9 months backpacking with my DJI phantom... and counting 2/2

Jul 7, 2015

Second part of my journey backpacking with my DJI Phantom.

Vietnam/Laos : On the road and in the air

I crossed half of Vietnam and Laos from south to north by motorbike. I had some motorbiking experience before but nothing like that. I did about 3000 kms in 7 weeks and went from Hanoi, with 2 weeks riding in the North of Vietnam, to Luang Prabang, crossing to Laos at the most southern border between the 2 countries. During the rides I would either strap my drone backpack onto the motorbike with care, or I would carry it on my back when I knew I would need it at some point. It was great to ride and stop anywhere I wanted to, take my drone out, fly over this beautiful place I just spotted and keep going after that. That's what a road trip with a drone is all about.
While I was riding in the north of Vietnam I had my second major crash near Dong van, and more than just the crash, I thought I would never see my drone again. It crashed in very steep and rocky hill and I spent - with the help of 2 other French I met there - several hours during 2 days looking for it. At some point I thought that it was the end of my trip making aerial videos. And although I had no intention to stop my journey because of that, I knew I would miss it a lot. But as I was searching for it for what I told myself was the last time, a crazy turn of event occured and I found out a farmer living close by found it! You can read more about that in the blog post link further down.
So I got it back and it was still working, my main concern was about the gimbal - those things are really fragile - but even this one was ok, except for a corner of the mounting plate that was broken, but nothing you could not fix with a bit of glue. A quick test flight to make sure everything was in order and was back on the road and in the air the following day. 

Rice Terraces in Sapa

In the background, where my drone crashed
River near Dong Van

Hang En cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Laos was less eventful for my drone. It all went smoothly and I filmed some truly amazing places. I started with the 4000 islands. It was very relaxing there and I filmed some beautiful waterfalls. Then I headed north to Pakse where I filmed some more waterfalls. The Thakhek loop was also a great opportunity to film great spots. In Kong Lor, where the Kong Lor cave is, one evening I went out willing to film the surrounding fields. It did not take long until the kids were attracted by the drone and started to bike through the fields while I filmed them. Not surprisingly kids love it and always look at it with big eyes. In those cases I always try to show them what I can see on my screen. They then gather around me and I bring the drone close by so they can see themselves on the screen and it makes a nice picture for Instagram :-)
Most beautiful place I got to film in Laos was the Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang. This waterfall is out of this world. Multi-leveled waterfall with turquoise water, and the best part is that you can swim in it!
But my favourite shot was in Vang Vieng, which is kind of funny beacuse I hated the town. but at  the end of the day, after filming different spots and heading back to the hostel, I saw hot air balloons in the sky. I literaly ran to a good spot to take off from to be able to film them, but too close obviously. And I got a nice shot of a hot-air ballon with the sunset in the background. This one is going to be hard to beat in my list.
After Luang Prabang I took a 2-day slow boat trip to the border with Thailand. But before the start of the second day, I wanted to fly the surroundings and that's when my gimbal pretty much decided to die on me. It would just not respond when plugging the battery in. I did not have time to look further as the boat would soon leave, so I just put it back in my backpack and decided to look into it once I get to Chiang Mai in Thailand.
Filming with a drone in Vietnam and Laos was eventless. I only filmed in remote places and never encountered any issue with the authorities.

4000 islands
On the right Laos, on the left Cambodia

Kids love the drone

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Bolaven Plateau

Bolaven Plateau is a great place to see beautiful watefalls
Quang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang

Want to see my videos ?

Some more technical issues in Thailand

On the morning of the second day of the the 2-day boat trip to the Thai border, before the departure of the boat I wanted to film the surroundings with my drone. So I got to the pier, took it out of my bag and plugged the battery in. That's when I noticed that the gimbal was not responding. I unplugged the battery and plugged it back but the same happened, meaning nothing happened. I had no time to look further into it so I decided to take care of it in Thailand the next day.
My first stop was in CHiang Mai. The first thing I did after checking in was to take out my drone and see what was wrong with the gimbal. After a bit of research online I saw that gimbals can sometimes go into "hibernation mode" and that there was a way to hard reset it. So I tried that several times like indicated but with no luck. My next hope was to find a drone shop in Chiang Mai, which I did, unfortunately the person there did not manage to fix the gimbal either. The name of the shop was CM Flying.
Making videos being the priority of my trip, I needed to get my gimbal fixed or replaced as soon as possible. That's why I decided to sacrifice the trip I wanted to do to Pai and go straight down to Bangkok hoping that I could find a shop where they could solve my problem. And I did find one, HobbyThai. I did not have any more luck there but the technician spent a good hour and a half trying to fix it and actually managed to troubleshoot another issue I had for a while. And when I asked the owner how much I owed him for the time his technician spent on my drone, he told me it was ok, that I did not have to pay anything!
But I was still stuck with my broken gimbal and it looked like I had no other choice but to replace it, which would be a major cut on my budget. That's when a sponsor comes handy. CtrlMe is a drone shop in Venice, Los Angeles - more at the end of this post. They agreed to send me a new gimbal and I received it only 4 days later. Needless to mention I was excited to get my drone back in the air.

