Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's mercurial ex-king

Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk was a political chameleon deft at moving with the tides that battered the war-ravaged nation for decades while remaining hugely popular with his people.

Sihanouk died of a heart attack in October in Beijing, aged 89. After lying in state for three months at the royal palace in Phnom Penh, he was to be cremated on Monday as part of a week of elaborate funeral ceremonies.

Twice exiled and twice returned to the throne, Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004 as old age and poor health took their toll on the colourful monarch. It was far from the first time he had caught observers off guard.

Sihanouk repeatedly backed different regimes, including the murderous Khmer Rouge, during a life almost as tempestuous as his country's modern history.

"Sihanouk is Cambodia," his official biographer, Julio Jeldres, once said.

A self-described "naughty boy" with a taste for the high life and an artistic flair, he embraced the intrigue that swirled around his kingdom with the gusto of a character from one of the many films he directed, produced and starred in.

Sihanouk married six times and fathered 14 children. Aside from his cinematic creations he wrote poetry and composed songs.

But he was far from frivolous, emerging as a shrewd political survivor who entertained friend and foe with his charm and wit.

"He had tremendous energy, but the problem was that his energy just led him eventually to exhaustion. Exhaustion with the problems of Cambodia, and straightforward physical exhaustion," said Australia-based historian Milton Osborne.

"He was an insomniac who could call meetings at three o'clock in the morning," he said.

Later in life, the royal was plagued by numerous ailments including several types of cancer and diabetes, and increasingly spent long spells being treated in China.

He was just 18 when placed on the throne in 1941 by French colonial authorities, but quickly defied his patron's expectations of a pliant king.

Twelve years later he gained Cambodia's independence and shortly afterwards quit the throne in favour of his father to pursue a career in politics.

He repeatedly left political posts with a characteristic flash of theatrical anger over perceived slights, until becoming head of state following his father's death in 1960.

In the decade that followed, he presided over a period of rare stability, now fondly recalled as Cambodia's golden years.

His frequent public appearances -- Sihanouk seemed to relish working alongside rural villagers on various public works projects -- formed a close bond between the man and the country he ruled.

Toppled in a coup by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970, Sihanouk, while in exile in Beijing, made his most controversial decision.

He aligned himself with communist guerrillas, who later emerged as the Khmer Rouge and used him as a figurehead.

When they took the capital Phnom Penh in 1975, they promptly emptied the city, exiling millions to vast collective farms and setting the country on the path to destruction in their drive to create an agrarian utopia.

Sihanouk returned from China and temporarily remained head of state but was forced by the Khmer Rouge to resign a year later and was kept under house arrest with his family.

He was unable to stop the bloodletting that left up to two million people, including five of his children, dead by the time Vietnamese troops and Khmer Rouge defectors ousted the regime in 1979.

Sihanouk survived because China, a key backer of the Khmer Rouge, wanted to keep him alive. He fled to Beijing after the regime crumbled, living in villas there and in North Korea -- another ally of the monarch -- for the next 13 years.

Always by his side was his sixth wife Monique, an Italian-Cambodian he married in 1952.

From exile, Sihanouk later condemned the Khmer Rouge but in the 1980s embraced a resistance coalition, which included remnants of the ousted regime, against Cambodia's Vietnam-backed government.

He still pushed for peace, however, opening talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen's government after Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.

Sihanouk's strength of will is largely credited with making the 1991 UN-sponsored peace accords possible. In 1993 he triumphantly re-ascended the throne, becoming king once again after almost four decades.

In October 2009, after surviving a third bout of cancer, the ex-monarch posted a handwritten message saying he had lived too long.

"Lengthy longevity bears on me like an unbearable weight," he said.