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America's 'Pacific president'? Obama opens first post-election trip with visit to Thailand

President Barack Obama reacts after being asked what his favorite Thai dish is during a joint news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok on Sunday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET: BANGKOK - President Barack Obama kicked off a three-country Asian tour with a visit to Thailand on Sunday, using his first post-election trek overseas to try to show he is serious about shifting the U.S. strategic focus eastwards. 

Obama's itinerary will include a landmark visit to once-isolated Myanmar and an East Asia summit in Cambodia as he seeks to re-calibrate U.S. economic and security commitments. This is intended to counter China's influence at a time when America is disentangling itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

But his attention will be divided during his travels as he faces a simmering crisis in the Gaza Strip pitting Israel against Hamas militants, plus economic problems at home. 

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In Bangkok, a monk in bright orange robes gave Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a private tour of the centuries-old Wat Pho temple, taking them past its massive reclining Buddha. 

Somehow, the fiscal problems back in Washington came up. 

"We're working on this budget. We're going to need a lot of prayer for that," Obama was overheard telling the monk, a light-hearted reference to a fiscal showdown in Washington over tax increases and spending cuts that kick in at the end of the year unless Obama and congressional Republicans can reach a deal. 

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Later, at a press joint conference with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra the president said it was no accident that Thailand was the first  country he decided to visit after his re-election.

"As I've said many times, the U.S. is a Pacific nation. (The) Pacific will sculpt the future of the U.S.," he said. "That's why I've made restoring U.S. engagement a cornerstone -- Thailand is America's oldest friend in Asia ... we've been treaty allies for 60 years."

The U.S. administration regards Thailand as a key ally for advancing an "Asia pivot" that Obama announced last year with an eye to an increasingly assertive China. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his youth in Indonesia, has called himself America's first "Pacific president". 

His choice of Southeast Asia for his first foreign trip since winning re-election on November 6 is meant to show he intends to make good on his pledge to boost ties with one of the world's fastest-growing regions, a strategy his aides see as crucial to his presidential legacy. 

It is his second extensive trek through Asia in little more than a year. 

Audience with king

Obama also had a an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, the world's longest-reigning monarch, who has been in hospital recovering from an illness since September 2009. 

The king's softly spoken words made Obama smile at one point. "Elections in the United States are very long but it's very gratifying to know people still have confidence in me," the president responded. 

President Barack Obama speaks with Thai King Bhumibol Adulayadej during an audience at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on Sunday.Royal Palace / AFP - Getty Images

"I thought it was very important that my first trip after the elections was to Thailand, which is such a great ally," he added. 

Obama and the king also exchanged gifts, according to journalists traveling with American officials. The president gave the monarch an album with pictures of the king with former U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and former first lady Nancy Reagan.  

It wasn't immediately known what the king's present to the Obamas was.

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Myanmar visit

In the centerpiece of his three-day tour, Obama will on Monday make the first U.S. presidential visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, another milestone in Washington's rapprochement with the former pariah state, where a fragile transition is under way after decades of military rule. 

The trip "was not an endorsement of the Burmese government," Obama told journalists at the press conference in Thailand. It was instead an "acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that nobody foresaw -- the president is taking steps that move us in a better direction, Sui Kyi is now a member of parliament, prisoners have been released."

Obama will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and, like Obama, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. 

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The president's aides have said the Myanmar trip was meant to lock in progress so far and that he will speak forcefully on the need to do more on human rights, especially to curb sectarian violence. 

Reuters and NBC News staff contributed to this report.

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