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.

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.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article