The Khmer people, an Austroasiatic ethnic group, are the native inhabitants of Cambodia, constituting over 90% of the country’s 17 million population.
They speak the Khmer language, which belongs to the Austroasiatic language family and is also spoken in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, as well as regions in India and Bangladesh.
Khmer Traditional Clothing
Khmer traditional clothing is a rich tapestry that reflects the history, culture, and social status of the Khmer people. From the ancient Funan era to the modern day, Khmer clothing has evolved, showcasing a wide range of styles and fabrics.
In this exploration of Khmer traditional clothing, we will go into various garments, their historical significance, and their cultural relevance. Join us on this fascinating journey through the world of Khmer traditional clothing.
1. The Sampot: A Timeless Classic
At the heart of Khmer traditional clothing lies the “sampot,” a versatile garment that has been a part of Khmer culture for centuries.
The sampot, a sarong-like piece of fabric, comes in various styles and is worn by both men and women. Depending on gender and social class, the sampot’s color, material, and dimensions vary.
Historically, the sampot dates back to the Funan era, when a king, influenced by Chinese envoys, ordered his subjects to cover themselves. This marked the beginning of a long-standing tradition that continues to this day.
2. Sampot Chang Kben
Among the various styles of sampot, the “sampot chang kben” was favored by women from the upper and middle classes for everyday wear.
This garment, reminiscent of Indian Dhoti, is more like pants than a skirt. It is a rectangular piece of cloth that is three meters long and one meter wide.
Worn by wrapping it around the waist, stretching it away from the body, and securing it with a metal belt, the sampot chang kben is a symbol of elegance and sophistication.
Men also wear variations of this garment, tailored to their gender. It is a popular choice for special occasions and is even adopted in neighboring countries like Thailand and Laos, where it is known as “chong kraben.”
3. Sampot Tep Apsara
The “sampot tep apsara” is a unique garment associated with the Khmer Empire era and is often linked to courtly apsaras. Depictions of this exquisite attire can still be seen on the bas-reliefs of the iconic Angkor Wat temple.
Characterized by its intricate knots at the waist and long pleats that run down to the ankles, the sampot tep apsara draws inspiration from Indian saris.
Today, this garment is worn by Khmer traditional clothing dancers in modern Cambodia, keeping the legacy of the Khmer Empire alive.
4. Sampot Chang Samloy
The “sampot chang samloy” is a unisex daytime skirt that was historically associated with color, often black. This style of dress involves a knot to secure it and a fold on the left or right side, akin to a sarong.
For women, there was a similar garment known as the “samloy,” which was knotted in the middle and hitched at the knee for ease of movement. Scholars believe this style was influenced by the Indian Lunghi.
5. Sampot Charobab
Sampot Charobab is a long silk skirt beautifully embroidered with gold thread. This opulent attire is worn by women in Khmer classical dance, newlyweds, and characters like Mae Huo in the Cambodian Royal Ploughing Ceremony. It is a testament to the intricate craftsmanship of Khmer textiles.
6. Sampot Seng and Sampot Sesay
Sampot Seng is a short embroidered silk skirt, while Sampot Sesay is a monochromatic skirt with a gold or silver embroidered band along the lower hem.
While these garments may have lost some popularity among the Khmer, Sampot Sesay remains a favorite among Laotian women.
7. Sampot Lbaeuk
Sampot Lbaeuk, a long silk-embroidered skirt, holds significance in marriage ceremonies. In the past, it was predominantly worn by Cambodian nobility during the Longvek era, showcasing its royal heritage.
8. Sampot Anlonh
Sampot anlonh is a long skirt adorned with vertical stripes, often donned by older individuals or farmers in rural areas. It bears similarities to the Burmese Longyi, highlighting the cultural connections within the region.
Blouse or Tops: A Perfect Match for the Sampot
Completing the ensemble, Khmer traditional tops come in a variety of styles and have evolved over different historical periods. Let’s explore some of the fascinating tops worn by the Khmer people:
- Av Chang Pong: A piece of fabric worn by Khmer people, often used to cover the chest, leaving the stomach exposed. Over time, it evolved into various forms like “Tronum,” a thick fabric cover on the chest, and other styles that reflect the fashion of different eras.
- Av Bampong: Known as the “tube skirt,” it is a long shirt, resembling the Vietnamese Ao Dai or the Indian Kurta. With a unique design featuring a buttoned collar and a flared lower hem, Av Bampong was famously worn by affluent women during the Longvek era.
- Av Dai Puon: A traditional blouse from the Longvek era, Av Dai Puon featured short puffed sleeves and a row of buttons down the front, symbolizing wealth and status.
- Av Phnat Kbach: A formal shirt primarily worn by wealthy young women, adorned with pleats and floral decorations. This style may have been influenced by Burmese culture.
- Av Neang Nov: A long-sleeved shirt designed for women, offering a stylish and elegant look.
- Av Bar Bov: A sleeveless coat worn over other traditional tops, featuring double buttons at the pleat. Its name, “lotus leaves” in Thai, reflects its graceful appearance.
- Av Pak: The Khmer version of the Javanese Kebaya, Av Pak is a modern fashion blouse, often hand-painted and embroidered with silk and gold thread. It has evolved, becoming a symbol of national identity and style among Khmer women.
A significant aspect of Khmer attire is the “krama,” a checkered scarf with a long history dating back to the reign of Preah Bath Hun Tean in the first century.
The krama serves various purposes, from style and sun protection to practical uses like aiding in climbing trees, creating infant hammocks, or even transforming into a child’s doll for play.
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, all Khmer people were required to wear a checkered krama.
Textiles and fabrics used in Khmer Traditional clothing
Silk weaving in Cambodia has a rich history, dating back to the late 13th century. Traditional weaving methods have been passed down through generations, showcasing the artistry and craftsmanship of Khmer weavers.
Notable silk textiles in Cambodia include “ikat silks,” “twill-patterned silks,” and “weft ikat textiles.”
These textiles feature intricate patterns achieved by tying natural or synthetic fibers on the weft threads and then dyeing them in various colors.
Sampot Phamuong is a prime example of traditional Khmer textiles, featuring single colors and twill weaving. With over 52 different
Certainly, let’s continue exploring the evolution of Khmer traditional clothing through various historical periods.
Population and Religion of the Khmer People
The majority of Khmers practice Theravada Buddhism, while there is a minority of Khmer Muslims who converted from Buddhism, mainly residing in Kwan village, Kampong Speu.
There are also significant Khmer populations in neighboring countries, with over one million Khmers in Thailand (known as the Khmer Surin) and varying estimates, ranging from 1.3 million to 7 million, of Khmers in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam (known as the Khmer Krom).
Moreover, there’s a large Khmer diaspora, with communities living predominantly in France, the United States, and Australia.
The majority of the world’s Khmer population resides in Cambodia, where they make up over 90% of the country’s population.
Cambodia serves as their cultural and historical heartland. The deep religious connection of the Khmer can still be traced to their national flag, which is a temple in the middle of blue and red.
The flag’s red color is often associated with the country’s bravery and resolve, while the blue shade signifies the nation’s integrity and fairness. The white color within the temple emblem represents the country’s religious beliefs and unwavering faith.
History of the Khmer people
The history of the Khmer people is rich and complex. They have their origin myths, including the legendary union of the sage hermit Kambu Swayambhuva and the celestial nymph Mera, giving rise to the name Khmer and the Varman dynasty in ancient Cambodia.
Another popular legend attributes the creation of Cambodia to an Indian Brahmin priest named Kaundinya, who married Princess Soma, a Naga princess. This story also explains the practice of building Khmer temples on mountaintops.
The Khmer people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, believed to have migrated from southern China or northeast India over 4,000 years ago.
