The Ultimate Travel Guide: Sun Moon Lake
Hidden amongst the valleys of rolling green mountains, Sun Moon Lake is by far Taiwan’s most popular tourist attraction. Scattered along the shores of the enormous deep blue lake are pockets of rich indigenous culture and spiritual enlightenment which draw visitors from across the world. With the reputation it has, there’s little wonder why it draws such a crowd. So here’s the ultimate guide on how to explore Sun Moon Lake.
Wedged between the rolling hills of Yuchi Township, Nantou County, Sun Moon Lake is the largest body of water in Taiwan. The lake is split into two halves by a small island in its centre, with one side resembling a Sun, and the other a crescent moon, hence the name.
The two most populated areas are placed on either side of the lake; Shuishe and Ita Thao.
Shuishe, on the north-west shore of Sun Moon Lake, is where all visitors are first dropped off, and acts as a transportation hub and guide for the rest of the area. From here visitors can rent scooters and bicycles and even catch the bus that travels around the lake. Shuishe also has a bunch of restaurants and hotels other facilities.
The lake’s second tourist village, Ita Thao, is on the south-east shore, which also has more choice of accommodation and restaurants and is considered the best place to stay.
Sadly, there aren’t many options on how to get to the lake. The only direct way to get there is by bus, which you can do from many points across the country. But not to worry, it’s still pretty easy to get there.
Though no trains go directly to Sun Moon Lake, they do travel to the nearby city of Taichung. From there you can take bus number #6670 to the lake. These trains run regularly every day from 5:30 am to 9 pm.
|Normal Train||Time||High-Speed Rail (HSR)||Time|
|Taipei||230 NTD||2 hours 30 mins||700 NTD||50 mins|
|Tainan||395 NTD||2 hours 10 mins||650 NTD||45 mins|
|Kaohsiung||501 NTD||3 hours 10 mins||790 NTD||1 hour|
If you arrive at Taichung you can transfer to bus number #6670 which leaves every 30 minutes and takes 1½ hours, and cost 193 NTD.
A number of direct buses also leave from major cities and popular destinations straight towards Sun Moon Lake.
|Taipei||470 NTD||4 hours|
|Tainan||430 – 548 NTD||4 hours 50 mins (Transfer)|
|Kaosiung||510 – 588 NTD||5 hours 10 mins (Transfer)|
|Alishan||235 – 353 NTD||3 hours 40 mins|
Though there aren’t too many options to get around the lake, there are a couple of tried and tested methods.
Undoubtedly, the easiest and cheapest way to get around is the round-the-lake bus number #6669 which travels between Shuishe and Xuanguang Temple. The bus also stops at all major attractions, such as Wenwu Temple, Ita Thao, and Xuanzang Temple, which makes it a great way to see all the attractions in a short time.
BUT, be aware that it doesn’t run that often! The first bus is at 6:40 am and runs every 30 – 60 minutes until 5:30 pm. After that, your only option is to walk! A ticket costs 80 NTD per trip, but you can also use your EasyCard here.
If you’ve bought the Sun Moon Lake Pass (see below), then a one-day Round-the-Lake bus pass is included.
Obviously, in a destination centred around a lake, there must be a way to cross it! Taking a ferry between the lake’s three major piers, Shuishe, Xuanguang, and Ita Thao, is one of the most popular ways of touring Sun Moon Lake, and considered a must-do while you’re there.
Tickets cost 100 NTD to go from one pier to the next and 300 NTD for a trip around the entire lake. However, if you buy a Sun Moon Lake pass, a ticket is will be included (see below).
The bike path that leads around Sun Moon Lake is known as one of the most scenic in the world and is one of the most popular ways of exploring the area. Though the path only leads about halfway around the lake, it does pass by a few highlights such as Wenwu Temple and Longfeng Temple.
For the most part, the bike path is even and pretty easy to tackle, but the further you go the steeper the hills become. Just be aware that it can be a little tiring after a full day.
