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The humble Krama – Central market and Wat Phnom

(written by Dave)

I mentioned yesterday that we went shopping at the Russian market in the afternoon, after the killing fields.  The Russian market was named during the cold war, when the Soviet Union provided lots of aid to Cambodia, not just money, but also Russian products.  Over time, excess inventory found its way to a market in the south of the city and that market became known as the Russian market.  Not much of what’s sold there today has Russian origin, but the name stuck.

We specifically went to the market trying to find a shop called Rajana (http://www.aac.org.kh/rajana.html).  This shop focuses on fair wages and training for at-risk kids and families.  All three of us wanted to buy a Krama (more on that below) but we thought it would be nice to buy one at a shop where profits are aimed at a good cause.  We were successful on the krama front and enjoyed the Russian market but we were not completely marketed out.  So today after first visiting Wat Phnom (one of the oldest wats in Phnom Penh) we made out way to Central market, the largest market in Phnom Penh.  Here we didn’t buy much but we enjoyed people watching.  And specifically, spotting kramas being used in many different ways.

So what is this krama thing?  A krama is a sturdy traditional Khmer/Cambodian garment with many uses, including as a scarf, bandanna, to carry children, to cover the face, and for decorative purposes. It is worn by men, women and children, and can be fairly ornate, though most typical kramas contain a plaid pattern of some sort, and traditionally come in either red or blue.  We spotted most of the above uses but also saw kramas used as dish towels, general clean-up towels and even tuk-tuk seat covers.

We did not wear our new kramas to the market as we all think they need a little dirt and a few trips through a washing machine before they look authentic.  There is rumoured to be a washing machine in our accommodation in Siem Riep.  We have not had access to a washing machine for over a month – the last we saw was in northern Thailand.  In Laos and rural Cambodia so far, most laundry is done by hand, even at the hotels we’ve stayed in where they offered laundry services (few and far between).  Washing machines are one of those newfangled western inventions that have yet to find mass use here.

Anyway, the krama is a national symbol of Cambodia. We saw more of them out in the country than we have in the city.  In the city, evidence of globalization is rampant – we see more “angry bird” shirts than we see kramas.  (In case you don’t know, Angry Birds is a video game that was introduced on the iPad and is now known virtually worldwide).   It seems that hip young city folks would rather be seen with a modern western shirt than they would the daggy old traditional garment.  You may have read yesterday’s post and noted that the Khmer Rouge uniform included a traditional red checked krama, along with all black tops and pants.  I am happy to report that the brutality of the Khmer Rouge was not able to hijack the krama, a garment with a 1,000 years of pre KR history.

Wat Phnom was interesting.  Many of the buildings at Wat Phnom are new since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge but that rebuilding was only one of many that have taken place since its original construction started in 1373.  If you know what you’re looking at you can see Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer influences in the building.  In the context of this Wat, the Khmer Rouge were just the most recent group to “remodel” through invasion/war.  The wat is built on the only hill on the Phnom Penh.  Like we saw in some of the older temples in Laos, you can see the foundation slowly sliding down the hill.  Gravity is the ultimate enemy to many of these old buildings.

Back to the krama.  Today in about an hour I snapped a stack of krama photos, see below.  Friends and family should pay close attention here as kramas might just make good Christmas gifts.  They make a smart fashion statement and I think we can smuggle them into Gretchen’s bag without her noticing.

Tomorrow we transfer to Siem Reap.  It is about a 5 hour car drive.  We are going by private taxi because our bikes make all the other options more difficult.  We may not post tomorrow unless our driver finds some remarkable sites en route that are worth sharing.

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4 responses to “The humble Krama – Central market and Wat Phnom

  1. How do we sign up for a krama under our tree? 🙂

  2. Great picture of you guys! I love seeing the kids being hams.

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