It didn’t really hit Thai TV host and podcaster Jakkrit Yompayorm that he was actually flying across the globe to get a coronavirus vaccine until he was seated comfortably on his long-haul flight to the United States.
The 34-year-old peeked behind his seat to find an almost empty plane. It was the first time he had been on a flight in months, and the first time he had flown out of Thailand since the start of the pandemic in early March 2020. He knew he was one step closer to receiving the shot, but he was also giddy about the trip.
“I was looking outside the window so much. I was like a kid taking a plane for the first time,” he told VICE World News by phone from Virginia, where he received a dose of the Pfizer vaccine on May 8. The Pfizer shot is not yet available in Thailand, which has struggled to ramp up inoculations in recent months.
“In America I can choose which vaccine I want,” he said.
He is not the only one crossing international borders in search of plentiful vaccines, which American officials are trying so hard to give away they are offering free beers, food and, in one state, $1 million in a lucky draw. From Thailand to Mexico and European countries in between, people who can afford it are booking trips. Proof of citizenship is not a barrier, according to reports, though requirements can differ by state.
The option is proving especially attractive for those who want to combine vacations with vaccines. The Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of Thais are booking “vaccine tours” to the U.S., where travelers allegedly pay about $2,400 to spend 10 days in California with a group of likeminded vaccine hopefuls.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said Monday that authorities are aware that Thai nationals are leaving to Europe and the U.S. for vaccines.
“We recommend that any Thais who may be contemplating to travel abroad especially to the EU and USA for vaccination should check carefully immigration regulations and public health measures of the destination country first before traveling,” he told VICE World News.
But for those making the journey, the long miles and potential bureaucratic hurdles are preferable to waiting it out back home.
A 34-year-old Thai woman who asked only to use her nickname “Bee” due to privacy concerns said she decided to go to the U.S. with her friend because it will take “forever” to get the jab in Thailand. The country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Southeast Asia, with roughly 1 percent of the population inoculated so far.
“Also, we just need to travel. Sounds crazy, but we really do,” she said.
The friends plan to go to Miami later this month, where they aim to get the vaccine for free and attend a hip-hop concert with A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott and Post Malone. Her vaccine appointment is already confirmed, she said, and like Jakkrit, she says she will get the Pfizer vaccine.
“Also, we just need to travel. Sounds crazy, but we really do.”
Although the Southeast Asian country was able to contain the virus early last year due to widespread mask wearing, border closures and movement restrictions, cases are surging after a cluster in nightclubs. The total number now stands at 111,082, with 565 deaths. The average number of daily cases is above 2,000 per day, a dramatic shift from just single daily digits last year.
Many foreign nationals living in Thailand are flying back for the same reasons. Kevin Cummings, 66, says many don’t have faith in the Thai vaccine rollout.
“The lack of vaccines here in Thailand, coupled with the dearth of things to do and easy vaccination process in the USA created a tipping point for us,” Cummings said. “We are hopeful things will improve in Thailand, not get worse, but who really knows these days?”
With the pandemic dragging into a second year, Jakkrit felt similar when he booked his trip from Bangkok, where he was tired of “staying at my apartment”.
Although he feels a sense of relief after getting the vaccine, he encourages others back home in Thailand to get vaccinated if they can.
“Vaccines are the best weapon to fight the virus,” Jakkrit said. “But it’s better if everyone has a chance to get the best vaccine that they believe in.”