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The report, published in four
instalments in this leading
newspaper (April 26th to 30th),
is written by the driver himself,
a well-known Thai citizen
named So Sethaputra.
Driving all the way to the
Federation of Malaya (the
former name of Malaysia, up to
1963) with a normal passenger
car was deemed barely
thinkable, one significant
portion of the road being still
under construction. This did not
deter So, who decided to take
up the challenge, with his wife
and his 5-year old son on
So, educated as a geologist in Manchester, definitely adds a subtle and delicious touch of
British humour to his writing. The first day is spent cruising from Bangkok southbound:
"Driving rather slowly - not more than 80 km per hour even on well paved roads - in order to
conserve the car for future trials, we reached Huahin (Hua Hin) before midday. Here the
asphalt pavement ended, and though with the superb suspension of the DS19 we could go at
125 km an hour, as we proved it on the return journey, we thought it wise to reduce speed to
40 km. My wife and I took turns at the wheel, but I slyly contrived it so that her turn came
when the road was worst. Complaining all the way, she drove the section from Huahin to
Prachuab (Prachuap Khirikhan). After that the road improved considerably, but it was my
turn. When she accused me of ungentlemanly behaviour, I tried to divert her attention to the
scenery, but there was little to see. So I discussed international politics."
The first night is spent in Chumphon , the second
in Renong (Ranong), an area of interest for So
as he explains his views about the centuries-old
plans for a canal in the isthmus of Kra.
(...) "We woke up at five the next morning. While
my wife was packing up, my boy and I went to
the garage to have a last look over the car.
Everything to prepare the car for the ordeal was
done the previous afternoon. Tires inflated to the
proper pressure. Radiator full, crankcase full,
battery full. All loose nuts and screws within
reach had been tightened. Belts properly
tensioned. Petrol filters cleaned. No visible
signs of leaks in the cooling system, petrol line,
or the unique hydraulic system of the DS 19."
"I also checked the tools and the various
paraphernalia that might be required in an
emergency. Spare ignition coil, spare bulbs,
spare condenser, set of new spark plugs, spare
belts, and tubing of various sizes. Tire repair kit,
tire pump and gauge, screw tapper for repairing
a broken crankcase, wire rope for towing,
soldering kit, chains for the driving wheels,
adhesive tape, leak mending preparations and
cement, and wires. Last but not least important,
drinking water and plenty of cigarettes."
(...) "Faster, faster," our passenger cried from the back seat. "At this rate we shan't get to the
stream in time." I stepped on the accelerator, went headlong into the trough of a dried-up
stream, put on the brakes quite suddenly, and jolted the boy onto the floor. The bends also
were quite sharp, necessitating hard braking and rapid acceleration every two or three
seconds. Acceleration on the DS19 was not brilliant, but the car had power disk brakes,
requiring only a very slight touch of the brake button (not pedal)."
"I don't quite know how I did it, but we reached the second tidal stream in an hour. Alas, the
tide was already high. Our passenger got out of the car and went into the water. It was
"There were still more than 90 km of difficult driving to do, but
from now on the road changed its character. For the most
part earthwork on the road had been completed and
temporary bridges built. Most of the bridges, however, were
in a rotten state and would probably go down if we attempted
to cross them. Here the help rendered by our passenger
proved invaluable. He examined all bridges that we proposed
to cross and pronounced on their condition. Mostly they
consisted of two rows of logs, set wide enough for highway
construction lorries to pass, but too wide for our narrower
track. Our passenger had to walk in front of the car and gave
me the signal to go either to the right or to the left to keep the
four wheels on the logs."
(...) "Apart from the shaky bridges, the troughs, the humps,
and the diversions, the surface of the road itself was
something of a problem. Loose earth on the road was
sometimes 18 inches thick and the wheels sank into it as if it
were quicksand. On the level or downhill, you could let the
loose earth scrap the underside of the car without much
harm if you drove slowly, but going uphill the driving wheels
would slip and the steering would become queer. I think we
owed our safety to the front-wheel drive of our car."
So also has the opportunity to experience first-hand the
legendary stability of the Citroen DS:
(...) "My wife was now driving. I cautioned her that on a road
like this the tires would get heated owing to the severe
flexure. She reduced speed to about 30 km an hour, but
that did not prevent trouble. Soon we smelled something
burning, and on stopping the car found that the left rear tire
had gone flat. Both tire and tube were completely ruined.
The most alarming thing about it was that there were
neither bumps nor noises nor sways to indicate a flat rear
tire, and if the same thing happened again we would ruin
another tire and tube. In fact, we did ruin another tire and
tube on the return trip. I wished the suspension of the car
were not so good."
"From Bangkok to Malaya by Car" is the title of the report of one of the very first attempts to
drive overland from Thailand to Penang, on the Malay peninsula, published in the Bangkok
Post in April, 1958. The car was... yes, a DS19. What else.
Little is mentioned about So's choice of a DS, which must have been a most unusual car in
Thailand back in 1958, or about his personal relation with this particular car. But in his detailed
account of his trip, he does mention the part played by the car, and by the driving experience.
