We are happy to have Rob Hanley as our first guest blogger! Rob is currently traveling around SE Asia with his girlfriend, Johanna, blogging about his adventures on Dog Chases Car. He is also a proud member of The SELPAK.
Anyone who has ever visited Cambodia should be familiar with the traditional hand-woven kramas and decorative textiles of the Khmer people. Brightly colored and often ornately detailed, these popular garments can be found in every market stall and handicraft shop throughout the country. For centuries, the Khmer have used them as scarves, bandanas, shoulder sashes, and as slings to carry small children. Some locals even fashion them into makeshift hammocks to relax during the hottest hours of the day. The krama is, without a doubt, the most popular Cambodian souvenir and few travelers leave the country without one in their bag.
Back in early July, my girlfriend and I traveled to Mondulkiri Province in Eastern Cambodia to volunteer with the Elephant Valley Project for a few days. We did not think to book in advance, and upon our arrival in the province’s capital city of Sen Monorom, we learned that the project would not be able to host us until four days later.
I was very disappointed to have to wait in and around Sen Monorom for such a long time. It is a one-horse-town if ever there was one (though it does have many elephants). Much to my surprise, though, we were able to keep ourselves busy every day. We explored the town, hiked to waterfalls, toured a coffee plantation, and took a few breathtaking motorbike trips through the countryside.
On the last day before we began working with the Elephant Valley Project, we hopped on motorbikes and headed east out of Sen Monorom in search of Dak Dam Village, a remote Cambodian farming village close to the border with Vietnam. The 25 kilometer drive through the rolling green hills and mountains was stunning. Had I not known that we were in Southeast Asia, I would have guessed that we were in Southern Germany. We followed a small sign for Dak Dam and bounced off of the paved highway onto a red dirt road.
After a few kilometers, we found ourselves rolling through the center of the village, dodging cows, chickens, and water buffalo. We parked the bikes under the shade of a tree and took a stroll to say hello to some of the villagers and take some photos.
As we walked past the stilted thatch-roofed houses and animal enclosures, our flip-flops kicked-up the red earth and stained our feet. Courageous children stood up and repeatedly shouted “Hello! Hellooooo!” while their more bashful siblings remained inside, poking their heads out windows and doors. Older men and women tending to herds of cows smiled and nodded as we passed by. The place was frozen in a time that the developed world had forgotten long ago.
Rounding another dusty bend in the road, we noticed an old woman sitting on a bamboo mat in front of a small house. We drew closer and realized that she had a stack of folded kramas next to her and was in the process of weaving another. We approached shyly, like the young Khmer children had approached us earlier that day. Eventually, she looked up, smiled, and waved us over.
We tried to communicate with her using basic Khmer, English, and embarrassingly emphatic body language, but every attempt ended with mutual shrugging and laughter. She gestured to the kramas that she had already made and placed one in my hands. It was clear that she had finished this one awhile ago, as it had already collected quite a bit of dust. Even in its less-than-perfect condition, though, the krama was beautiful. It was soft to the touch and felt delicate in my hands, but I could tell right away that it was a resilient and sturdy garment.
We watched her work in silence for a moment or two and then crouched down to ask if we could purchase one. I had seen similar kramas in markets all over Cambodia. In Sen Monorom, most people asked for $15. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, prices went as high as $20 and $30. The old woman requested that we give her $10. In Southeast Asia, I can’t buy a pack of gum without trying to bargain the price, but I was more than happy to pay in this case.
Textile weaving is a centuries-old art form that has survived the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. It is becoming a more popular (and profitable) practice due to increased demand from both tourists and locals. However, this is leading to mass production and distribution which is extremely hard on traditional weavers.
What a treat it was to witness the creation of a krama first-hand, and to be able to pay the artist directly for her craft. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to venture off the beaten path that day, and would like to urge future travelers to try and do the same.