You can rent a bike for about 100 – 150 NTD per day from either Shuishe or Ita Thao. You can get a 20% discount for bike rentals in Shuishe when you buy a Sun Moon Lake Pass.
Sun Moon Lake Passes
As mentioned previously in this guide, you can buy Sun Moon Lake Passes which include a number of tickets and vouchers which end up saving you quite a bit! These passes can be bought beforehand at any 7/11 in Taiwan.
Which pass you should choose depends on what you plan to do. Personally, I’d recommend the 790 NTD ticket as it includes everything you’ll need! The tickets break down like this:
|Pass||Ropeway Voucher||Ferry Ticket||1-Day Bus Pass||Taichung-Sun Moon Lake |
|Formosan Aboriginal Culture |
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Sun Moon Lake is one of the best examples of Taiwan’s undeniable spirituality as well as their deep respect and admiration for their aboriginal roots and cultures. Thankfully the majority of the area’s attractions are held tight to the lake’s shoreline, making them easy to get to.
Of the many temples that surround Sun Moon Lake, Wenwu temple is undoubtedly the most iconic and most striking of all. Placed atop a hill overlooking the entire lake and its rolling mountain ranges, it’s by far the biggest highlight the lake has to offer.
The enormous Chinese structured compound that works its way up the hillside is guarded by two enormous vermilion lions, which has become one of the lake’s iconic symbols. It’s actually two temples in one, with 3 separate halls dedicated to 3 different gods, including the Gods of love and war.
Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Hidden amongst the valleys at the end of the Sun Moon Lake ropeway is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Park. For many, this is Sun Moon Lake’s main attraction, but for others, it’s the pinnacle of cultural appropriation.
The Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is a unique blend of amusement park and cultural museum…two things that don’t normally go together. The first half is made up of a theme park that has a small selection of rides across the spectrum.
The other half of the park is divided into different “villages”, each dedicated to a different aboriginal tribe that is native to Taiwan. Each village has a number of buildings built in traditional styles as well as various exhibitions on the different tribes. Each village also has an interactive activity where visitors can try their hand at archery, using blowpipes and playing traditional games.
Regular shows are held at the park which gives a brief introduction to the different tribes and shows some unique traits to their cultures, such as their native clothing as well as some traditional dances and songs.
Sun Moon Lake Ropeway
Though you have to take it to get to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, many people choose to ride the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway just for the experience! There’s little wonder why, as it gives a whole new perspective of the picturesque lake and its natural surroundings.
The ropeway leaves from Ita Thao and leads over the mountainside before going deeper into the valleys. Some cable cars come with glass bottoms to give an even better view (or worse if you’re afraid of heights!). A round trip costs 300 NTD, and tickets rides are also included if you buy tickets to the Formosan Culture Village.
Overlooking the lake from atop a hill near Shuishe, Longfeng Temple is yet another candidate for the most striking temple that surrounds the lake’s perimeter. Though the Taoist temple may be much smaller than Wenwu, it’s just as beautiful and equally important.
The temple is a favourite amongst hopeful romantic who comes to visit the temple’s main attraction, Yue Lao Shrine. Eager singles come to the shrine in their droves to pray for good fortune in their future love lives. Those already in a relationship shouldn’t pray, instead, they should leave offerings as thanks for finding your other half!
Ita Thao Shopping Street
It wouldn’t be a true Taiwanese tourist destination without its own night market! In the heart of the tourist centred village is the Ita Thao Shopping Street. When the Han people of China first came to Taiwan, many moved to Ita Thao for trade, as the area had a constant stream of tourists. Ever since it has been the lake’s tourist centre.
One end to the other has a wide selection of street snacks, souvenir stores and restaurants, and is the place to taste the region. Not only do they have many Taiwanese classics, but also some local Thao aboriginal dishes (see the Cuisine section to learn more!)
