Sun Moon Lake is a symbol of both Taiwan’s transformation into a modern industrial economy and its emergence as a favored destination for international travelers.
The lake’s romantic English name is a direct translation from the Chinese, Riyuetan, which itself describes the shape of this 8 km2 body of water. The eastern part is round like the sun, while the southwestern part is said to resemble a crescent moon.
Formerly shallow and marshy, Sun Moon Lake doubled in area and quadrupled in depth during the 1920s and 1930s. Taking advantage of the lake’s position, 748 meters above sea level at the very center of Taiwan, the Japanese colonial authorities then ruling the island constructed dams and hydroelectric power stations.
Sun Moon Lake quickly became a tourist attraction thanks to its shining blue waters and the green mountains surrounding it. If you ask Taiwanese in their sixties or seventies where they honeymooned, there is a good chance they will tell you about the first time they visited Sun Moon Lake.
In recent years, the lake has cemented its reputation as a top destination for foreign sightseers. Regular buses to, from, and around Sun Moon Lake make day-tripping from Taichung possible – but staying next to or very near the lake for at least two nights is a far better option, especially during the upcoming 2023 Sun Moon Lake Cycling, Music, and Fireworks Festival.
For this October and November, festival organizers are finalizing a lineup of free concerts, firework and drone displays, group biking events, and events designed to showcase the region’s agriculture and signature foods.
Whereas most of Taiwan’s tea-growing districts are renowned for oolongs that farmers wither under the sun and allow to partly oxidize, Sun Moon Lake’s hinterland has been associated with black teas since the Japanese introduced them to the area in 1917.
The Antique Assam Tea Farm is a legacy operation open to the public. Other tea plantations that welcome outsiders include the photogenic and educational Hohocha Tea and Hugosum Black Tea Garden, where visitors can book tea planting, tea tasting, and tea-and-food pairing experiences.
Elsewhere in Yuchi Township, the local government subdivision surrounding Sun Moon Lake, foothill crops such as bamboo shoots, zucchinis, eggplants, and mushrooms are cultivated. Some farms specialize in growing flowers that decorate homes, hotel lobbies, and temples throughout Taiwan.
Tourists traveling to Sun Moon Lake by regular bus will arrive in Shuishe, a little town on the lake’s northwestern shore. Before boarding a boat or a round-lake sightseeing bus, spending a half hour or so exploring Hanbi Peninsula is a good idea. Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s leader between 1949 and 1975, and his wife worshiped at the church here whenever they were in the area. It is open to the public and, like for most attractions mentioned in this article, admission is free.
Shuishe is also the best place to rent a bike. In July 2017, CNN included Sun Moon Lake’s bike path in a global list of 10 “Cycling routes that’ll take your breath away.”
However you get around, for those moving clockwise around the lake, the next stop is Wenwu Temple. What this edifice lacks in history – it is a youngster compared to Taiwan’s other famous temples – it more than makes up for with superb views over the water. It is also highly unusual in that it honors both Confucius, China’s most revered philosopher and literati, and Guan Gong, a great general posthumously promoted to godhood.
The only other lakeside settlement of significance is Ita Thao. Populated by a mix of indigenous Thao people and Taiwanese of Han Chinese descent, it has a good range of accommodation and eating options. The Thao, who nowadays number fewer than 850, believe that tiny Lalu Island in the western half of Sun Moon Lake is a sacred spot where their ancestors’ spirits dwell.
The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway is a 15-minute walk from the center of Ita Thao. Riding this cable car from the lakeshore, over the forest, and into the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is an intensely scenic experience. The ropeway is 1.88 km long, and a one-way trip takes 10 minutes.
The Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is a true two-in-one attraction. In addition to several thrilling roller coaster-type rides, it introduces the attire, music, dancing, and traditional architecture methods of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes.
If you continue your circumnavigation of the lake, you will come to Xuanzang Temple, Cien Pagoda, and then Xuanguang Temple. The first and third of these places were established to preserve Buddhist relics, including human bones believed to be those of Xuanzang, a Chinese monk. In the 7th century, Xuanzang made a perilous 16-year pilgrimage to India, where he gathered and translated religious texts.
Cien Pagoda – the top of which is exactly 1,000 meters above sea level – is a 46-meter-tall memorial commissioned by Chiang Kai-shek as a symbol of respect for his late mother. Even if you hate stairs, you will agree that the superb lake-and-mountain panoramas that can be enjoyed from the upper floors make the climb very worthwhile.
Parking a car near some of Sun Moon Lake’s attractions can be quite difficult, and in places the lakeside road is narrow and twisting. Buses provide a stress-free way to get there and get around.
The 6670 bus, which sets out from Taichung, picks up passengers at the city’s train and high-speed rail stations before heading to the town of Puli and then on to Sun Moon Lake. A few go on to Xiangshan Visitors Center or the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village.
On some services, the buses are wheelchair-accessible. There is no charge for folding bikes in bike bags in the luggage compartment. For full details, including fares and schedules that you can download and print out, go to www.taiwantrip.com.tw. This multilingual website describes Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus services throughout the country and is a great help when planning any Taiwan vacation.
The 6669 around-the-lake bus stops at every significant attraction between Shuishe and Xuanguang Temple. There are 10 services each day, and it is possible to get a package deal that includes a one-day jump-on/jump-off pass, a voucher for the boats that connect Ita Thao with Shuishe, and a roundtrip Taichung-Sun Moon Lake bus ticket. For details of these and other money-saving packages, some of which include bicycle rental (see www.sunmoonlaketrip.net).
Travelers seeking yet more inspiration can visit the website of Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area (www.sunmoonlake.gov.tw). For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, go to the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan).