Nonetheless, the country was at relative peace and some attempts were made to better the life of the peasants, who adored Sihanouk as a near-deity.
Outsiders saw a country of shimmering temples and emerald green rice fields that seemed a chapter from an Oriental fairy tale. But that face of Cambodia would soon vanish.
In 1970, a U.S.-backed coup sent the prince to Beijing for years of lonely, if lavish, exile. Within weeks, war broke out, beginning a systematic destruction of Cambodia that killed millions and impoverished the survivors.
Sihanouk, seeking to regain the throne, joined the Khmer Rouge-dominated rebels after his overthrow. They had numbered only a few hundred until then, but his presence gave them a legitimacy they had never before enjoyed.
The alliance left Sihanouk open to subsequent criticism that he opened the way for the Khmer Rouge holocaust. But his relations with the rebels were always strained.
"The Khmer Rouge do not like me at all, and I know that. Ooh, la, la ... It is clear to me," he said in a 1973 interview. "When they no longer need me, they will spit me out like a cherry pit."
When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and Sihanouk returned home, they detained him and ordered his execution. Only the personal intervention of Chinese leader Zhou Enlai saved him.
With Sihanouk under house arrest in the Royal Palace, the Khmer Rouge ran an ultra-radical Maoist regime from 1975 to 1979, emptying the cities to create a vast forced labor camp. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were executed or died of disease and hunger under their rule.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge a few weeks later. Freed as the Vietnamese advanced on Phnom Penh, Sihanouk found exile in Beijing and North Korea.
From there, he headed an unlikely coalition of three guerrilla groups fighting the Vietnamese-installed puppet government. The war lasted a decade.
In a mix of politics and theater — bringing his French poodle to negotiations, singing love songs over elaborate dinners — Sihanouk engineered a cease-fire and moves toward national unity and peace.
Sihanouk headed the U. N.-supported interim structure that ran Cambodia until the 1993 elections, lending his prestige to attempts to unite Cambodia's factions.
The election was won by the royalist FUNCINPEC party of Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But it was forced into a coalition with the Cambodian People's Party of former Khmer Rouge officer Hun Sen.
In September 1993, Sihanouk re-ascended the throne in a traditional Khmer coronation.
But the bright promise of the elections soon faded.
Four years after the polls, Hun Sen ended his constant bickering with Ranariddh by overthrowing the prince in a violent coup that shattered the results of the election.
International pressure forced Hun Sen to accept Ranariddh's return for a second election in 1998, which was narrowly won by Hun Sen, but ended in more bloodshed as the royalists and other opposition parties forced a constitutional crisis by refusing to join a coalition with the CPP.
Sihanouk stayed on the sidelines for most of the two-year crisis, but as demonstrators clashed in the streets of Phnom Penh, he finally intervened by urging Ranariddh to accept a new coalition with his enemy Hun Sen.
During his last years, Sihanouk's profile and influence receded. While old people in the countryside still held him in reverence, the young generation regarded him as a figure of the past and one partly responsible for Cambodia's tragedy.
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