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Another iconic image of Sun Moon Lake is the upward stretching Ci’en Pagoda, which is visible from almost everywhere along the lake’s shore. The 43-meter pagoda was commissioned in 1971 by former president Chiang Kai-shek as a dedication to his late mother. Of course, visitors are able to walk to the top of the pagoda where they’ll be gifted with a spectacular panoramic view of the lake.
Nine Frogs Stack
Halfway between Wenwu Temple and Ita Thao is a wooden boardwalk that leads through bamboo forests down towards the lake’s shore. Over the boardwalk and poking out of the water is a stack of Nine Frogs stood in the middle of the lake. More than likely, a few of the frogs will be submerged in water, which was done on purpose!
The figures are unofficially used to measure the lake’s water level as well as used to estimate whether the country will have enough water in the coming winter. Once you’re done marvelling at the peculiar little frogs, you can follow the boardwalk along the shore towards Ita Thao.
Along with Shuishe and Ita Thao, Xuanguang is also worthy of its own pier for ferries to regularly arrive at. At the top of a series of stairs is yet another temple that overlooks the lake. Though it may not be as spectacular as the others on this list, nearby is a very unique attraction which brings thousands of visitors, eggs!
Taiwan is known for its love of tea eggs, which are simply eggs boiled in tea and some spices. They’re so popular you can find a warm pot full of them in every single convenience store in the country! The ones at Sun Moon Lake are considered some of the best, but the ones at this stall the best. Even on a bad day they apparently sell over 1000 eggs A DAY!!
The Thao Tribe Performance Center
Some may find the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village to be a bit tasteless and insensitive, but thankfully there is a more culturally sensitive option! The Thao Tribe Performance centre was built to preserve the customs of the tribes that lived around Sun Moon Lake, including the Thao and Bunun tribes, which are some of the smallest in Taiwan.
The centre has regular performances where tribes members show their dances and song. You can even experience the tribe’s unique form of music they make by pounding pestles into mortars called Chu Yin. If you’re really lucky you might be able to hear one of the few elders that are still able to speak the native Thao language!
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The last temple but by far not the least! Named after the holy monk of the Tang dynasty whose remains are held within, the temple has a long history of relocation. During the war between China and Japan, the Japanese took Monk Xuanzang’s remains away to their own temple before finally being returned in 1955. Be sure to take note of the “Wake up Bell” before the main gate!
Though there isn’t a crazy amount of places available, there is still a fair amount across the spectrum. Practically every form of accommodation is on either end of the lake at Ita Thao or Shuishe.
The bad news for budget travellers, there aren’t many cheap hostels. From what I can find, there are only 4 around the entire lake, with prices ranging from £15-20, which is just a little more expensive for Taiwan. There are more cheap hostels a couple of miles away in the town of Yunchi if you don’t mind being further from the lake.
There are much more mid- to high-end hotels and B&Bs on offer throughout both towns, some of which are even cheaper than hostels! No matter where you stay, you’ll be right amongst convenience with some beautiful views and will have the lake’s shore on your doorstep.
A guide of Sun Moon Lake would be incomplete without mentioning food, and of course, most of Taiwan’s delicacies are found within its night markets. Undoubtedly, one of the best are Fan Fan Chicken Wings, which are a unique creation of the local Thao tribe. They’re de-boned and stuffed with rice before being covered with spring onions, cucumber and chillies. Or why not try some Wild Boar Sausages, another aboriginal favourite.
You should also walk in the footsteps of Taiwan’s former leader and try the President Fish. Also known as the Aruzay, they breed extensively in the lake, and thus has always been a tribal staple. When former President Chiang Kai-shek visited the lake, he was served with this fish, hence the name.
Also for the sweet-toothed amongst you, try some fire-roasted Millet Mochi. They’re made with a special type of millet that is unique to the Thao tribe. The best ones come from Ah Bu Sha Meng An Thao Tribe traditional food.
Taiwan is a nation of tea-lovers, and Sun Moon Lake is especially known for its black tea. More specifically they’re known for Assam Red Tea, which can be found throughout the market!