The Ultimate Travel Itinerary: Sun Moon Lake in 2 Days
Of the many stunning attractions scattered amongst the island of Taiwan, in the eyes of locals, Sun Moon Lake is the pinnacle tourist destination! There’s little wonder why, as a myriad of beautifully adorned temples stand amongst awe-inspiring landscapes and a few of the country’s last remaining aboriginal tribes. Whether you prefer aesthetic relaxation or a cultural adrenaline rush, Sun Moon Lake has plenty to add to your itinerary!
You have not truly been to Taiwan until you’ve travelled along the shoreline of this iconic spot! So in that case, let me show you the perfect itinerary for your time in Sun Moon Lake!
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Your adventure begins as soon as you arrive at the lake! Buses arriving at the lake will drop you off at Shuishe port, which also marks the beginning of your route for day 1. From here you can take a shuttle bus around the perimeter of the lake to some of the next stops. Better yet, you can walk or even rent a bicycle to travel around the boardwalk which leads around the shoreline.
Before making your way around the lake, it’s worth taking a brief detour to one of the many temples that surround its perimeter. Not only is Longfeng Temple one of the most grandly designed in the area, but it also provides one of the best views you can get back across the lake!
Despite the small size of the Taoist temple, it certainly packs a big punch! Positively gleaming with intricate designs of mythical creatures that adorn everything from the courtyard floor to the temple’s roof! Longfeng also happens to be a favourite amongst hopeful romantics who come to visit the temple’s main attraction, Yue Lao Shrine. Eager singles come in their droves to pray to the god of love for good fortune in their future relationships. Those already in love shouldn’t pray! Instead, they should leave offerings as thank you for Yue Lao’s help!
Now it’s time to get back on the route, and no better place to start than where every single visitor to Sun Moon Lake starts their journey. The port of Shuishe acts as the central hub of the region as it’s not only where long distances buses arrive, but the port also has a large congregation of hotels, restaurants and bike rentals too. It also has a decent little street of street stalls, snacks and souvenirs shops to fit all your touristy needs!
The port also marks the beginning of the boardwalk that leads around the shoreline towards the town of Ita Thao on the opposite side of the lake. Most choose to walk or cycle (which you can rent in several places in Shuishe) around the entire route. If you’re not the physical activity type, then you can also rent a scooter or even catch the single bus that travels around the lake’s perimeter.
For many, Wenwu Temple is the iconic symbol of Sun Moon Lake. Situated high amongst the incredible mountain ranges, the megalithic temple structure overlooks the lake and gives some commanding spirituality to the surrounding area! It’s one of the few structures you’ll see no matter where you are!
The greeting vermillion lions that mark the entrance are synonymous with both the temple and the lake itself, and is only an example of what’s to come! The temple itself is made up of 3 separate halls that work their way up the hillside, each one grander than the last. Each hall is dedicated to a different diety, including the gods of love and war, all of which have mountains of offerings surrounding their main alters.
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Halfway between Wenwu Temple and Ita Thao, the wooden boardwalk leads through a bamboo forest to a peculiar art piece that pokes out of the surface of the water. A stone’s throw away from the shoreline is an ascending stack of nine frogs sitting atop one another. Chances are you won’t be able to see them all, as most will be submerged in water! Though you might think that was a dreadful design error, it was actually done on purpose!
The figures are unofficially used to measure the lake’s water level and used to estimate whether the country will have enough water for the coming winter. Though it’s not all that accurate, Taiwanese are particularly superstitious, thus these frogs might as well be the weather forecast! Once you’re done marvelling at the quirky little frogs, you can keep following the boardwalk towards Ita Thao.
Ita Thao Shopping Street
Though Shuishe may be the central hub, Ita Thao has always been the tourist centre. When the Han people of China first arrived in Taiwan, many moved to Ita Thao for trade, as the area had a constant stream of tourists, and thus cemented its role as a travellers’ hub. As the town also has one of the lake’s three ports, Ita Thao is also used as a hub to get to the surrounding landmarks and attractions.
