YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Traffic came to a halt for about an hour on Yangon's main streets as President Barack Obama's motorcade passed through the city during his historic visit to this once pariah nation.
Thousands of people lined the streets for a glimpse as Obama headed to the Parliament building for a meeting with President Thein Sein.
Among the crowed were hundreds of students wearing matching school uniforms of white shirts and dark green sarongs. Many of those gathered on the streets waved American flags and some held up homemade signs reading "Welcome Obama."
In a country where people are often forced by the authorities into mass demonstrations, the seemingly spontaneous outpouring of support was striking.
Obama is the first U.S. president to visit the Asian nation, which is also known as Burma. The country has begun democratic reforms following a half-century of military rule.
"No authority asked us to welcome President Obama. I am here to support President Obama and also to see him," said Soe Nyunt, a 27-year-old laborer who waited for Obama before going to work.
Wai New Yi, 32, was disappointed that she did not see Obama as she waited near Yangon International Airport.
"I didn't even bat my eyelids when the motorcade passed by. I can see the motorcade but I didn't see President Obama," she said.
Ma Than Than Win, 42, was wearing an Obama T-shirt and holding a banner with picture of Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist who is hosting Obama at the home where she once served under house arrest by the country's ruling military regime.
"We have never had the visit of a president from a big country like America. I came here because we believe that President Obama will be a big strength for Myanmar's democratic reforms as he is a world-recognized leader for democracy," said Win, an office worker in Yangon.
"We want him to know that Myanmar people love him and have high expectations of him to actively participate in Myanmar's democratic reforms. And we also hope that he will help Daw Suu in her efforts for the country," she said, referring to Suu Kyi. Daw is a term of respect in Myanmar.
Air Force One flew over Myanmar's lush countryside, which was dotted with gold-spired temples, rice paddies and fish farms. As the plane approached Yangon, the landscape became more crowded with homes, including many clusters of shacks.
Obama walked down the steps of Air Force One with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by his side. They were greeted by the U.S ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, along with several local officials and military greeters.
Obama was presented with a large bouquet of flowers by a young girl wearing elaborate local dress.
Yangon streets are a blend of crumbling store fronts, as well as colonial era buildings. Billboards in English advertise everything from Samsung products to Quantas Airlines. Store fronts bear English names, while bars advertise Dragon Beer and Skol products.
Suu Kyi, the former opposition leader who endured decades of harassment and house arrest in her struggle for a free and democratic Burma, was hosting a meeting with Obama later Monday. Now a member of parliament, Suu Kyi lives in a gated residence with razor wire along the top of the compound walls. The house is a light-grey stucco structure with a red-tiled roof. The lawn is ringed with roses.
A lake where an American once swam across to visit Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest is not visible from the lawn, blocked by a wire-topped security fence and wind barrier. Suu Kyi was detained in the house, about 6 miles north of downtown Yangon, for two decades as she led opposition to Burma's military rulers.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.