The baby faced Cambodian street Hawker became internet famous last year when he was filmed speaking a dozen languages while selling souvenirs to tourists at a temple in Angkor Wat, an ancient complex hugely popular among tourists. He’s now settling down to life at a boarding school in China.
Instead of attending school for half a day and working for the other half, as he’d been doing at home, the 15-year-old is now studying full-time at Hailiang Foreign Language School, a private school in eastern China.
Thuch Salik, who is much smaller than classmates his age, is studying and exercising hard. He has his eye on getting into a university in Beijing.
“I like it here very much, because it is very beautiful,” he said. “I like studying English and Chinese. I like the classroom, I like to eat rice, and I like my room.”
The teenager shares a dorm with three classmates from South Korea.
After his video went viral, he came to the attention of the Hailiang Education Group, a Nasdaq-listed company which owns the school in Zhuji, a city in Zhejiang province.
The staff thought he’d be an ideal fit for a project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative aimed at underprivileged children from Southeast Asia. Through publicity generated by his presence, the school hopes to attract students from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“It’s not tiring. I like it. In the past, I had to sell things when I was not in school. That was very tiring,” he said in basic English sometimes mixed with Mandarin.
The school spent months persuading the teenager’s parents to let him go, even offering the family a trip to China in January and then buying 130 paintings from the boy’s father for $60,000 to help clear his debts.
It also promised to sponsor Thuch Salik’s education and cover half of his living expenses until he began his postgraduate studies – if he chooses to pursue them.
Thuch Salik was a major breadwinner for his family. Outside Angkor Wat, he used to earn up to $15 a day before he became a celebrity. After that, he made much more.
His family has moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, thanks to help from donors and charities. There, they continue to sell trinkets to tourists.
The boy’s story is not untypical of a youngster from Siem Reap. He spent seven years working to support his family, while his 12-year old brother, who is also multilingual, has spent a year in the family business.
According to a report citing figures from UNICEF Cambodia, about 80,000 children in the country were not in school when they should have been. The country’s population is 16.5 million, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
“If I stayed in Cambodia, I’d study a little and may not have a good job in the future. But when I study here, I study a lot, and maybe I’ll get a good job,” Thuch Salik says.