They are associated with the rise of the Khmer Empire, which dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries starting in 802 AD. This period marked the pinnacle of Khmer civilization with the construction of the iconic Angkor Wat.
The Khmer Empire eventually fell due to conflicts with neighboring states like Thailand and Vietnam, and Angkor was abandoned in the jungle in 1434. Over time, Cambodia faced political turmoil, French colonial rule, and the devastating Khmer Rouge regime, which resulted in a significant loss of life and cultural heritage.
In the late 20th century, Cambodia sought protection from France, and after a turbulent period, the United Nations intervened, leading to the restoration of political stability, the return of King Norodom Sihanouk, and the emergence of a growing Cambodian economy.
The culture of the Khmer
Today, the Khmer culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism, ancestor worship, and a belief in a rich supernatural world.
They celebrate numerous holidays, with Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben (Ancestor Day) being the most important. Cambodian culture has also influenced Thai and Lao cultures, with Khmer loanwords and a shared script.
Genetically, the Khmer people are closely related to other Southeast Asian populations and show a minor genetic influence from Indian people.
They are part of “Indonesian, Khmer, Thai, and Myanmar”. The Khmer people have a long and complex history deeply rooted in their homeland of Cambodia, with a rich cultural heritage and unique traditions that have evolved over millennia.
Post-Khmer Rouge Era and Modern Times
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Cambodia began the long process of rebuilding its cultural identity, including its traditional clothing.
The Khmer people gradually returned to wearing more colorful and diverse attire, but the scars of the past lingered, influencing their clothing choices.
Recovery and Revival: In the immediate post-Khmer Rouge era, there was a sense of revival and rebuilding. People reclaimed their cultural heritage, including traditional clothing.
Colorful sampots, kramas, and other traditional garments began to reappear in everyday life.
Influence of Western Fashion: As Cambodia opened up to the world and modernization took hold, Western fashion influences started to make their mark. Western-style clothing became more common, especially among the younger generation in urban areas. However, traditional clothing remained an essential part of Cambodian culture and identity.
Ceremonial and Special Occasions: Traditional clothing continued to play a significant role in ceremonies and special occasions. Weddings, religious ceremonies, and traditional dances often featured elaborate and beautifully crafted Khmer garments, showcasing the rich heritage of Cambodian textiles.
Artistic Expression: Traditional clothing also became a form of artistic expression. Designers and artisans started to experiment with modern interpretations of traditional garments, combining elements of the past with contemporary styles. This fusion of old and new created unique and eye-catching designs.
Globalization and Mass Production: With globalization came mass production and access to a wide range of fabrics and textiles. While traditional silk weaving remained a cherished skill, more affordable materials also became available for creating traditional-style clothing, making it accessible to a broader population.
Khmer Fashion Industry: In recent years, Cambodia has seen the emergence of a growing fashion industry. Local designers have gained recognition for their creative approaches to traditional clothing. Fashion shows and events have become platforms for showcasing Khmer designs and encouraging a sense of cultural pride.
Preservation Efforts: Efforts have been made to preserve and promote traditional weaving techniques and patterns. Organizations and initiatives support local weavers and artisans, ensuring that these skills are passed down to future generations. This helps preserve Cambodia’s unique textile heritage.
Tourism: Khmer traditional clothing also plays a role in Cambodia’s tourism industry. Visitors are often captivated by the beauty and intricacy of Khmer garments. Many tourists purchase traditional clothing items as souvenirs, contributing to the local economy.
In summary, Khmer traditional clothing has evolved over the centuries, adapting to changing social, cultural, and historical contexts.
It has survived periods of upheaval and continues to be an integral part of Cambodian culture. Today, Khmer traditional clothing coexists with modern fashion, serving as a symbol of cultural identity, artistic expression, and a link to Cambodia’s rich heritage.
As Cambodia continues to develop and modernize, the preservation of its traditional clothing remains a testament to the resilience of its people and their commitment to honoring their past while embracing the future.