BAGAN, Myanmar: Myanmar took stock of toppled spires and crumbling temple walls in the ancient capital Bagan on Thursday after a powerful earthquake hit the country, killing three and damaging the top tourist destination.
Two young girls and a man died in Magway region where the 6.8 magnitude quake struck Wednesday evening, cracking buildings across center of the country and sending tremors that were felt as far away as Bangkok and Kolkata.
In nearby Bagan, home to a vast plain of some 2,500 Buddhist monuments that are among Myanmar’s most venerated religious sites, teams of government-dispatched engineers and architects surveyed damage to nearly 200 of the prized pagodas.
“First we need to figure out the extent of the damage,” Arkar Kyaw, the deputy director of Myanmar’s culture ministry said.
“Then we will make a renovation plan,” he told Agence France-Presse, adding that the government is working directly with UNESCO.
First estimates showed at least 185 pagodas at Bagan were damaged, as security officers blocked tourists from entering temples while workers cleared piles of bricks, swept the grounds and sorted through fragments of murals.
“I heard sounds after I paid homage at a pagoda. There were foreign tourists there as well,” said Khin Maung Toe, a Myanmar man who was visiting Bagan for the first time when the earthquake struck.
“My wife barely escaped outside as the pagoda collapsed,” he told Agence France-Presse.
The temples, many of which are around 1,000 years old, are a top attraction for tourists flocking to Myanmar as it emerges from decades of military rule.
Bagan’s sweeping expanse of temple ruins — which make for a staggering sunset vista — have survived wars, earthquakes and centuries of tropical sun.
In its heyday, between the 9th and 13th centuries, the city was the capital of a powerful kingdom and one of Asia’s most important centers for learning.
“It’s really heartbreaking. I cannot even eat,” said Tin Hla Oo, a trustee of the three-story Htilominlo pagoda, which was badly damaged by the quake.
“We are suffering because this is a great loss, as these (pagodas) are priceless.”
Earthquakes are relatively common in Myanmar, which lies in a tectonically active region.
The last major quake to seriously damage Bagan struck in 1975 and was followed by a controversial restoration effort under the military junta that stepped down in 2011.
Experts said the haphazard renovation work, much of it hastily done with modern materials, significantly altered the original architecture and design of some monuments.
In recent years, as the country undergoes a democratic transition and opens up following decades of isolationist junta rule, UNESCO has worked directly with the government to safeguard the monuments.
Myanmar is eager to see the city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“We believe this time the restoration will follow international standards,” said Sardar Umar Alam, the head of UNESCO’s office in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“It takes time to know how the structures are stabilized and how bad the actual damage is — if a roof collapses, how much it affects different walls and mural paintings,” he added.
Travel to once-cloistered Myanmar used to be reserved for the well-heeled and intrepid, prepared to endure the travails of a country under military rule with patchy electricity and limited communications.
But foreign tourists have poured in since the military stepped down in 2011, many of them making a beeline for Bagan.
This year Myanmar is on track to welcome 5.5 million tourists, nearly a million more than 2015, according to Tint Thwin, director-general of Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.