Lowell is a former mill town at the convergence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This Eastern Massachusetts city of 110,000 is home to the highest concentration of Cambodians in the United States. Some estimates have it as high as 30,000, or more than 25%. While the Khmer Lowellians are by no means isolated, the majority do live in the Highlands area. Here, you’ll find Khmer-speaking bakeries, jewelers, salons, travel agents, temples, and more. Even some of the donut shops are owned and run by Cambodians. The unique Khmer script adorns most buildings along Chlemsford and Westford Streets, both of which jut west from the Lowell MBTA station.
Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell
Phnom Penh Restaurant
Heng Lay Restaurant
Lowell Flower House
Dessert Shop & Bakery
Le Petit Cafe
The Glory Buddhist Temple
Simply Khmer Restaurant
Pailin Asian Supermarket
Hong Kong Market
Lucky Asian Market
That Luang Market
Red Rose Restaurant
Heng Heng Asian Fast Food
Sen Monorom Restaurant
Angkor Thom Market
Rose Fresh Market
Rose Fresh Market
Local politics in Lowell and Middlesex County
Two of Lowell’s three state reps were born in Cambodia. In January 2021, Vanna Howard became the first Cambodian-born woman elected to the House of Representatives. Pailin-born Buddhist Monk and acupressure therapist, Rady Mom, has represented the Massachusetts House of Representatives 18th District since 2015. He was the first Cambodian-American elected to the state legislature. Mom defeated two other Cambodian-born candidates to win the seat that he still occupies today. His assistant is married to Lowell City Council member Sokhary Chau. As of 2021, two of the nine council members were born in Cambodia. This makes Khmer representation in local politics more or less on par with their presence in the community as a whole.
The Lowell Highlands
The Lowell Highlands are shaped like home plate with I-495 facing the catcher and the Merrimack River as the northern border. Here, you can find durian or jackfruit just as easily as you can find an apple or banana. There are more Cambodian restaurants and other businesses in this area west of the Lowell MBTA station than you’ll find in every other New England city combined. Providence is still at a very distant second.
Cambodia Town and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell (CMAA)
Lowell has two main Cambodian community organizations. Cambodia Town was founded in 2012 by Phnom Penh natives Annabel and Jessda as a way to promote Khmer culture and local businesses. The red brick building across from Washington Park is also known as the ‘Asian Center.’ East of the building, you’ll find a small park with a four-faced statue made of sandstone imported from Siem Reap. Each side represents a different virtue: compassion, empathy, equanimity, and loving kindness. Across the street, Pailin Plaza was the first Cambodian commerce center in Lowell.
The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell (CMAA) aims to improve the quality of life for Cambodian Americans through cultural, educational, and social programs. Pre-COVID, they hosted Khmer language classes as well as traditional dance performances. They accept donations here.
How to enjoy Cambodian food in Lowell
During the hot summer months, most of the Cambodian restaurants will feel, sound, and smell like Phnom Penh or Battambang. But the Highlands look more suburban, with large parking lots and open spaces. Many Bostonians make the 45-minute journey from North Station to enjoy Khmer favorites like Phnom Penh Noodle Soup, Beef Loc Lac, and the Khmer version of Pad Thai. While those are all good beginner dishes, you should also consider trying something with prahok, which is a pungent fish paste, known as ‘Cambodian cheese.’ If you want to impress your Cambodian friends (or be treated like an honorary Khmer by your server), head to Phnom Penh Restaurant and try the tirk kroenug. Most dishes are served with a more than generous portion of rice, which locals often eat with their hands.
Where to enjoy Cambodian food in Lowell
If you include bakeries and takeout places, there are roughly a dozen different Cambodian eateries in Lowell. Most are in the Highlands. The majority are no-frills casual dining spots that were meant to give Khmer people a taste of home. But you can’t keep a good thing secret for long. Bostonians who realize that Cambodian food is not just like Thai or Vietnamese come here for everything from Phnom Penh Noodle Soup to Beef Loc Lac. Heng Lay is a popular spot for both dishes. Their loc lac is served with black pepper sauce which is meant for dipping. Phnom Penh has a huge menu of nearly 100 items and is an ideal spot to try prahok. Be sure to try their butterfly milk tea as well.
Mekong Pho is a popular breakfast spot, where people go for Cambodian egg rolls and fish porridge. Many first-timers gravitate towards chicken wings, which you can find some version of on most Khmer menus. Le Petit Café serves chicken wings stuffed with glass noodles and other Khmer spices.
Lowell also has more than 10,000 residents of Lao descent
Lowell also has upwards of 10,000 residents of Lao descent. Many have also opened their own businesses, including restaurants. Laos Thai Kitchen and Lao’De Cafe are located north of the MBTA station in The Acre section. Zabb Elle started just a couple blocks from the former CBGB in Manhattan’s East Village but is now exclusive to Lowell. They are located in the Highlands, just a couple blocks from where Bette Davis was born.
The menu has a whole page dedicated to spicy salads, which are a Lao staple. Zabb Elee serves them with a thip khao, or ‘rice basket.’ The sticky rice is a staple of nearly every Lao meal. It can help tame the high spice level that is common in Lao cuisine. Their Laos Beef Jerky and Larb Beef (with tripe) are both popular as well.
Many of the restaurants listed below are popular with Lowellians as well as people just passing through looking to experience Lowell’s unique Southeast Asian culture.
Places to Shop
- Angkor Thom Market
- Bangkok Market
- Bayon Market
- Hong Kong Market
- K Market
- Lucky Asian Market
- Ocean Garden Market
- Pailin Asian Supermarket
- Rhachana Jewelry
- Rose Fresh Market
- That Luang Market
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