Sun Moon Lake is a symbol of Taiwan’s transition to a modern industrial economy and of Taiwan becoming a popular destination for international tourists.
The romantic English name of this lake is literally translated from Chinese, Riyuetan, which itself describes the shape of this 8 km2 body of water. The east is round like the sun, while the southwest is said to be like a crescent moon.
Formerly a shallow marsh, Sun Moon Lake doubled in size and quadrupled in depth during the 1920s and 1930s. The Japanese colonial authorities who ruled the island at the time took advantage of the lake’s location at an altitude of 748 meters in the very center of Taiwan to build dams and hydroelectric power stations.
Sun Moon Lake has quickly become a tourist attraction because of its azure waters and surrounding verdant mountains. If you ask Taiwanese in their 60s and 70s where to honeymoon, chances are they will tell you about their first trip to Sun Moon Lake.
In recent years, the lake has solidified its reputation as a top destination for foreign tourists. Regular buses to and from Sun Moon Lake and its surrounding areas can make a day trip to Taichung possible, but it is better to stay at least two nights next to or near Sun Moon Lake, especially for the upcoming 2023 Sun Moon Lake Bike and Music Festival Period, fireworks display.
This October and November, festival organizers are finalizing a series of free concerts, fireworks and drone displays, group cycling events and events aimed at showcasing the region’s agriculture and specialty foods.
Most of Taiwan’s tea-growing regions are known for the oolong tea that farmers shrivel and partially oxidize in the sun, and it’s been associated with black tea since the Japanese introduced it to the Sun Moon Lake hinterland in 1917.
The Antique Assamese Tea Garden is a heritage operation open to the public. Other tea gardens that welcome outsiders include the photogenic and educational Huo Huo tea and Hugosum black tea gardens, where visitors can book experiences in tea growing, tasting and pairing tea with food.
Elsewhere in Yuchi Township, around Sun Moon Lake, foothill crops such as bamboo shoots, zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms are grown. Some farms specialize in growing flowers that adorn houses, hotel lobbies and temples across Taiwan.
Tourists who take the bus to Sun Moon Lake will arrive at Shuishe, a small town located on the northwest shore of Sun Moon Lake. It’s a good idea to spend a half hour or so exploring the Hanmei Peninsula before boarding a cruise ship or bus around the lake. Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s leader from 1949 to 1975, and his wife visited the church here every time they visited the area. It’s open to the public, and like most of the attractions mentioned in this article, admission is free.
Shuishe is also the best place to rent bicycles. In July 2017, CNN included the Sun Moon Lake Bikeway in its list of 10 “Amazing Bikeways” in the world.
However you go around the lake, for those moving clockwise around the lake, the next stop is Man Mo Temple. What the building lacks in history—it’s young compared to other famous temples in Taiwan—it more than makes up for it in its magnificent water views. It is also highly unusual in that it commemorates both Confucius, China’s most revered philosopher and literati, and Guan Gong, the great general who was posthumously made a god.
The only other significant lakeside settlement is Ita Thao. Indigenous Thao people and Han Taiwanese live here, and there are a variety of accommodation and dining options. Today, the Thao, with a population of less than 850, believe that Lalu Island in the western half of Sun Moon Lake is a sacred place where the spirits of their ancestors live.
Sun Moon Lake Cableway is a 15-minute walk from Ita Thao city centre. Taking the cable car from the shore of the lake, across the forest, and into the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is an intense scenic experience. The total length of the cableway is 1.88 kilometers, and the one-way journey takes 10 minutes.
Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is a true two-in-one attraction. In addition to several thrilling roller coaster rides, it also introduces the costumes, music, dance, and traditional architectural techniques of Taiwanese aborigines.
Continue to circle around the lake, and you will arrive at Xuanzang Temple, Ci’en Pagoda, and Xuanguang Temple. The first and third sites were established to preserve Buddhist artifacts, including a human bone believed to be that of the Chinese monk Xuanzang. In the seventh century AD, Xuanzang made a dangerous 16-year pilgrimage to India, where he collected and translated religious texts.
The Ci’en Pagoda is 46 meters high and the top of the tower is 1,000 meters above sea level. It is a monument built by Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his late mother. Even if you hate stairs, you’ll agree that the stunning lake and mountain panoramas from the upper floors make the climb well worth it.
Parking near some of Sun Moon Lake’s attractions is quite difficult, and the roads around the lake are narrow and winding in some places. Buses provide an easy way to reach destinations and travel.
Bus No. 6670 departs from Taichung, picks up passengers at the city’s train station and high-speed rail station, then goes to Puli Town, and then to Sun Moon Lake. A few people will go to the Xiangshan Visitor Center or Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village.
On some services, the bus is wheelchair accessible. There is no fee to store foldable bikes in a bike bag in the luggage compartment. For complete details, including downloadable and printable fares and schedules, visit www.taiwantrip.com.tw. This multilingual website introduces Taiwan Haoxing bus services around the country, which is very helpful for planning a Taiwan vacation.
The 6669 bus around the lake stops at various important scenic spots between Shuishe and Xuanguang Temple. There are 10 departures per day, and you can buy a package ticket, including a one-day boarding pass, Yida Shao to Shuishe ferry ticket, and Taichung-Sunyue round-trip bus ticket around the lake. Details on these and other money-saving packages, some of which include bike rental (see www.sunmoonlaketrip.net).
Visitors looking for more inspiration can visit the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area website (www.sunmoonlake.gov.tw). For various tourist information about Taiwan, please visit the website of the Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist consultation hotline 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan).