BANGKOK (AP) — Even in the temples of Asia, President Barack Obama cannot escape thoughts of that fiscal cliff back home.
Touring the Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok, a sprawling compound of temples, gardens and man-made waterfalls, Obama was overheard chatting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and with their monk guide.
Clinton made a reference to budget negotiations back in Washington, where a damaging series of tax increases and spending cuts loom.
"Yes," Obama replied. "We're working on this budget. We're going to need a lot of prayer for that."
At a news conference later, Obama said he was not joking about the need for prayer.
"I always believe in prayers," he said. "I believe in prayer when I go to church back home, and If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I'll take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with some challenges back home."
Obama and Clinton were led by a monk in saffron robes as they walked around a golden statue of a sitting Buddha.
Clinton later remarked about how peaceful it was in the temple, an iconic cultural landmark popular with tourists. The tour's high point is a giant statue of a reclining Buddha that extends for 46 meters (150 feet).
Obama observed that when there are 80,000 people visiting the temple, "it's probably not as peaceful."
Both visitors noted how lucky they were to get a private tour.
Obama and Clinton met with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 85 in December and has been staying at a hospital since 2009 because he is ill.
Obama entered a hospital meeting room with Clinton behind him. The king remained seated as Obama greeted him and grasped his hand. "It's a great honor," Obama said.
Obama said he brought greetings from the American people "who are so grateful for the friendship of our two countries and are great admirers of yours — your wisdom and your leadership."
The king responded in a soft tone.
Obama smiled and said, "Elections in the United States are very long, but it's very gratifying to know people still have confidence in me. I thought it was very important that my first trip after the elections was to Thailand, which is such a great ally."
During his visit, the king gave Obama a few gifts, including one for first lady Michelle Obama.
"She'll look very good in that color, Mr. President," Clinton said. Reporters could not see the gift.
Obama then picked up a photo album, which he said contained photos of all the U.S. presidents and first ladies the king has met, starting with Dwight Eisenhower and continuing through George W Bush.
"We left the last page blank" so a photo of Obama's visit could be added to the book, Obama said.
A framed lithograph was on an easel nearby depicting the Thai and U.S. flags. Obama said it was specially commissioned for the king, who is an art lover, "to symbolize friendship" between the two countries.
Later, Obama was asked during a news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra what his favorite Thai food is. He replied that he likes it all and was pleased when he saw the menu for the state dinner.
"It looks very good," said Obama, who had traveled about 19 hours from Washington, where it was early Sunday morning as the news conference took place. "I'm also very hungry. I saved my appetite and I am looking forward to some authentic Thai food."
The dinner took place in a large dining hall in the same government house complex, where a dozen circular tables were set up under a glittery chandelier.
The prime ministe gave the first toast, congratulating Obama on his election victory. She said the dinner was "a celebration for your second term in office. I believe your presidency will be a successful one and fruitful" for fostering Thai-U.S. relations.
Obama said his visit to Thailand was far too brief, but said he has already felt the warmth of the Thai people and their dignity and strength. "This is the 'Land of Smiles,' and I've felt it everywhere I've gone," Obama said, calling Thailand the United States' "oldest friend" in Asia.
Obama said he told King Bhumibol, who was born in Massachusetts, that his friend Tammy Duckworth of Illinois was the first Thai-American elected to Congress. Duckworth won election on Nov. 6.
In a hand-written message in the guest book at the Thailand Government House, Obama said it was "an honor to visit Thailand — America's oldest treaty ally in Asia. The bonds between our peoples have endured for nearly 180 years. Grounded in mutual respect and guided by our common aspirations for peace and prosperity, may the bonds and friendship between us endure for many years to come."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Bangkok and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.