President Obama is practicing a new brand of foreign relations, appearing to flirt with Thailand’s attractive prime minister on his first stop of his three-day tour of Southeast Asia.
The president and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra could be seen laughing together and exchanging playful glances throughout a state dinner at the Government House in Bangkok on Sunday night.
They were joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who toasted to the U.S.-Thailand friendship with Shinawatra.
Obama will next visit Myanmar – also known as Burma – followed by Cambodia this week.
He said it is ‘no accident’ that he planned his first foreign trip to Asia after winning re-election.
Speaking at a news conference on Sunday in Bangkok, Obama emphasized that the U.S. is a ‘Pacific nation.’
He said the Asia-Pacific region will be crucial for creating jobs in the U.S. and shaping its security and prosperity.
Obama’s praised Thailand for being a supporter of democracy in Myanmar, the once-pariah state that is rapidly reforming.
He said he appreciated the Thai prime minister’s insights into Myanmar during their meetings on Sunday.
The president’s visit made quite an impression on Thailand, and adoring crowds gathered around him and chanted ‘Obama, Obama’ as he visited the Temple of Reclining Buddha just after arriving in Bangkok.
The Temple of Reclining Buddha, formally known as Wat Pho, was the first stop on President Barack Obama’s Asian tour that will also take him to Myanmar and Cambodia.
Observing traditional custom, Obama took off his shoes as a saffron-robed monk led him and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through the 18th century temple’s stoned paved compound of multi-colored spires and chapels with hundreds of gilded Buddha images.
But the main attraction is the reclining Buddha statue that at 150 feet long, and 50 feet high, stretches half the length of a football field.
The statue is made of bricks and plaster and covered in gold leaf with mother-of-pearl inlay decorating the feet.
A smiling Obama waved from the back seat of his armored Cadillac, which drove slowly alongside cheering crowds as he headed to a royal audience with Thailand’s revered, ailing monarch, 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
‘Yes! I saw him! And he was waving at us!’ said 72-year-old American tourist Elizabeth Simon visiting Thailand with her 74-year-old sister.
They were at the beach in Pattaya two hours away but rushed to Bangkok just to see him. ‘I’m so thrilled that he won the election. When we heard he was coming, we decided to get here.’
While in Asia, however, Obama will be dividing his attention by monitoring the escalating conflict between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Obama has been in regular contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with Egyptian and Turkish leaders who might hold sway with the Hamas leadership.
Obama said that his landmark visit to Myanmar is an acknowledgement of the democratic transition underway but not an endorsement of the country’s government.
Obama’s words were aimed at countering critics who say his trip to the country also known as Burma is premature.
Quick trip: Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrive for a joint news conference during his three-day trip to Asia
While Myanmar has undertaken significant reforms, hundreds of political prisoners are still detained and ethnic violence has displaced more than 100,000 people.
The President says his goal in visiting Myanmar is to highlight the steps the Asian nation still needs to take.
He said he also wants to congratulate the people of Burma for having ‘opened the door’ to being a country that respects human rights and political freedom.
Obama landed in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon, greeted by 40 saluting military guards who flanked both sides of a red carpet.
On a steamy day, Obama began with a visit to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok.
The complex is a sprawling display of buildings with colorful spires, gardens and waterfalls.
Obama joked with a monk at the monastery that he hoped praying would help his administration reach a deal on the budget.
At his news conference with PM Shinawatra, Obama said: ‘I always believe in prayer. If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I’m going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with some challenges back home.’
Obama is also visiting Myanmar and Cambodia in his first trip abroad since winning a second term.
The visit to Thailand, less than 18 hours long, is a gesture of friendship to a long-standing partner and major non-NATO ally.
Still, the two countries have faced strains, most recently after the 2006 military coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Obama’s visit offers an opportunity to restate and broaden the relationship.
Obama is also seeking to open new markets for U.S. businesses; the United States is Thailand’s third biggest trading partner, behind China and Japan.
Becoming a counterweight to China in the region is a keystone of Obama’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
Obama’s trip comes on the heels of meetings in Thailand between Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his Thai counterparts on security and military cooperation on issues ranging from fighting weapons proliferation to disaster relief to countering piracy.
Alluding to the 2006 coup, Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said in a speech ahead of the trip last week that Obama would build on Panetta’s outreach to reinforce the relationship and ‘support the continued peaceful restoration of democratic order after a turbulent period.’
After his time at the temple, Obama paid a courtesy call to the ailing, 84-year-old U.S.-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters.
The king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and studied in Europe.
The centerpiece of the Asia trip comes Monday when Obama travels to Myanmar, the once reclusive and autocratic state that has begun instituting democratic measures. Obama has eased sanction on the country, and his visit will be the first there by a sitting U.S. president.
Obama aides see Myanmar as not only a success story but also as a signal to other countries that the U.S. will reward democratic behavior.
‘If Burma can continue to succeed in a democratic transition, then that can potentially send a powerful message regionally and around the world…that if countries do take the right decisions, we have to be there with incentives,’ Rhodes said.
Read more: dailymail