Cambodians produce many handmade items including rattan furniture, intricate stone and wood carvings, colorful woven mats and baskets, and a variety of silver and silk ware. Many of these items are used regularly in the daily life of Khmers.
One can readily witness master craftsmen at work and purchase such gifts in markets and specialty shops throughout the Capital.
Silversmithing reached its height during the 11th century when craftsmen attained a perfection yet to be surpassed.
Workshops supported by the Palace and School of Fine Arts also flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, craftsmen predominate in the riparian villages along the Tonle Sap.
They use silver from Laos and China. It varies in purity from 70-92 percent, with many decorative objects being 90 percent pure.
Craftsmen produce objects ranging from images of the Buddha to funerary jars, chopsticks to jewelry, tiny ankle chains ('chang kraang chheung') for babies and elegant knives and forks.
Small betelnut boxes in animal motifs, such as rabbits, ducks, cats, deer and citrus fruits are the most popular. Ornate filigree work is in the traditional Islamic style.
One of the great master silversmiths who taught at the School of Fine Arts is Professor Sum Samay, now 71. A son of King Sisowath, he worked in the Royal workshops and made many beautiful objects.
Contemporary silverware can be found in various markets and antique shops in Phnom Penh.
The traditional silkweaving of Cambodia was intricate and decorative, with sophisticated patterns of birds and flowers, mythical and realistic, often depicting Khmer tales, scenes from Angkor Wat and the life of Lord Buddha.
Weavers today produce a style of intricately patterned and dyed silk called Kha Bang Neang Sok Kra Ob.
Designs incorporate images of flowers, animals, peacocks, crowns, jewels and other motifs inspired by Angkor Wat, or handed down from previous generations. Dyes are made from plants in glowing hues of greens, blues, violets, orcres and reds.
The technique involves wrapping strands of raw silk on to a frame, and then tying the strands with banana leaf threads into patterns. The silk is removed, dyed and remounted on the frame to be re-tied for the other colors in the pattern, up to five times, the usual number of colors in the design.
Base color silk is strung lengthwise on to the loom. The dyed threads are the weft, the crosswise threads, woven into the pattern originally created by the tie-dying process.
It takes a week to string the warp threads onto the loom, and two weeks to weave a length of silk for a sarong.
Various silk products include checkered sarongs and sampots, worn at home, and patterned hohl and phamuong worn for formal occassions.
More than any other item, the krama is quintessentially Cambodian.
The scarves, made from cotton or silk, are most commonly found in red or blue check and have a variety of uses.
Each province produces its own patterns. Kompong Cham produces large silk kramas in shades of burgundy, maroon, crimson, indigo and emerald. Some resemble Scottish tartans, others regency stripes. The colors of the silk--produced now by chemical dyes rather than traditional vegetable ones--are more brilliant. Cotton ones come in darker shades of ochre, ginger and chocolate brown.
With over 60 documented uses, Cambodians wear them to protect themselves from sun, dust, wind or cold, around heads, necks, shoulders or hips, wound, knotted, slung casually or turban style. They serve as skirts, aprons, and sarongs and can be turned into shorts.
Kramas are also used to carry babies, kittens, chickens or for shopping, and to cover pillows, beds and chairs. They serve as hammocks for babies, can be strung across the hood of cyclo to rest a weary driver's head, they are a perfect cushion on the head before placing large trays of goods to carry to markets. In fact, there isn't much you can't do with a krama.
In some villages almost every family has a loom, producing fine cotton and silk kramas. They sell the kramas in nearby markets.
The tradition probably dates back to Angkor. Traditional outfits often consisted of material wrapped around the body in various ways.
For many Khmers, wearing a krama is an affirmation of their identity.