I've arranged the towns below in the order you'll reach them when traveling north from Kowloon. Be sure you have the Discover Hong Kong by Rail booklet, available at any HKTB Visitor Centre.
Fewer than 13km (8 miles) north of Tsim Sha Tsui, Sha Tin is Hong Kong's prime example of a budding satellite town, with a population of more than 700,000. It's so huge that it has swallowed what were once surrounding villages, including Tai Wai, the first stop on the East Rail after passing into the New Territories. Change trains here for the Ma On Shan Rail and go one stop to Che Kung Temple Station (ask for the Station Information brochure with a map of the surrounding area at the station). Take Exit B from Che Kung Temple Station, walk through the pedestrian tunnel, and then turn right for Che Kung Temple, 7 Che Kung Miu Rd. (tel. 852/2603 4049). This modern Taoist temple, built in 1993 on the site of a previous temple established long ago, honors Che Kung, a general from the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) credited with suppressing a revolt in southern China, controlling floods, and safeguarding villagers from a plague. You'll find a giant statue of Che Kung inside, holding his sword, but the temple is popular mainly because of Che Kung's reputation for granting good fortune. Many visitors bring food offerings and burn incense to ask for blessings, and many fortunetellers are on hand. Admission is free; it's open daily from 7am to 6pm.
Just a 15-minute walk east of the temple, on the other side of Lion Rock Tunnel Road on Sha Kok Street, is Tsang Tai Uk (also called Shan Ha Wai, which means Walled Village at the Mountain Foot), a tiny, walled village built in the 1840s for members of the Tsang clan, who made their fortune as stonemasons. (Tsang Tai Uk translates as "Mr. Tsang's Big House".) With its high, thick walls, four parallel rows, two side columns of houses, and central courtyard with ancestral halls housing a painting of the clan founder and photographs of the family, it's typical of Hakka settlements in Guangdong Province (formerly Canton Province) but unusual for Hong Kong. Still occupied by about 300 members of the Tsang clan, it is a vision of communal life from Hong Kong's not-so-distant past, with seniors sitting in doorways and women drawing water from courtyard wells and hanging up laundry. Although neither as old nor as famous as other walled villages, Tsang Tai Uk is, in my opinion, more intriguing and interesting because it has been spared the intrusion of the modern apartments that now plague most villages (the new Ma On Shan Rail, however, passes right outside Tsang Tai Uk, destroying some of its former pastoral peacefulness). The recent addition of public toilets has made life easier, as most of the 99 apartments are without private facilities and residents formerly relied on chamber pots. Because Tsang Tai Uk is off the tourist pathway and serves as home to a number of families, visitors should be respectful of the inhabitants' privacy when visiting the compound.
Tsang Tai Uk is about a 15-minute walk from Che Kung Temple. To reach it, turn right out of the temple onto Che Kung Miu Road and then follow signs through the pedestrian tunnels to Tsang Tai Uk. After exiting the last tunnel, you'll pass a tennis court to your left before seeing Tsan Tai Uk. Because getting there is confusing despite a few small signs, it's best to have the concierge of your hotel write out the name in Chinese so you can show it to people when asking for directions.
The Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Rd. (tel. 852/2180 8188; http://hk.heritage.museum), across the river from Che Kung Temple and Tsang Tai Uk (walk back to the pedestrian tunnels and follow signs to the museum, crossing Lion Bridge; the walk takes about 15 min.), is in my opinion the main reason for a visit to the area. It presents both the history and culture of the New Territories in a series of themed exhibitions, foremost of which is the New Territories Heritage Hall with displays, photographs, and videos relating to the customs, religions, and lifestyle of the early fishermen and settlers and how they have changed over the centuries. A barge loaded for market, an ancestral hall, a Chinese medicine shop, traditional clothing, and other items are also on display. Particularly stunning are the models showing the growth of Sha Tin since the 1930s. I also like the Cantonese Opera Heritage Hall, a must for anyone wishing to gain insight into the history and characteristics of this unique form of entertainment, with musical instruments, elaborate costumes and headgear, a typical backstage scene, and touch screens for viewing actual Cantonese operas. The Chao Shao-an Gallery shows the works of Chao Shao-an (1905-98), a Hong Kong artist famous for his bird-and-flower paintings, while the T. T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art contains porcelain, bronze, furniture, jade, and other works of Chinese art dating from the Neolithic period to the 20th century. Kids will especially enjoy the toy museum with games they can play and the hands-on Children's Discovery Gallery, where they can practice being an archaeologist, wear traditional costumes, and learn about marshes. A teahouse off the lobby offers an extensive range of Chinese teas. Allow at least 2 hours for the museum. It's open Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday and holidays from 10am to 7pm. Admission is HK$10 for adults and HK$5 for children, students, and seniors (free admission to all on Wed). It's located about halfway between Tai Wai and Sha Tin stations, about a 15-minute walk from each.
