King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, officially known by his dynastic title of Rama IX, is an extraordinary figure. The longest reigning member of the Chakri dynasty (he came to the throne in 1946), he has earned not simply the love of his people but their profound respect.

More than four decades of intense effort to develop his nation have brought results that are palpable to any visitor. One sees the King's good works everywhere, his daily suggestion for improvement enacted within the constitutional framework of an open and dynamic democracy.

His greatest passion by far has been for rural development. He has visited every province of his country, like no monarch before him. And everywhere, he has suggested where roads could be built, helped create livelihoods, and seen the benefits of water and electricity brought to people whose lives are transformed as a result.

For example, when he visited an irrigation project in Narathiwat's Tak Bai District, one designed to prevent calcium acid from flowing into the Bang Nara River, he was petitioned by villagers seeking his aid to bring a first-ever road to their isolated homes. They had walked two miles through the jungle to present their request. They were heard, and on the spot an attentive and pragmatic King asked the Royal Irrigation Department and the Army to coordinate to meet the need.

Such "projects" in the countryside -- begun with a pioneering trip to the poorest region, the Northeast, in 1955 -- now number over a thousand. One of the best examples: thanks to the King's direct and personal interest, the slash-and-burn agriculture that decimated forests and replaced them with opium cultivation has been widely replaced with new crops. This single but substantial endeavor was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1988, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

But Bangkok also draws the Royal focus and specific, constructive attention. The capital's press recently headlined the King's suggestions to police and city planners for alleviating the sprawling metropolis's gargantuan, and seemingly intractable, traffic tangle.

Underlying this unique Royal role is the King's status as -- what he describes himself to be -- "an amateur scientist". His father, Prince Mahidol, was studying at the Harvard School of Public Health when the King was born. As a young man, the King studied engineering in Switzerland. In fact, no Thais were surprised that his device for a paddle-equipped water aeration device merited a patent, nor was it unexpected that his close study of vetiver grass has seen the King emerge as a leading advocate for its use in hillside planting, to stop soil erosion. His opinion on when, and whether, Thailand should "go nuclear" to meet its burgeoning energy needs grows out of study, not repeating hearsay. Public understanding of science and general knowledge is promoted by the Thai Junior Encyclopedia Project under His Majesty's Patronage, which presents various topics at three levels: for the very young, medium aged children and the general public.

At the King's initiative and with his support, substantial portions of the grounds of his Bangkok residence, the Chitralada Palace, have been turned into living laboratories that work. Livestock is bred, grains are hybridized, milk de-hydration practiced on a model basis. And even techniques are studied for keeping bees to yield income for rural Thais.

Like any good amateur scientist, the King has brought his intellectual curiosity into his own home. In a recent audience granted to a team of representatives from Scientific American and the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), he described an experiment devised by himself on a palace balcony, one in which he created soil from sand through patient cultivation of plants. "After creating my own soil from the sand," His Ma-jesty related, "I put it in water and swirled it. After it settled, I found only sand remaining; the soil had gone." The experiment perfectly demonstrates the quick and deleterious effects of unchecked erosion.

So the King of almost sixty million Thais acts to bring himself close to them and their needs, to teach them how and why to use scientific understanding to improve their lives, and the kingdom they share.i

Next Chapter: The Royal projects