The History of Cambodia's Royal Family

A monument to King Sihamoni to mark the anniversary of his coronation
A monument to King Sihamoni to mark the anniversary of his coronation | © Elite Studio / Shutterstock

Cambodia’s regal history can be traced back to the Funan Kingdom, which predated the Khmer Empire by several centuries. The country’s modern history stretches back to 1863, when Cambodia fell under French rule. Here’s a history of the Kingdom of Wonder’s royal family of today.

French Protectorate of Cambodia

Norodom Prohmbarirak ruled Cambodia from 1860 to 1904 and is referred to by many as the first modern Khmer king. As the eldest son of King Ang Duong, who ruled the Kingdom on behalf of neighbouring Siam, Norodom–known previously as Ang Voddey–is credited with saving Cambodia from being swallowed by Siam and Vietnam.

Religious structures at the base of Phnom Oudong, which once served as the capital

In 1863, he was invited by France to make Cambodia its protectorate–an offer he was forced to accept, sacrificing control of public revenue, customs taxes and public works. For the rest of his 43-year reign, the longest in modern history, Norodom remained a puppet for the French, angering much of the country.

Under France, the capital was relocated from Oudong to Phnom Penh and Norodom was forced to practise Christianity rather than Buddhism, as one of many measures France implemented in a bid to Westernise the country. In 1904, he died passing on the crown to his half-brother, King Sisowath, who was born Ang Sa.

Naturally, the crown should have been passed down to King Norodom’s son, Prince Yukanthor. However, the prince’s fall out with the French meant that the crown skipped him. King Sisowath proved a wise choice and continued complying with French authorities, being well rewarded. He was built a new palace, given a yacht and 250lbs of high-grade opium rations were handed to him annually.

He died in 1927, passing on the crown to his son, Prince Sisowath Monivong, who was 52 when he took the throne.

Like his two predecessors, Monivong was a figurehead for the French. Under his reign, communist influences started to seep into Cambodia. In 1930, Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochina Communist Party in Vietnam, which became a popular movement with Cambodians in an attempt to overthrow the French. In 1941, the Japanese invaded and occupied the country, allowing French officials to continue with administration but under Japanese protection. In 1941, Monivong gave up the throne and died later that year.

Despite Monivong’s son, Sisowath Monireth, being heir to the throne, the French selected Monivong’s daughter’s 19-year-old son, Norodom Sihanouk, to be king, believing he was more favourable. However, they were wrong. As the first of several reigns in his lifetime, Sihanouk continues to be revered today for the role he played in gaining Cambodia’s independence from the French in November 1953.

However, his reign was dogged with political squabbles and revolts, with Sihanouk abdicating in 1955. In his speech, he said he was seeking life away from the palace to walk freely as an “ordinary citizen”. Others claim it enabled him to pursue politics. A month after his abdication, he formed political party, the Sangkum, which won the elections, appointing Sihanouk as prime minister from 1955 to 1960.

Pre-Khmer Rouge Kingdom of Cambodia

With Sihanouk out of the picture, the crown was passed onto Norodom Suramarit, the nephew of King Sisowath Monivong and Sihanouk’s father. After just five years as king, Suramarit died in 1960, leading to Sihanouk once again becoming head of state, although this wasn’t a title he officially took on until 1993.

In the interim, Sihanouk’s mother Sisowath Kossamak–who was widely respected among Cambodians–was handed the title of Queen. Such was her popularity with the people that when in 1965 an American newspaper accused her of managing brothels, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh was attacked, and Sihanouk cut diplomatic ties with the country.

In 1970, the Cambodian coup took place, with the monarchy overthrown by Prime Minister Lon Nol, who became head of state. The royal family was forced to leave the Royal Palace, with Kossamak held under house arrest until three years later when she was allowed to join Sihanouk–who had been living in China and North Korea–in Beijing. She died two years later.

Civil war raged through Cambodia, with the Khmer Rouge rising up against the US-backed Lon Nol regime. In 1975, the Pol Pot-led communist party stormed Phnom Penh and the country was plunged into four years of hell, which saw an estimated quarter of the population perish.

Post-Khmer Rouge Kingdom of Cambodia

In 1993, Sihanouk was officially re-instated as King of Cambodia, following the country’s first post-Khmer Rouge democratic elections. Despite peace being restored in Cambodia, power struggles remained with political fighting continuing to dog the country, something Sihanouk attempted to quell. In July 2004, he released an open letter announcing his intentions to abdicate.

In that October, his son Norodom Sihamoni stepped into his shoes. The much-revered King Father, as he is now known, spent a lot of time receiving medical treatment in Beijing between 2009 and 2011, returning in January 2012. On October 15, he died of a heart attack leaving a country in mourning.

Prior to taking on the throne, Sihamoni had led a relatively quiet life. Having inherited a passion for the arts from his father, who produced 50 films during his lifetime and wrote more than 48 musical compositions, Sihamoni was sent to Prague–then Czechoslovakia–at the age of nine to study. He remained there during the conflicts of the 1970s, going on to study at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he specialised in classical dance, music and theatre, graduating in 1975.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni

He went on to study cinematography in North Korea before returning to Cambodia in 1977. He was placed under house arrest with his parents at the Royal Palace by the Khmer Rouge, where he remained until they were ousted in 1979. Two years later, he relocated to France to set up his own troupe, Ballet Deva.

He lived in France until he was handed the crown in 2004, returning to Cambodia to take up his role. While he is more of a ceremonial figure, who has taken a back step to politics, he is regarded as a gentle king, earning the respect of many Cambodians.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article