Although its neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam have garnered more attention for their beaches or in the case of Vietnam, its politics, Cambodia is a country whose culture, customs and clothing are diverse, colorful and rooted in tradition. Approximately 14 and a half million Cambodians call this beautiful country home.
By day, Cambodians, like many people in Asia, tend to be rather conservative in their attire. Men are expected to wear at minimum slacks and a buttoned up shirt. A tie is optional, but recommended. Alternatively, women are expected to wear ankle length skirts and a nice blouse. Indeed the climate may dictate how Cambodians dress. Tropical can usually mean hot and muggy days and rainy afternoons and evenings. As Cambodian attire is segregated by social classes and caste boundaries, attire may differ greatly between the peoples who live there. Traditional (both rural and urban) Cambodians wear something called a Krama, which is unique to the Khmer (Cambodians), and is not worn by the neighboring Laotians, Thai or Vietnamese. As versatile as it is beautiful, the scarf-like garment serves as both protection from the elements and is a signature of uniquely Cambodian style, often worn under the Vietnamese-inspired conical hat or as a sarong.
If anything can be thought of as ‘official’ attire for the country, the traditional and elegant sampot can. Influenced by China (rather than Vietnam, like the hat), there are different varieties of the sampot depending on the wearer’s social class. The higher up one is, the more intricate and beautiful the garment. The varieties of sampot are:
• Sampot chang kben
Usually worn by women of the upper and middle class, this sampot resembles a pair of pants more than it does a skirt like other varieties. It is favored by women of ‘all’ classes for holidays and special occasions.
• Sampot phamuong
More complex in its crafting than the chang kben, the phamuong features rich floral and geometrical prints. Highly prized yellow Cambodian silk is often used in its making.
• Sampot hol
Coming in two varieties, the sampot hol can be worn as either a wrapping skirt (made in the typical fashion of such garments), or as a twill weave wrap. The difference is that for the twill weave, each side of the length of cloth is a different color and sports a different print as well. Inspired by Indian attire, its prints are similar to, if not identical to those of the sampot phamuong – featuring floral, geometric or animal designs.
While jewelry and ostentatious displays are out of keeping with societal norms in Cambodia, some men and women both do favor jewelry with a religious purpose. Some, like the Buddha pendant are worn about the neck. There are other pendants as well, each serving some other purpose in the daily lives of the Khmer. Some are believed to provide good luck, others, protection from evil spirits.
While the concept of ‘daily wear’ has faded in Cambodia, requiring many to adopt the aforementioned semi-formal attire in the day-to-day, it has not gone completely. Look around as you explore this rich and beautiful land and you must see something memorable.