Ita Thao is also where you’ll find the biggest gathering of hotels, restaurants and nick-nack stores. Most importantly, Ita Thao also has the region’s only night market, a vital feature of any Taiwanese town! Inside you’ll find a myriad of local street snacks and even some traditional Thao tribal dishes!
Your accommodation for the night will most likely be here in Ita Thao, thus it’s the perfect place to end your day! It also happens the be the perfect place to start off the second day of your Sun Moon Lake itinerary!
For the second day of your Sun Moon Lake itinerary, you have a LOT of things to cover in a short amount of time! So get yourself out of bed and get a move on!
Sun Moon Lake Ropeway
Sun Moon Lake certainly isn’t short of breathtaking views, but there are a few better ways to experience it than on the ropeway! It gives a whole new perspective of the picturesque lake in all its glory and even extends further across the mountain ranges into the heart of the tribal country! Some cable cars even 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 are included if you buy tickets to the Formosan Culture Village. You may as well take that deal, as you’re heading there anyway!
Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Hidden amongst the valleys at the end of the ropeway is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Park. For many, this is Sun Moon Lake’s main attraction, but for others, it’s a tragic example of cultural appropriation, that’s for you to decide!
The Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village is a unique blend of an amusement park crossed with a cultural museum. The first half consists of a typical theme park with a small selection of rides across the spectrum. The other half of the park is divided into different “villages”, each dedicated to one of the many aboriginal tribes that are native to Taiwan.
Each village gives a brief crash course on the different tribes, their native clothing and some of their unique cultural traits through the use of exhibitions. The park also holds regular shows which give a short introduction to the different tribes by showing their traditional dances, tribal practices and unique songs. For short-term visitors to Taiwan, it’s a great way of getting a quick look at the island’s many different tribes!
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If you found the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village to be a bit tasteless and insensitive, then not to worry, you have other options! The Thao Tribe Performance centre was built to preserve and promote 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.
Along with numerous exhibitions, the centre has regular performances by tribal members that showcase their dances and traditional songs. If you’re really lucky you might be able to hear a few elders speaking the native Thao language, a rare treat indeed!
Ride a Ferry
Now that you’ve spent plenty of time skirting around the shores of the lake, now it’s finally time to get on the water! Ita Thao has one of the major ports that surround Sun Moon Lake, which can be used to travel between the port at Shuishe and also to the nearby Xuanguang Temple, which happens to be your next stop!
The only annoying thing is that the ferries only travel counter-clockwise, meaning you’ll have to go to Shuishe first before heading to Xuanguang. However don’t fret, it’s more time for you to picture yourself living the high life as you cruise over the water and enjoy the landscape from a different perspective. There are several different companies that sell tickets which usually hover around the NT$300 mark. If you purchase one of the many Sun Moon Lake passes, then a ticket might be included.
Leading from the port is a long series of stairs that leads to a very humble temple overlooking the lake. Though it may not be as spectacular as the others on this list, Xuanguang is a tasteful and tranquil affair. As far as many are concerned, the real attraction is next to the port and brings thousands of visitors. What could it be? Well, nothing less than some freshly boiled eggs!
Taiwan is known for its love of tea eggs, which are boiled in a mix of tea and spices. Though you’ll find them in every convenience store in Taiwan, the ones at Sun Moon Lake are some of the best. And of the lake’s many freshly brewed eggs, the ones from the humble stall at Xuanguang are the all-time best. Even on a bad day they apparently sell over 1000 eggs!!
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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 returning them in 1955. Despite its significance, it’s one of the lesser-visited temples around the lake, so you’ll be certain to avoid the crowds!
The last stop on your itinerary is yet another icon of Sun Moon Lake, the high-rising Ci’en Pagoda. Visible from almost every point 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. Luckily visitors can walk to the top of the pagoda for a spectacular panoramic view of the lake. Great way to top off an incredible journey to Taiwan’s favourite spot!
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.