The entrance of the HobbyThai shop

The owner (right) and his technician (left)

The technician working on a Inspire 1
After that I went to the beautiful islands of Koh Tao, Koh PhiPhi and Koh Lanta. My favourite was Koh Tao, not too busy and truly amazing. It is a snorkelling paradise and it is also beautiful from up there in the air. I took a lot of great footage from the different bays and beaches I went to. And you can easily get around by renting a scooter. Koh PhiPhi was a lot more touristic, a bit too much for my liking but it is nonetheless a beautiful island. I hiked to the very north of the island which was quiet a walk especially at the end when there is no more path and you have to walk on the rocks but it was definitely worth it. The aerial view I got from there was priceless. Koh Lanta was very quiet and the best spot I filmed was the mangrove which looks amazing from the air.

Shark island on Koh Tao

Koh Tao

Sunset on Koh Tao

Koh PhiPhi

Koh PhiPhi

Koh PhiPhi

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta

While in Thailand I had no issue flying my drone on the islands but later on, browsing the internet I found out that it is simply forbidden for an individual to fly a drone in Thailand. Yep, always check beforehand. Even though I think those "regulations" are a way too extreme. More on the subject :
restrictions on flying drones in thailand

Want to see my video ?
YoumiTrip - Thailand

Malaysia, a bit of rest for my little buddy

Arriving in Malaysia from Thailand by bus, I first stopped in Penang for a couple of days. I then went to the Cameron Highlands where I was able to film the tea plantations with my drone for about 3 minutes before someone from the staff came and told me that it was not allowed. Anyway, I was able to get at least a nice picture for my Instagram :-)
When I got to Kuala Lumpur I met with an Australian friend who offered me to do some freelancing for him for a month, offer that I gladly accepted as it would be a great way to make some money for my trip. So during this month I did not fly my drone very much, which was not a bad thing after all. But I wanted to at least take some aerial photos of the Petronas tower.
I also managed to "improve" and "renovate" the inside of my already customized backpack that will allow me to use it for a few more months.

Day time

Night time
2nd version of my customized backpack.

Handling the unexpected (crashes, technical issues, ...)

Of course, travelling for this long with a drone, you will experience unexpected events. Ideally you will have a spare for every piece of equipment you carry with you (gimbal, video transmitter, motors, ESCs, ...) but let's face it, it is hardly manageable. And on top of that if you want to repair it yourself, you'll need a soldering machine. this could make your backpack ridiculously heavy before even starting to pack the other backpack with your clothes.
So here is a non-exhaustive list of the essentials to bring with you : (for DJI Phantom 1)
- Pair of antennas. If you are flying with a fpv setup you might want to have some spare antennas as they are quiet fragile.
- Set of propellers. In a crash, along withe the Gimbal, the rpopellers are always the ones that break first.
- USB extension cable. For framework updates or simply some troubleshooting on the NazaM application. Assuming you are travelling with a computer.
- AAA batteries. For the DJI Phantom controller.
- Zenmuse H3-3D USB Output cable. Let's be honnest, this cable is a joke, it is meant to break or get damage. So a must-have to carry with you.
- Others : screw drivers, screws, soft dampers, Zenmuse 8-pin cable, GPS cable, USB LED cable, ...
Some of the spare equipment I carry with me.
Like I mentioned above in that post, a good way to face unexpected issues with your drone while travelling is to have sponsors. No need to get sponsored by GoPro or DJI themselves, I tried but it surprinsingly did not work out ;-) But I encourage you to try anyway, it might for you. If it does, tell me how you did it, I want to know!!!
Even small shops/companies might be able to support you before and during your trip. For me, CtrlMe sent me some spare equipment while I was in Hanoi in Vietnam and also a new Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal while I was in Bangkok. I'll write a post about how I got sponsors later on.

