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George Town, Malaysia

Wat Chayamangkalaram, George Town (Courtesy of Valery Shanin/Shutterstock.com)

George Town is the capital of Penang, a 111-square-mile island off the west coast of Malaysia. The island gets its name from the betel nut tree, called pinang in Malaysian. While some residents chew betel nuts, you'll probably be more interested in sinking your teeth into the astonishing variety of foods available in this culinary capital. Add in George Town's historic architecture, which boosted it onto UNESCO's World Heritage list, and the area makes for a rewarding destination.

Located at the north entry to the Straits of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Capt. Francis Light arranged to have Penang ceded by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786 in return for promised military protection. Legend has it that Light fired a cannon filled with coins into the jungle to get locals to clear the ground. With the construction of Fort Cornwallis and the founding of George Town (named after King George III), Penang became Britain's first stronghold in Southeast Asia. Trade flourished -- including rubber, tin and opium -- and attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. The island was captured by the Japanese in World War II and became part of the independent state of Malaysia in 1957.

Today, the population of George Town totals about 750,000, with the majority being ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays and Indians. The Peranakans represent a distinct subculture. In the past, Chinese traders married Malay women, and a blending of the cultures created hybrid customs, foods and dress.

Photos: 11 Best Malaysia Experiences

George Town's melting pot of cultures contributes to its fascinating food scene, as well as to its many places of worship, including Chinese clan houses, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and colonial-era Christian churches. Now, UNESCO recognition has brought a new influx of tourists. George Town's crumbling "shop houses" are being rehabbed into boutique hotels, while outside the city, shopping malls and luxury housing have sprung up along beaches.

Many travelers choose to visit in Penang's dryer months of January and February. The equatorial climate keeps it hot year-round (72 to 86 degrees) with fierce sun, so plan accordingly when packing for your trip.

--written by Gayle Keck

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