her loom with greater care in order to meticulously spin the cotton thread into a bobbin.
"We need to spin the thread in a careful way, because if we don't it is not good for weaving. It will roll poorly and can make the end result quite rigid and rough," Channavy explained.
The weaver said she can make between six and eight kromas a day, depending on the material used. She normally uses a loom, bobbin and weaver's shuttle to pump out the popular scarves. Women living in the countryside often make kromas to subsidize their income after the rice season has come and gone, she said. In the past, looms have measured between four meters and six meters, but recently have shrunk to two meters, since short kromas are more comfortable than the old-fashioned longer ones, Channavy added.
Long or short, the multi-purpose kromas can be found in nearly every Cambodian household. Even babies know the benefits of the colorful scarves, as kromas are placed The Kromas also are used to shield children from the cold or dreaded mosquitoes. Adults too make use of the kromas in many ways, using them to clean their bodies or wear while taking a bath. As Cambodians head to work in the rice fields, they can be seen wearing a kroma folded around their head as a sun protector. The kroma has even kept the lustful stare of young boys off the faces of blushing girls.
While the Khmer kroma is thought to be a useful article of clothing, it also is considered a symbol of respect and good manners. When people head out to visit friends, they often wear a kroma around their neck to complete their dress, much like the way male westerners wear neckties to important events.
Although its not nearly as popular as the western necktie, the traditional Khmer kroma appears to have international appeal. "When foreigners come to visit Cambodia, they sometimes pick up the Khmer style. They take the kroma to fold around their head like Khmer people in the countryside do," Srey Yar Phout Savdy said. Much to the delight of its guests, the Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap distributes the kroma as tourists check in. Srey Yar Phout Savdy said the guests are thrilled to receive them and often put them on immediately.
As the kroma gains respect from visitors, it is losing popularity amongst urban Cambodians.
"The kroma is disappearing in the city, especially in Phnom Penh, because people think that it is out of date for them to wear," Srey Yar Phout Savdy said. "They instead use the towel because it is more updated, flexible and convenient. Girls in the city prefer to use the more colorful and modern scarves, too."
"One reason why the kroma has lost its appeal may be attributed to its affiliation with the Khmer Rouge regime of the brutal communist leader Pol Pot," Srey Yar Phout Savdy said. Between 1975 and 1979, Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered every Cambodian to wear a kroma throughout the day and night. People did not dare object to the fashion order, he said, adding that even today some people are reminded of Pol Pot's cruelty when they see the colorful scarf.
Others dislike kromas for aesthetic reasons only. Sok Sam Oeun, a 22 year-old student at NIM, laughed at the thought of completing an outfit with a kroma.
"Since I have been living in Phnom Penh, I have never worn a kroma because it is out of date," she said. "I can't fold it around my neck to study. If I wear it, a lot of my friends will mock me and call me a peasant." International companies also have cramped the kroma style, flooding the cities with cheap, modern towels, said Ong Vong, director of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts' Patrimony Department.
Ong Vong shares the concerned sentiment of Srey Yar Phout Savdy, who said Cambodians' evolving styles could change the face of Khmer fashion. "If people do not wear kromas anymore, this tradition will become extinct," he said.
Whether or not the kroma will be tied to the future of Khmer fashion, it will forever grace the pages of Cambodian history.