Your drone at the border crossings

I crossed 7 different borders all overland and not once had problems with the authorities. Actually, beside the border between Hong Kong and China -either way- where they checked the luggage with x-ray, I did not even have to open my backpack where my drone was. They always checked my bigger backpack and barely looked inside anyway.

  • Russia to Mongolia : by train. Mongolian authorities just had a quick look at my bigger backpack.
  •  Mongolia to China : by train. Did not even have to open my bacpacks.
  •  China to Hong Kong : by train. X-rayed my backpacks before boarding in China without any issue.
  •  Hong Kong to China : by feet. X-rayed my backpacks entering China without any issue.
  •  China to Vietnam : by feet. X-rayed my backpacks entering Vietam without any issue.
  •  Vietnam to Laos : by motorbike. No control of my backpacks.
  •  Laos to Thailand : by bus. no control of my backpacks.
  •  Thailand to Malaysia : by bus. X-rayed my backpacks entering Malaysia without any issue.

Now I am off to Indonesia to keep going on this amazing journey sharing my photos and my videos as well as my experiences.


  1. Awesome read, thank you for taking time to write it. I'm going to be doing a similar trip with my Phantom 2 - But was worried about taking it places. These posts have calmed my nerves :)

    1. Glad it helped! Are you already doing your trip? send me a link to your blog/videos :)

  2. I'm heading to Southeast Asia next February and want to bring my drone, but I'm worried it will be too much of a hassle to lug around with me everywhere. Did you find that carrying around $1000 in equipment held you back from doing anything on your trip?

    1. The main goal of my trip was to make videos with my drone, so although it was not always convenient, I did not mind to carry my drone around for so long. But if your main purpose is somewhere else, then you might find it annoying to carry it around all the time.

  3. Thank you for this post. It’s simple, the Phantom is a filming drone, and as such, it provides longer air time, really impressive than most of the drones available on the market.  The Phantom’s flying time is 20-25 minutes, depending on the surrounding conditions. See more http://mydronelab.com/reviews/dji-phantom-2.html

  4. I love what you are doin! Planning on doing the same in south America. Quik question, where did you leave your other bag when you went out? Like when you drove thru Vietnam by bike. Thanks bro

    1. Thanks! When I drove through the north of Vietnam I rented a motorbike so I left my big backpack at the rental agency. But then, when I bought my own, I dispatched my stuff iun saddle bags on the side of the motorbike and tied my backpack at the back.
      I am planning to go to South America next too, but not before next year I think. WHat about you? When are you planning to go?

  5. Great post! I'm heading to SE Asia next week, arriving at Bangkok first, leaving from the UK. I've read up on some laws on drones in SE Asia, and seems like there are a few...did you have any trouble with police or anything in any of the countries? Also, do you think it would be alright going through the boarders in the airport?

    Thank you!

  6. Hi Kristina,

    No I did not have any trouble with officials in South East Asia. As long as you avoid cities and crowded places as much as possible you should be fine.
    About borders at airports I can't be of much help you since I travelled through South East Asia overland. But I never had issues with my drone at airports before except opening the bag to have a closer look at the drone.
    Enjoy SE Asia!

  7. Hi~ where did you take off from to take the aerial photo of KLCC?

    1. Hi! I took off from a quiet parking lot. Here is the map link


  8. Hey I know this is quite a while after but I want to bikepacking through the west cost of USA and I want nothing more than to bring the Phantom 3. I have not purchased any drone yet and I am worried about the size of the drone and it hindering my trip. I am worried that I will need to buy a less impressive drone just because it might not be plausible to bring the phantom. Any advice?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Mikey!

      When I did this trip I had 2 backpacks with me. A big one with clothes and video accessories and a smaller one pretty much solely for my Phantom 1. If you go bikepacking it might be hard to carry the Phantom 3 with controller and a few batteries. My first thought is to tell you to get the DJI Mavic Pro, it is much lighter and being foldable it takes very little space. Since it came out I know it's the drone I will get for my next backpacking trip.
      Regarding the video quality, the Mavic Pro might be not as good as the Phantom 4 or Phantom 4 Pro but compared to the Phantom 3 I don't think you will lose in quality.
      So if you have the money I would recommend you go for the Mavic Pro and a couple extra batteries :)