Seen on a tourist map, the Chitralada Palace seems only a large square of green, surrounded by a moat and outfitted with ponds. From outside, across that moat and external to the palace walls, one could imagine some sort of European-style arrangement, heavy on display. Perhaps, one imagines, there are formal gardens, luxurious swimming pools, tennis courts, manicured lawns, even stables.

Chitralada is, indeed, a green oasis in intensely built-up Bangkok. But it is altogether another kind of palace. It is, in effect, a complex of laboratories, of experimental agricultural stations and model industrial systems, all within walking distance of where the Royal Family lives and works. Odds are excellent that it is like no other palace on earth, for its chief inhabitant is another sort of sovereign altogether.

The palace grounds, following the orders and inspiration of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, are one great workshop and school for teaching and learning, for acquiring know-how, the expertise based in science and technology for national development.

The Royal Chitralada Projects, all non-profit, are either non-business in scope or semi-business undertakings. The non-business ones receive support from various government agencies and are designed to earn nothing. Their aim is to teach. Take the breeding of Tilapia nilotica, for example. First presented to His Majesty some thirty years ago by the present emperor of Japan, the fish were raised in ponds at the palace and then given to the Department of Fisheries for breeding and distribution to the public. In 1961, the forest His Majesty created on the grounds (with species from throughout the country) had a new neighbor: rice fields, where experiments were launched on varieties and the use of fertilizers. As Thailand has only recently made the fast transition to a more industrial society, rice cultivation is key. A decade later, upland rice cultivation (drill seeding) was added.

The King's response to the Thai people's needs took the palace grounds ever-more into the heart of problem-solving of the most practical, hands-on kind. Operated by Mahidol University, a biogas production plant uses animal excreta to fuel the on-the-grounds dairy plant. Upgraded, it now fuels a fruit juice-canning operation and a milk collection center. Thailand suffers problems with swamp soil, so - at the palace - compost and organic fertilizer projects began in 1987. The king's intellectual curiosity and pragmatism expanded the Projects' scope: a medicinal herb garden (1985); experiments to propagate economically useful rattan (1987); soil-less plant culture (1987).

Another series of projects are commercial, but not-for-profit. Here the Royal Projects go directly into demonstrating ways for Thais to earn their livings better. The dairy plant, and its sizable herd, is now thirty years in operation, engaged in breed improvement and promoting the consumption of fresh milk. A demonstration rice mill (1971) and a rice-husk compressing plant (1977) are fully operational and an old pasteuring machine laid the foundation for an orange and sugar-cane juice plant. Cheese-making, fruit-drying, candle-making and honey-making -- all to be found at Chitralada.

Of course, the king is a constant traveller up and down the kingdom. In every province, he has been seen with map in hand, charting where new roads can be built, a dam installed - a one-man nation-building force, understood and loved for having dedicated a lifetime to his people.

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy and ambitious of his out-of-Bangkok Projects has concerned opium-growers. The king's goal was to curtail poppy-growing and bring legitimate livlihoods to Thailand's hill tribes. The viable alternative: temperate-climate cash crops that would lure farm families away from drug production and also arrest the destruction of forests and watersheds. Slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal cultivation had to be stopped, not simply by prohibition, but by implementation of a constructive plan for change.

Today, nearly 300 upland villages benefit from the Royal Project, working from 28 extension stations, affecting the lives of at least 50,000 people. The initiative (which won the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award) has also introduced schools, cooperatives, rice banks and primary medical services.

Necessary infrastructure was not omitted: village roads and electricity, small irrigation systems. Assistance has come from United Nations agencies, the United States, Taiwan and New Zealand. The Project buys the farmers' produce, then grades, packages and markets it. It turns a profit for the villagers, also by their processing jams and wines, frozen strawberries, canned vegetables and dried fruits and flowers for export. Opium cultivation has declined by 85% as the farmers have become vegetable, fruit and coffee growers.

A special monarch, in a special kingdom.

Sidebar: Industry for small farmers

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