When he was born, Cambodia paid tribute to both Siam and Vietnam as a vassal state. The Royal Family of Cambodia was heavily dependent on the Siamese court at Bangkok. Prince Norodom was sent by his father to study in Bangkok, where he studied Siamese (Thai), Politics, Military, Buddhist scriptures and the ancient Pali language.
Norodom's royal name was Norodom Prohmbarirak (Khmer: ព្រះនរោត្ដម ព្រហ្មបរិរក្ស), previously, Ang Reacheavoddey (Khmer: អង្គ រាជាវតី). He is referred to as Ang Voddey in some Western accounts. His posthumous title is Preah Karuna Preah Sovannakaot (Khmer: ព្រះករុណាព្រះសុវណ្ណកោដ្ឋ).
In 1850, Norodom and his half-brother Prince Sisowath were sent to study in Bangkok by their father Ang Duong, where they grew up in close proximity to members of the Siamese royal family. In 1857, Norodom (Prince Phrom Borirak) served in the Royal Siamese Army as a military adviser, for which later he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant.
In 1860, when King Ang Duong died, Norodom became his successor but remained uncrowned because the Siamese royal court refused to release the Cambodian royal regalia. Therefore, he was unable to be crowned as the rightful successor.
At the same time, there was a major rebellion in Kampong Cham province by the Cham minority group. In 1862, Norodom lost control over the region, abandoned the capital of Oudong, and fled to safety in Battambang, where he was at the mercy of the Abhaiwongse family. He later left Battambang and went into exile in Bangkok. Seeing that the Siamese and Vietnamese overlords had gotten Cambodia into civil strife over Cambodia, in 1863 Siamese royal court decided to appoint Norodom as the puppet king of Cambodia. The official coronation ceremony was held in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Chetuphon. Interestingly, the Royal Regalia of Cambodia remains in Bangkok in present day. The Siamese court allowed Norodom to reside in Battambang, where the area was under Siamese hegemony. On July 15, 1867, the French forced Siam to cede inner Cambodia to France by signing a treaty, the Siamese court accepted the terms made by France because of France's better equipped military, the French also forced King Norodom to return to Oudong in 1867 and sign a treaty of protection with France. This transferred the possession of inner Cambodia from the Siamese and placed it under French colonial rule. Cambodia thus became an independent French protectorate and maintained a high degree of autonomy.
With Cambodia a French protectorate, the Siamese royal court agreed to send the royal regalia and let Norodom be crowned king under the French protectorate. In 1868 Norodom was crowned again, the coronation being supervised by the French officials. Nonetheless, the young king began his rule over a country in civil turmoil. However, the country was weak and subject to the power struggles between France and Siam. Not only were there rebel groups intent on driving out the Siamese, Vietnamese, and French out of Cambodia, but also bandit groups.
Nonetheless, in 1884, France took control of Laos and overran Vietnam. France and Siam entered into the Franco-Siamese War (1893) over Laos, ending with a treaty ceding Laos to France after the French blockade of Bangkok. In 1907, Siam ceded Battambang and Siem Reap, its last claim in Cambodia after continued pressure from France in exchange for Trat and Chanthaburi.
On June 17, 1884, French authorities forced King Norodom to sign a treaty which consolidated their position in Cambodia by forcing the King to give up control of public revenue, customs taxes and public works. Norodom resisted but with French gunboats anchored outside the Royal Palace he had no choice but to sign. The French actions cause widespread anger throughout the country. In 1885 Prince Si Votha, Norodom's half brother led a revolt against the French rule. The French suspected that Norodom was secretly supporting Si Votha's actions and the French blamed him for inciting the revolts. The revolt ended when the Cambodians were assured by King Norodom that the French had offered concessions to him. After the restoration of the 1885-1886 revolt, Norodom was in a position of temporary strength. To prevent another revolt, the French was less inclined to force the king to the wall once more.
Following the Sino-French War (1884–1885), French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (who together form modern Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia.
For the remainder of his rule Norodom was a puppet of the French. Before he died in 1904, he appointed his son, Prince Yukanthor, as heir apparent to the throne. But Yukanthor had a fall-out with the French and did not succeed to the throne. The French moved the capital from Oudong to Phonm Penh. Norodom could do nothing to prevent this, French also forced Norodom to change his religion into Christianity, the French continued to change Cambodian tradition into Western style, this make Norodom opposition with French governor Henri Félix de Lamothe. Until the French had supported his Francophile half-brother Prince Sisowath to be king instead him, Norodom decided to be exiled in Siam, and he died in 1904 in Bangkok. Siamese royal court under Chulalongkorn reign decided to return his body to Cambodia, his body was cremated in the traditional Buddhist fashion in 1906 in Phnom Penh.
He was succeeded by Prince Sisowath.
Throughout Norodom's reign, several administrative and judicial reforms were improved in the kingdom. The reduction of provinces were imposed to help reduce administrative costs. He also followed King Chulalongkorn and abolished commercial monopolies, slavery, and civil lists for the royal family. During his reign, certain agricultural products such as betel, pepper and sugar costs were reduced.
King Norodom was remembered for his appreciation and fondness of the arts. It was under his supervision that the Silver Pagoda was built in 1892, as well as Wat Oudong consecrated on 6 June 1875. When Norodom assumed the throne in 1860, classical dance recovered some of its ancient prestige, and soon became a great honor for court officials, ministers and senior dignitaries to have their children admitted to the palace's school of dancing.
In 1872, Norodom went on an official visit to Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore. In Manila, the King was greatly impressed by the music skills of the Filipinos and decided to take some musicians back to Cambodia to teach modern music. The Norodom's generosity began drawing artists from many nationalities to Cambodia and they were always given a warm welcome at Royal palace and court. Most of them had a deep interest in the Royal Ballet and thus were given every opportunity to learn Khmer music and dance.
Under King Norodom, the beginnings of the Royal Khmer Navy was established for territorial protection.Grand Croix of the Légion d'honneur-1872 (Grand Officier-1869) (Chevalier-1865) (France)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the White Elephant (Siam)
Knight of the Order of the Maha Chakri (Siam)