International Travel Studies: Five Life Lessons from Cambodia and Vietnam

April 29, 2024 5 min read

When Grade 10 math teacher Zach McDonald walked through the ancient stone hallways of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, taking in the hand-carved displays of Hindu gods at work, the cavernous size, the heavy heat, “I felt like the luckiest person alive,” he says, “to be in this incredible place with this amazing group of people.”

Two groups of Calgary Academy students and teachers travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam this spring break for International Travel Studies (ITS)—20 Grade 12s and 20 Grade 10s and 11s, each group accompanied by three school staff. The Far East offered up experiences that educated, challenged, humbled, inspired, and forged new bonds between all that made the journey. Everyone returned with a profound new appreciation for home. Here are five lessons the CA travellers are bringing home to Calgary.

Lesson 1: Giving Back = Joy

Every ITS trip has a service component, and this year, CA students helped out at a small school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The students laid bricks, painted, and helped build a garden.

On the last day, the Grade 12 group brought a few goodies for the Cambodian students, among them toothbrushes and toothpaste, which prompted a toothbrushing tutorial. As the CA students doled out some hats, music played in the background, and a dance party broke out. The Grade 12s lifted the Cambodian kids on their shoulders, dancing, everyone lost in the moment, smiling and laughing.

“That was the most I smiled on the trip,” remembers Mr. McDonald. “It made me so happy to see our students interact with and make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Lesson 2: Things We Won’t Take for Granted Any More: April Snowfall, Thermostats, Orderly Traffic, Recycling, and Privilege

The Cambodian students crowded around the Grade 10s and 11s to tell them how badly they wanted to come to Canada and see snow. For the native Canadians, it seemed almost funny to think of snow as exotic.

Grade 11 student Ava T. certainly gained a new appreciation for her home climate while laying bricks and painting on a 50-degree, 100% humidity day. “It made me appreciate things I had not even thought to appreciate before,” says Ava. “Like the fact that we can heat and cool our buildings. I was excited to come home and just feel a gust of wind on my face.”

Another thing that shocked Ava was the mopeds—whizzing around cars, buses, safety and/or traffic laws seemingly gone by the wayside.

Grade 12 trip leader Maggie Heintz was struck by the plastic bottles everywhere, which made her reflect on how easy it is to toss a plastic bottle in a blue bin at home.

“We live so differently and are so privileged,” Ava reflects. “The average annual salary in Vietnam is about $3,500. It puts into perspective how much we have.”

Lesson 3: Experiencing History is Different than Studying It

Both groups stopped at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as well as the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

A couple of the Grade 12 students had done projects on Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, and under their rule from the mid to late 1970s, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population died of execution, disease, or starvation.

“Even if you’ve learned about it in school, you don’t have a full appreciation for it until you see and hear firsthand what people went through,” says Ms. Heintz.

The groups also toured Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum, as well as the hand-dug Cu Chi tunnels communist guerrillas used during the Vietnam War.

Grappling with this history was not easy, and the students and teachers debriefed with conversations about how it felt and what it meant. History gave shape and context to the culture and the people they met along the way.

Lesson 4: The Calgary Academy Community is Pretty Special, and These Trips Enrich School Life for Everyone

“I’ve never felt more supported than I do at Calgary Academy,” says Mr. McDonald. “We all want each other to succeed.” Now in his second year at CA, Mr. McDonald already had a deep appreciation for his new community long before he embarked on the ITS trip. When he—a Grade 10 and 11 teacher—was assigned to the Grade 12 group, he wasn’t sure how it would go.

But as the group bounced through airports across the world, it became clear very quickly that everyone was, well, awesome. “I built a relationship with every single one of the students,” says Mr. McDonald. When you’re navigating across the world, supporting each other, and sharing experiences, a kind of team bond grows between everyone.

“It’s amazing,” says Ms. Heintz, “to see how they give everything their all and how they open themselves up to new experiences. The Grade 12s are graduating this year, and after a trip like this, they’re ready to take on everything that’s ahead of them.”

Lesson 5: New Experiences are Everything

Building sculptures with toothpick-sized pieces of bamboo, learning to cook Vietnamese fare, walking through 900-year-old temples, and eating traditional food, like Vietnamese salad rolls and Cambodian Amok—the students and teachers found delight, wonder, and growth in leaving their comfort zones and opening their minds and hearts to trying new things.

In Vietnam, they took a boat trip through the Mekong Delta. As the students and staff floated on small wooden canoe-like boats, they sank into a state of bliss and presence. Palm fronds arched over their heads, birds swooped here and there, and floating villages dotted their path.

Here they were, across an entire ocean from the CA hallways, sharing the adventure of a lifetime.