Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 6: On the Road with Marco Polo: Sea Voyage to India


The Lesson


A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

In the 13th century, a young Venetian named Marco Polo set out with his father and uncle on a great adventure. Following a series of trade routes, they traveled across the vast continent of Asia and became the first Europeans to visit the Chinese capital (modern Beijing). Marco so impressed the reigning emperor of China, Kublai Khan, that he was appointed to the imperial court. For the next 17 years, Marco was sent on missions to many parts of Kublai's sprawling empire. The Polos finally returned to Venice via the sea route. Marco later wrote a book about his experiences, which inspired new generations of explorers to travel to the exotic lands of the East.

In this curriculum unit, students will become Marco Polo adventurers, following his route to and from China in order to learn about the geography, local products, culture, and fascinating sites of those regions. Students will record their "journey" by creating journal entries, postcards, posters, and maps related to the sites they explore. The EDSITEment Marco Polo Journey Map, with its guiding questions, may be used either as a culminating exercise or a method of reviewing previous lessons and introducing new ones.

Guiding Questions

  • What routes did Marco Polo follow from China to Indonesia?
  • What sorts of natural environments did he travel through?
  • What were the major products of the places he visited?

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize the first leg of Marco Polo's return voyage
  • Be familiar with South Asia in the 13th century

Preparation Instructions

Read through the entire lesson plan and become familiar with the content and resources. Bookmark relevant websites for later reference.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Sea Voyage to India

After spending 17 years in China, Marco Polo and his father and uncle finally had an opportunity to return home. Kublai Khan asked them to lead an expedition to deliver a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to be married. From Persia they would continue on to Venice.

The Polos began their homeward journey by traveling south to a port (Amoy) in southern China. There their large party, which included government officials and servants as well as crewmen, boarded a fleet of 40 ships. Their sea route took them along the coast of Annam (modern Vietnam), past the Malaya Peninsula (Malaysia), and into the islands of Indonesia.

They spent five months on the island of Sumatra, waiting for the monsoon rains to end. While they were stranded there, Marco noticed that the North Star had dipped behind the horizon (he was now in the southern hemisphere).

For hundreds of years, Indonesia and other islands off the coast of Southeast Asia have been known as the “spice islands.” Before the days of refrigeration, spices were in great demand in Europe, because they gave taste to dull (and rancid!) food.

  • Access The lure of spice available through Xpeditions. Read the text on this page, then view the following linked pages: The Spices of Antiquity, Spices, an Arab Monopoly, and Spices in the Middle Ages.
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • What route did the Polos follow from China to Indonesia?
  • What are the geography and climate of Sumatra?
  • What are some of the important products of Indonesia?
  • What religions are represented in the art and architecture of modern Indonesia?
  • Why were spices so widely sought after by European merchants in medieval times?

Finally, the weather improved and the Polo expedition set sail again. They crossed the Indian Ocean and stopped at the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), just off the southeastern tip of India.

Learn about the island of Sri Lanka by visiting the following sites:

Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • Where is Sri Lanka?
  • How would you describe the geography and climate of the island?
  • What are some of the products of modern Sri Lanka? Which might have been important products in the days of Marco Polo?

From Sri Lanka, the Polos sailed along the southern and western coast of India, stopping in several places.

Learn more about the geography, culture, and economy of southern India by visiting these sites:

Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • What are the geography and climate of southern India?
  • What are some of the main products of southern India?
  • What is the major religion in this region?


Distribute copies of the Map of the Indian Ocean Area, which you downloaded while preparing this lesson. Instruct the students to draw a line on the map to indicate the route of Marco Polo from China to Hormuz. Then have them indicate (with words or pictures) on the map some of the important products associated with the three major regions he visited—Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and southern India.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)