On a hill west of Sha Tin Station is the Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas (tel. 852/2691 1067). Annoyingly, it's not shown on any HKTB maps nor mentioned in any of its literature, but there are two ascents that begin just west of the station (if you're arriving at Sha Tin Station, take exit B for Pai Tau Village, walk through the village, and then look for the sign). In any case, it takes about a half-hour's energetic walk to reach the actual monastery; first you have to climb more than 400 twisting steps, flanked by life-size gold-colored statues, an impressive sight themselves. The temple was established in the 1950s by a monk named Yuet Kai, who wrote 98 books on Buddhism. He's still at the temple -- well, actually, his body is still there. He's been embalmed and covered in gold leaf and sits behind a glass case in the main hall. In attendance are more Buddha images than you've probably ever seen gathered in one place. In fact, despite the monastery's name, almost 13,000 of the tiny statuettes line the walls, and no two are exactly alike. Also on the expansive grounds are a nine-story pink pagoda you can climb to the top, statues galore (including those of animals painted a riot of colors), numerous mausoleums where ashes are interred for a steep fee (this is how the monastery earns its money), and a very simple vegetarian cafeteria. The temple affords a good view of Sha Tin's high-rise housing estates and the surrounding mountains. Admission is free, and it's open daily from 9am to 5:30pm.
Where to Dine -- The Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas has a very simple dining hall (tel. 852/2699 4144) serving vegetarian dishes from an English menu, including deep-fried taro fish (not real fish, of course), fried bean curd, E-Fu noodles with vegetables, and other choices. All dishes cost HK$45 Monday to Friday, HK$50 weekends and holidays. No credit cards are accepted and it's open daily from 11:30am to 5pm.
Otherwise, the massive shopping mall New Town Plaza (tel. 852/2684 9175; www.newtownplaza.com.hk), located beside Sha Tin MTR station with more than 400 shops and restaurants, is a good place for a snack or meal, with cafeterias, fast-food outlets, and restaurants serving both Western and Asian fare, including Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese food. Restaurants with branches here are Simply Thai, Shop 703 (tel. 852/3523 1638), serving Thai specialties; the Spaghetti House, Shop 153 (tel. 852/2697 9009), one in a chain of successful American-style spaghetti-and-pizza parlors; and Genki Sushi, Shop A197a (tel. 852/2608 9322), with conveyor-belt sushi.
Another satellite town in the New Territories, Tai Po was first settled by Tanka boat people more than 1,000 years ago because of its strategic location on a river that flows into Tolo Harbour. Today, many Hakka farmers and residents -- more than 300,000 of them -- call it home. Yet it retains its rural atmosphere, especially the vicinity around its traditional market, one of the most colorful in Hong Kong and one of my favorites.
To reach it, take the East Rail to Tai Wo Station, surrounded by housing estates built in the last few decades and now part of the Tai Po satellite town (ask for the Tai Wo Station street map and information pamphlet at the station). Exit the station onto Po Nga Road (in the direction of McDonald's), cross the Tai Wo Bridge over the Lam Tsuen River, turn left on Pak Shing Street and then right onto Fu Shin Street, a pedestrian lane that has been serving as Tai Po's market since 1892. It bustles with activity from 7am to 6pm as housewives shop here twice daily to secure the freshest produce, fish, meat, dried herbs, and other ingredients for the day's meals. Big chunks of meat hang from hooks; butcher shops sell virtually every part of the pig; hardware stores are packed to the rafters with pots, bamboo steamers, and other goods; and fish swim in tanks. I love this market.
Near the middle of Fu Shin Street is a small Man Mo Temple, built in 1892 to commemorate the founding of Tai Po's market. Dedicated to the Taoist gods of war and literature, it could accommodate overnight guests to the market in its ladder-accessible upper floor, while side halls were used by market administrators to settle disputes between merchants and to store records. Today it's a popular spot for older residents to gather and play mah-jongg or simply pass the time. As at the Man Mo Temple on Hong Kong Island, huge incense coils suspended from the temple's ceiling are purchased by worshippers and burn for more than 2 weeks. Behind the temple is the tiny Town Earthgod Shrine, where townspeople burn offerings for dead relatives. A nearby shop sells paper offerings in the shapes of cars, gold bars, clothing, and other luxury goods that might prove useful for the dead in their afterlife.
At the end of Fu Shin Street, turn right and walk uphill 1 block to the small Hong Kong Railway Museum, 13 Shung Tak St. (tel. 852/2653 3455; http://hk.heritage.museum), occupying what was formerly the very tiny Tai Po Market railway station, built in 1913 in traditional Chinese style with ceramic figurines cresting its gabled roof. Besides the station's original waiting hall and ticket office, the museum displays a few model trains (including those from other countries, like the Shinkansen bullet train from Japan and the ICE from Germany) and fascinating historical photographs showing Tai Po, Yau Ma Tei during construction of its station approximately 100 years ago (completely void of buildings, almost impossible to visualize today), and the former Tsim Sha Tsui Station rail station, completed in 1916 for passengers arriving overland from London. Outside the station are a narrow-gauge steam locomotive, six vintage railway coaches dating from the early 1900s, and an outdoor model train set for children. This museum will appeal mainly to railway buffs, who will probably spend about 20 minutes here. It is open (and free) Wednesday to Monday 9am to 5pm.