I selected and reproduce hereafter in full length a few of these mentions.
Left: "The author's car, a Citroen
DS 19, against the back ground of
a mosque in Alor Star" (spelled
today Alor Setar ; from hereon, I
indicate the current city name in
brackets). "The party which made
the journey consisted of Mr.
Sethaputra, his wife, and their
five-year old child."
Below: theZahir mosque in Alor
Setar (Malaysia) today.
Above: It took a mere seven days for So and his party to
reach the famous port city of Penang (a.k.a. Pinang),
just south of the Thailand-Malaya border. The most
challenging road section, being still under construction,
was situated between Renong (Ranong) and Takuapa
(north of Phuket). No mention is made about the route
used for the return trip, except that the road along the
railway track, on the eastern coast facing the Gulf of
Siam, "(would) not be passable, even with American
aid, for two or three more years." The trip covered 3,614
km (about 2,260 miles) in total.
"Two alternatives are open to us,"
explained our resourceful passenger.
"We can spend the night in the car and
push on the next morning, or we can
wait until half past nine in the evening to
cross the stream. The drive to Takuapa
will take the better part of the night."
"My wife was for the first alternative. By
waiting twelve hours, she said, we were
sure of getting to Takuapa. We had no
need to be afraid of robbers because
they would not come this far. Nor need
we fear wild animals except elephants if
we closed the windows. She knew that
night driving was my weak point."
Above: "More than thirty streams without bridges have to be forded.
This is one of two streams which can be crossed only at low tide.
If your timetable is not properly worked out, you will have to spend
the night in the jungle."
"But I had another plan. The stream was less than ten meters wide from one edge of the water
to the other. There was no danger of getting stuck because the bed of the stream was firm.
Furthermore, the ignition coils and the carburetor were placed high up under the bonnet of the
car, and even the contact breakers (no distributor) would be several inches above water. The
greatest advantage of the DS 19, however, was that the car could be raised about 14 inches
from the ground just by moving a lever. There was no need for everybody to get out of the car
because its ground clearance remained where it was regardless of load. Still our passenger
waded across the stream to make sure there were no stones to break the crankcase. I drove
the car very, very slowly across the water in order to splash as little water as possible onto the
engine. A few bad moments, and we had done it !"
"After we got on firm ground, I emptied the crankcase and put in new oil, for fear that water
might get inside. The gearbox, however, was a different proposition. The plugs were not as
easy to get at and I made no attempt to change the oil. Some water got into the exhaust pipe,
but this did not stop the engine. No water at all leaked into the car, despite the fact that the
floor was some inches below water level. The water in the stream, however, was salty, and
this would be bad for the car, especially on the underside and into the exhaust pipe. So when
we reached the next stream, which was not tidal, we splashed fresh water on every part of the
car, especially on the underside and into the exhaust pipe."
"Even where there are bridges, you will
have to exercise great care. If a wheel
slips into the hole here, you will have to
walk more than 80 km to get help."
Averaging 20 km per hour, the exhausted party finally makes
its way to the coast city of Takuapa (just north of Phuket),
and better roads.
(...) "Nobody in the car had mentioned lunch while we were
going uphill and down dale in the jungle. Even our boy did
not complain about hunger. Now that we had reached
civilization, everybody suddenly felt hungry. It took us just
half an hour to finish our late midday meal. Then we pushed
on." (...) "(Our passenger) seemed to be quite a well-known
personage in this part, waving to every passer-by whenever
the car slowed down. At Taimuang (Thai Muang) we stopped
a few moments for some refreshments, and two rather
uncouth young men came forward to greet him, all the time
glancing at us out of the corners of their eyes. Our number
plates told them we were Bangkok people. "When is your
party going back to Bangkok ?" one of them asked in the
southern Thai dialect. "Tomorrow," our passenger replied
without hesitation. When we got started again, I asked him
why he said that, well knowing we were going on to Songkhla
and Penang. "They are suspicious characters," he said. "I
didn't like to tell them the truth because they might hold you
up on the way." So the tales we heard about the numerous
highway robberies were true !"
"The hardest part of the journey is the
176 km long section from Renong to
Takuapa on the West coast of the Malay
Peninsula. Either the road is under
construction, or there is no road at all."
(...) "From the border onwards into Malaya, the
roads were superb. Malaya has probably the best
roads on the Southeast Asian mainland. I did not
like, as a matter of courtesy, to drive too fast in a
foreign country. On the other hand, if you went too
slow, you became a public nuisance to everybody
else. I found 80 km or 50 miles an hour to be the
general pace, and at this rate we arrived at Penang
Ferry in under three hours, including a stop for
lunch in Sungei Patani (Sungai Petani). The time
we gained, however, was lost in waiting at the
The trip thus ended in Penang, where So and his
wife, a native of that city, and their boy, spent a
couple of days. They could not make it to
Singapore, their ultimate goal, further South in
Malaysia, due to untimely visa problems.
