Sometimes education extends beyond the classroom, as a group of Canadian high-school students recently discovered. Moqing Wang, a student at Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Toronto was one of them. In a recent whirlwind 12-day tour to Malaysia she tried eel fishing for the first time, rode in a multi-coloured trishaw, and ate exotic foods from a banana leaf.
Wang was one of eight high-achieving Grade 11 students (five from Toronto and three from Vancouver) selected to take part in the first Canada-Malaysia Student Cultural Experience Program.
The trip, sponsored by Tourism Malaysia Canada in partnership with the Toronto and Vancouver school boards, was designed to expose the students to another culture and "build bridges" between the two countries. The youths were selected based on merit, a personal essay and application, teacher recommendations, and their participation in international affairs-related extracurricular activities.
Many students admitted to having very little knowledge about Malaysia before the trip and were surprised to encounter such a modern country.
"I was blown away by the infrastructure," relays 16-year-old Annie Li of Martingrove Collegiate Institute. "The airport was amazing, better than Toronto. It had an enclosed green space. And in the Putrajaya, the administrative centre, they can take lamps off the road and turn it into a runway."
In addition to Putrajaya, the students visited the capital Kuala Lumpur and the city of Melaka. They toured the Petronas Twin Towers, the Royal Selangor pewter factory, Batu Caves, and visited various temples and mosques.
"Awesome," "fun," and a "real eye-opener," are words they use to describe the experience both in interviews and on their trip blog.
Several students rated their two-night village homestay with a local family as one of the highlights. It was here that many got to try eel fishing for the first time.
"We went into the paddy field with a rod that had chicken skin attached to it and went to a small creek where we had to find or dig a hole," explains Wang. "You put the hook in the water hole and tug the rod."
The trick she says is finding the right hole. "I guess it's luck," adds Wang, who managed to snag the snake-like fish on her rod.
They also learned about kite making and batik painting, and were taken on an evening boat ride to see hundreds of fireflies twinkling in the trees. The students even attended a villager's wedding.
"The whole community shows up. It's almost like crashing somebody's party but they welcomed us, they're open to strangers," says Annie Li.
It was one of many occasions where the students encountered Malaysians who were both hospitable and friendly. In Melaka they climbed into colourfully-decorated trishaws for an hour-long ride through the streets of the historic town.
"We were sitting in the carts and everybody we waved to waved back," explains Li.
On a tour of a Malaysian high school, they received what Safwan Bhuiyan of Woburn Collegiate Institute in Toronto called a "VIP welcome," which included an "extravagant reception" complete with traditional music.
The school, arranged around a "beautiful outdoor courtyard," was different in a number of ways from their own. Students were dressed in formal attire with "dress jackets." Instead of a concert orchestra they had a gamelan orchestra and in place of a cafeteria, meals were prepared by culinary students. There was also a "discipline room," and a lab with colour laser printers.
In case you're planning a trip yourself, the students have some tips: Check out the shops and the street markets.
"The exchange rate was 3 ringitt for 1 Canadian (dollar) so we had a lot of fun shopping," enthuses Wang. "Stuff was cheap and there's no tax."
"Our hope is that the students returned from Malaysia with broadened minds and a better understanding of a different culture," says Haris Hadi, Vice President of Tourism Malaysia Canada. "We wanted to demonstrate to them our open and friendly culture, and we hope that this will encourage others to explore our wonderful country in their future travels."
"Nine days was certainly not enough to experience the entire country," concludes Bhuiyan. Like several of the other students he made new friends and says he would like to return.
In the meantime the students are reliving the experience on their blog. Through words and photos, they recount the trip in almost poetic terms, describing, for example, the "serenity" of the early morning sun "beaming down on a rice paddy," or the "ethereal" quality of the tendrils of smoke created by burning incense in a Taoist temple.