Cambodian internet sensation and his mum contemplate the big time after video goes viral
- Fourteen-year-old who was videoed speaking multiple languages at Angkor temples is on his first trip to the Cambodian capital, to get a passport
- Thuch Salik hopes to travel with his parents to China to appear on a TV show. He says he had no idea tourist was filming him
Thuch Salik is wearing jeans and a pristine white button-up shirt appropriately patterned with outlines of big stars.
Sitting beside a swimming pool in a small, leafy park on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, Salik, 14, is recognised by passers-by, who ask if they can have their photo taken with him. Even the pool attendant tries to chat with him, in a variety of foreign tongues, and calls out to others that “he’s the boy who speaks 15 languages”.
Including his native Khmer, Salik speaks 16 languages, and his linguistic skills have been his claim to fame since he became an overnight sensation this month after a Malaysian tourist posted a video of him on the internet. In the video, Salik speaks in multiple languages as he tries to charm the young woman into buying a souvenir at the ancient Angkor temples complex near his hometown of Siem Reap.
He was not to be seen hanging around his regular haunt last week, though, when Salik paid his first trip to the country’s capital, where he was invited to impress audiences by showing off his linguistic talents on a national television show.
With his mother and younger brother in tow, it was a busy and productive trip to the big city, where the family acquired passports for their first trip outside the Southeast Asian country – hopefully to China.
Salik’s sudden rise to fame came as a big surprise, he tells the South China Morning Post. He had no idea the tourist was filming him.
“I saw her walking into the Ta Prohm temple,” Salik says, referring to the picture-postcard ruins overgrown with trees where, until little over a week ago, he was hawking postcards and souvenirs such as bamboo flutes and fridge magnets from a plastic basket strung over his shoulder.
“I decided to follow her. First she spoke to me in Thai and told me that she didn’t want to buy things from children. I replied in Thai, but then she continued in Chinese. She then talked in three different Chinese dialects, in Spanish, German and English. I continued to follow her and had a conversation with her in all these different languages,” he says in native Khmer.
“I only realised [she had filmed me] when a tuk-tuk driver told me that I’m now famous and that the video is going viral on Facebook. I then saw the video myself for the first time.”
After the video of Salik went viral across Asia, Chinese tourists started showering the young souvenir seller with money. Now Salik and his mother have been invited to the country for a planned appearance on a Chinese television show. Details of the trip are still under negotiation, because Salik has asked if his father and younger brother can also tag along.
More importantly, a Cambodian businessman, who wants to remain anonymous, has offered to pay for Salik and his younger brother to attend school in Phnom Penh, and even help them relocate to the city. It’s an opportunity that could provide the family with the chance to claw their way out of dire poverty.
Salik says his language skills are self-taught. While he learned English in class, he picked up the others – including Mandarin, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, German, Thai and Spanish – by chatting up tourists at the famed temples.
His younger brother Thuch Tithya, 11, has followed in Salik’s footsteps, picking up the basics of 12 languages with Salik’s help.
“I ask them where they are from, and some other things. And then I just remember it. Sometimes I also ask Salik the meaning of a word, or I ask a tour guide who speaks the languages,” Tithya says.
The boys’ mother, Mann Vanna, 35, says she could not be more surprised by Salik’s sudden rise to fame.
“I’m so proud of him. Before I saw the video, I didn’t even realise he knows 15 languages. When he was seven or eight years old, I sent him to a private English class, but that didn’t last more than one or two years. By then I couldn’t afford to pay it any more,” she says.
The recognition Salik has received, however fleeting it may prove to be, has been a blessing for the family, she says, because they have been struggling to fulfil their hopes for him and his siblings – receiving a good education and improving their job prospects.
Mann and her husband, Sun Vuthy, 41, who sells pictures he paints of the Angkor temples, moved to Siem Reap 10 years ago hoping to earn a living from tourism. Sun used to make about US$10 a day, but not any more, she says.
Like many Cambodians whose livelihood depends on selling souvenirs at Angkor, the family has found themselves in debt, Mann says.
“We bought a plot of land and built a house, but it became more and more difficult to make enough money. I have weeks where I don’t earn a single dollar, yet I still have to pay the authorities US$5 a month to be allowed to sell souvenirs near the temple,” she says.
Mann says the family has racked up debts of US$50,000, making it impossible to send her boys to a private school so they can improve their language skills.
“At some point we had to borrow money from a private lender, but the interest was very high [15 per cent to 20 per cent].”
Medical bills for her ailing mother and the expense of sending her to Thailand for treatment got them into a deeper hole.
“Right now I still owe private lenders US$30,000 and the bank over US$20,000. The bank now wants me to pay US$700 a month. If I don’t pay it back on time, they will add the interest that I still owe them to the loan. I don’t want that to happen,” she says.
Mann says that although Salik will no longer be selling souvenirs with her at the Ta Prohm temple – where he and Tithya join her after morning school – it had not been what she wanted for her children. She would rather that they were able to focus on their studies.
“But we didn’t have that choice. All my kids are very smart, and all of them have a big heart. Salik wants to help, so after studying in the morning he would go out in the afternoon to sell souvenirs. He’s been doing that since he was 10 years old,” she says.
“His older brother [Thuch] Seyha is a talented painter. He’s 16 and wants to be an architect. But we are so poor that I don’t know how we can fulfil his dream.”
It’s a familiar story in Cambodia. A 2014 study by Unicef, the UN’s child welfare programme, found that of the country’s nearly four million children aged between five and 17, about 19 per cent were “economically active”. There have been no significant changes in the statistics in the past few years, it says.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, says children like Salik and Tithya should be able to concentrate on their education.
“But their families are so poor that they need to help them pay back their debts. In some countries, children who are as talented as this boy [Salik] will be selected by the state, and provided with special education and support to develop their skills even further,” he says.
Chhun is critical of the situation in Siem Reap and at Angkor, a Unesco World Heritage Site that attracts up to two million foreign tourists a year.
“Siem Reap is by far the biggest tourist city in Cambodia. There’s a lot of money coming in, but it all goes to the government and it doesn’t benefit the poor at all. Now, the poor people don’t have a choice but to use their children to make a living.”
Salik is one of the rare lucky ones, and his prospects are now brighter – if the offer of a full-time education in a good school comes to fruition.
“It’s my dream to become a tour guide. That’s why I want to focus on improving my Chinese, English and Thai,” he says.
The talented linguist hopes other children whose lives revolve around selling souvenirs will be offered the same opportunity.