So was probably not the first-ever person to cross
the Malay peninsula in a 4-wheel machine, but his
account is nevertheless an amazing one, by many
aspects, not the least being that he chose to do
the whole thing in a totally new and strange car,
the Citroen DS19, back in 1958 ! That's what I
So Sethaputra (1903-1970) is
known by most Thais as the author
of the most famous Thai-English
dictionnary, which he started to
write during his confinement as a
political prisoner in the Tarutao
Island (just betwen Phuket and
Penang, incidently) between 1933
and 1944. Educated as a geologist,
he became after his release a
well-known political figure and
writer. He was 55 at the time of this
trip in a Citroen DS. The document
above shows the cover of his
biography, penned by his wife
Pimpawan, 23 years his junior.
"This is no man's land where Thailand joins the Federation of Malaya. The
milestone in the upper left hand corner of the picture reads (Province of)
Kedah. By its side stands a toy house, the abode of the Land God, which is
The '50 and '60 are a golden age for adventurous
transcontinental motorists. Nicolas Bouvier, for
example, left Switzerland in 1953 with his friend
Thierry Vernet in a Fiat Topolino; they reached India
two years later, and his description of the trip
("L'usage du monde") has become a classic of the
travel literature in French.
The document above shows a Panhard parked in
front of the Citroen-Panhard sales office in Bangkok,
on its way from Paris to Singapore, one year and a
half after So opened the way (Bangkok Post, Nov 3rd,
In Ranong, a local man met during breakfast proposes to join the party. He will prove a
precious help in the tough road sections ahead, where numerous streams and flimsy wooden
bridges would test the DS' and its drivers' ability.
Update (January 2010) ! Of course I needed to know more about So Sethaputra and his
Citroen DS. More than a need, it became an obsession... In August, 2009, I finally managed
to get in touch with one of his daughters, Khun Pringpim, who kindly arranged a family reunion
for me with five of her brothers and sisters ! They brought a few photos, and agreed to share
the fond memories they kept of their father.
Top, left: the family reunion of So's children, held in Bangkok, on August 9th, 2009. From left to right: Patcharapim, her twin
sister Pringpim, Chaiya (he drives a BX today !), Ratana (he is the one who made the trip to Malaya in 1958), Mana (who
took the most care of his father's DS19) and Sacha (who kindly provided the photographs).
Right: So with three of his sons. Isn't that a great photo ?
As it turns out, So had a passion for automotive engineering,
and he was willing to test-drive avant-garde technologies
before anyone else. Before the DS19, he owned a Peugeot,
a DKW, a Lanchester, and thereafter, a Prince, a Mazda
Luce, and a NSU (for the rotative engine, of course). His
DS19 was only the third to be imported in the kingdom. With
the help of his sons, he made several improvements to
the car's delicate systems, starting with the hydraulic fluid,
which was not adapted to the heat; after many trials, a mix of
castor oil and silicone was adopted ! Khun Mana, who was
around 12 at the time, remembers very well disassembling
and reassembling countless times the hydraulic pump, or
slipping under the car to check the wheel alignment, with the
help of an adaptable wooden gauge specially designed and
built by his father...
Left: So asked his sons to
disassemble and reassemble his
DS19 over and over again. Without
anything close to a user manual or
any technical documentation, they
managed to understand the car's
inner logic, and even brought
improvements to its reliability, most
notably a better-suited hydraulic fluid,
less prone to leaks: castor oil...
Below: So's twin little daugthers,
Patcharapim and Pringpim, in front of
Citroen's representative in Thailand,
Jacques Paris, was reportedly very
interested by the improvements brought
onto the car, and he offered to take it back
in exchange for a new DS19, which So kept
until around 1969 or 1970. So's children
suspect the first DS was sent to Paris for
further analysis... Why not ? I wonder what
Citroen's archives could tell us about that...
And how about the 1958 trip to Malaya ?
Quite a normal accomplishment for So,
according to his children, more like a hobby
in fact... He would often suddenly decide to
take the car for a long drive upcountry, or to
neighbouring countries. The whole family
would sit in the wide DS (Khun Pringpim
fondly remembers she and her sister had
their own stools on the floor !), and there we
go. The reason why Khun Ratana, 5 years
old at the time, was aboard the car for the
week-long return trip to Malaya in 1958 is
very simple: he was sleeping in his parents'
bedroom whey they woke up at 3 a.m., and
since he was awakened, they just decided
to take him along !
Khun Mana eventually became an engineer,
like two of his brothers; the other one being
a surgeon. No doubt they inherited this
passion from their father's own curiosity
towards new technologies.
Update ! (June 2011) Khun Pringpim kindly sent a few more great pictures, from an earlier trip
to Northern Thailand.
In 1953 So and Pimpawan drove their Lanchester to Chiang Mai and the Northern corners of the country, in the so-called
"Golden Triangle" area, bordering Laos and Burma. Below left, young Pimpawan takes the pose in front of another nice
car, encountered during the trip; there must have been very few cars in such remote places then.