A small farming settlement for several centuries, Fanling is now a huge satellite town with more than 350,000 inhabitants. However, the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail takes you through the traditional part of Fanling with its rural atmosphere. Many of the historic buildings along the trail are legacies of the Tang clan, the first and largest of the Five Great Clans to settle in the New Territories, back in the 12th century. Royal descendants of the eldest son of the princess of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), they established five wais (walled villages) and six tsuen (villages) in the area around Luk Yeuk Tau, which takes its name from the nearby Mountain of the Leaping Dragon. The trail, which stretches about 2.3km (1.4 miles) and takes approximately 1 hour to complete, passes more than a dozen historic structures along the way, including four walled villages (Lo Wai, the first walled village built by the Tang clan, is my favorite, but only the entrance tower is open to the public), a study hall, a Tin Hau temple, and one of Hong Kong's largest ancestral halls, built in the 16th century to honor the founding Tang ancestor and noted for its elaborate woodcarvings and central chamber housing the soul tablets of the Song princess and her husband (Wed-Mon 9am-1pm and 2-5pm). Admission to all sights is free. The Tangs of the area still practice traditional village customs, including the Tin Hau Festival (usually in Apr) and a special lantern lighting ceremony held the 15th day of the first lunar month to honor baby boys. This is a great walk, but I'm saddened by modern housing that has encroached upon what was once pastoral farmland just a few years back; instead of the chirping of birds, the most common sound nowadays comes from buzz saws (luckily, the Ping Shan Heritage Trail in the West New Territories has remained largely untouched, but it doesn't have the walled villages this walk has).
To reach the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, take minibus no. 54K from the east exit of Fanling Station to Lo Wai walled village (it's not the beginning of the trail, but it gets most interesting from here onward). Near the end of the trail, at the San Wai walled village, take bus no. 56K back to Fanling Station. Be sure to pick up the free brochure Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, which contains a map and information on historic buildings, at an HKTB Visitor Centre.
Where to Dine -- The most memorable place to dine in Fanling is at Fung Ying Seen Koon, 66 Pak Wo Rd. (tel. 852/2669 9186), Hong Kong's largest Taoist temple, established in 1929 by refugees fleeing Canton (Guangzhou). It offers vegetarian food daily from 11am to 5pm in a simple dining room to the left of the main hall. Main dishes on the English menu, ranging in price from HK$40 to HK$65, include hot and spicy bean curd, deep-fried crispy taro rolls, and fried elm fungus with three kinds of mushroom; get rice and congee at the self-service station. Set meals for two people are HK$105, though the menu for this is in Chinese only (you can't go wrong, as all the food is good). MasterCard and Visa are accepted. To reach Fung Ying Seen Koon, visible from the Fanling Station platform, take the west exit and go through the pedestrian underpass.
Once its own market town, Sheung Shui, the last stop before the China border, has been swallowed up in the budding satellite town that now spreads out from Fanling. Although much of Sheung Shui's charm has been lost due to the construction of modern buildings, it's still more peaceful than other old villages closer to the beaten path. Of all the historic, traditional Chinese buildings in the New Territories, few impress me as much as Tai Fu Tai, built in 1865 and the only Mandarin mansion restored and remaining in Hong Kong. It belonged to Man Chung-luen, the 21st generation of the Man clan (another of the Five Great Clans), a merchant and scholar who attained the highest grade in the Imperial Chinese Civil Service Examinations. Constructed of granite and bricks and adorned with colorful ceramic figurines, fine plaster moldings, woodcarvings, and murals, it is striking for its simplicity, a stark contrast to mansions built by the Western gentry class during the same period. Resembling a miniature fort, without windows but with an inner courtyard to let in light, it contains a main hall, side chambers, bedrooms, study, kitchen, servants' quarters, and lavatory. In the back of the main hall is a portrait of Man Chung-luen, flanked by pictures of his two wives and two sons. Not shown are his eight daughters. Remarkably, the mansion was occupied by members of the Man clan until the 1980s. Nearby is the Man Lun Fung Ancestral Hall, built to honor the eighth member of the Man clan.
Both Tai Fu Tai and the ancestral hall are free to the public and open Wednesday through Monday 9am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm. To reach them, take bus no. 76K from Sheung Shui Station traveling in the direction of Yuen Long (west) about 30 minutes to San Tin (near the post office), followed by a 5-minute walk back along Castle Peak Road to the signposted entrance. Because it's a bit difficult and time consuming to visit on your own, you might want to take Gray Line's guided "Heritage Tour", which takes in this site, as well as a few stops of the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail and the Man Mo Temple in Tai Po, described above.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.