A unique experience of Taiwan’s scenic beauty
Sun Moon Lake in Nantou has been a lodestar tourist destination of Taiwan for many decades. Tourists include Sun Moon Lake in their Taiwan travel itinerary for its stunning scenery, its amazing lake tours, its fun attractions, and for its luxe accommodation options (including The Lalu Sun Moon Lake).
Yet up to just 15 years ago the visitor experience here was largely restricted to a narrow range of options – static views of the pretty lake from the shore, tour-boat rides, and visits to a limited number of cultural attractions.
Today the options menu is far deeper and richer, calling for repeated visits to the lake and surrounding area and making each an experience wholly different from those prior, and those yet to come.
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This area was the epicentre of Taiwan’s great 921 Earthquake in 1999, which left the people reeling. The Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area was established soon after and today drives the local economy with tourism.
The lake is in the mountains just about in the exact centre of the island, and just about in the exact centre of Nantou, Taiwan’s sole landlocked county. If driving, from Taipei it is reached in about 2.5 hours, via National Freeway 1 or 3 and then 6, then Provincial Highway 21.
Boats launch from four points around the lake: Shuishe, Ita Thao, Xuanguang Temple, and Zhaowe (the last for group excursions only). Sun Moon Lake tour passes are available at the ticket booths right at the piers. A standard outing is a visit to Ita Thao if launching from Shuishe (and vice-versa), with a visit to Xuanguang Temple and a swing around iconic Lalu Island.
Passengers are entertained with broadcast info and stories in Chinese. Service is 8:50am to 5pm; bicycles can be brought on board. Fares are stage-based, NT$100 per stage, NT$300 for a full lake tour (ie, back to original spot). The electric boats are in the minority, with numbers steadily growing; choosing one might entail a bit of a longer wait than normal.
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The much-praised gondola service takes you on a pulse-lifting 1.8km aerial ride from lakeside to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, sailing over two mountain-ridge crests. A combined gondola/FACV ticket brings a significant discount. FACV is a large theme park with amusement rides, a European Garden area and, very popular with international tourists, an Aboriginal Villages section that celebrates Taiwan’s indigenous peoples with scores of first-rate architectural replicas, song-and-dance shows, and traditional-culture demos.
Mt Maolan Trail is a traverse scenic route. The clearly marked entrance (Chinese/English) is off the round-lake highway, a few hundred meters west of the Shuishe Visitor Center. About 3km long, save for the timber-staircase section, it is in fact a narrow paved road that leads up past the neat fields of the Tea Research and Extension Station, established by the Japanese when they ruled Taiwan from 1895-1945, to a mountaintop weather station. This was where Assam black tea, today a favourite SML souvenir purchase, was introduced to Taiwan.
Near the trailhead you pass a renovated old-style cypress-built Japanese worker dormitories. There are info boards with good English along the way, and superb sweeping views along the upper section. The crest is a prime choice for SML sunrise viewing, and fireflies come out in splendid numbers in April.
The monumental Wenwu Temple, on the north side of the lake, was built in China’s Northern Dynasties style (386-582 AD). It was severely damaged in the 921 Earthquake but today surpasses its former glory. It has a distinctive, prominent imperial-yellow glazed-tile roofing draws the from all round the lake. “Wen” and “Wu” mean “civil” and “martial”; the temple is dedicated to scholar Confucius and to warriors Guan Gong and Yue Fei, major figures in Chinese history.
By way of example, teachers and civil servants will make offerings to the former, policemen and businessmen to the latter. The two giant entrance-guardian stone lions are claimed as Taiwan’s largest.
Xuanguang Temple, a short walk from Xuanguang Pier, enshrines a statue of the famous monk Xuangzhang, sent to India by Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to learn about Buddhism and bring back scriptures. His sojourn forms the core of the adventures related in the classic Journey to the West.
It is built in Tang Dynasty style, featuring a pure-white exterior and pretty landscaped grounds, and among the scared items inside is a parietal-bone relic of Master Xuanzang and a golden Sakayamuni Buddha statue.
Qinglong Hiking Trail begins near the pier and leads to Xuanzang Temple Ci’en Pagoda, visible from around the lake and with sweeping views of the lake. Ci’en Pagoda faces mainland China and was built by a homesick Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his mother. By climbing the pagoda you earn the right to bang the great drum at the top, ensuring a year’s good fortune. The trail is about 1.5km; leave 3 hours (return), not including stops.
Ita Thao is the main settlement of the Thao people, one of the smallest of Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Among its scores of eateries and tourist-oriented retail outlets are a good number selling indigenous fare and handicrafts. The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway is along the Ita Thao Lakeside Trail, a picturesque forest-backed, bay-fronted 500m boardwalk pathway connecting village and cable-car station.
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Thao-theme song-and-dance performances, with elements from Taiwan’s other tribes incorporated, are staged daily at 11:20am, 2:20pm, and 5:20pm, with an additional show at 4:20pm on weekends/national holidays. A special outdoor performance is also staged at 10:20am in the Ita Thao Pier plaza on weekends/holidays.
Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan’s major production for Assam black tea. It is also a key producer of electric power. The Mingtan Power Station and Daguan Power Station is located on the Shuili River, far below the lake.
The Mingtan grounds are open to the public , with prime photo-shoot spots over the V-shaped reservoir, where a side river joins in, backed by jagged, soaring riverside cliffs. Daguan, where great water pipes streak down the mountainside in a giant postmodernist landscape artwork, offers both visitor center and plant access.
In the center, you’ll see how amost a century ago the Japanese dammed the Sun Moon Lake basin and raised its waters, building the Jiji Line, Taiwan’s longest branch rail line, to haul in the equipment and materials for the massive endeavour, Taiwan’s first hydro-dam project. In the public-access plant you’ll inspect some of the equipment, heritage pieces still at work – German boilers marked “J.M Voith 1923” and US-made generations marked “GE Co., Schenectady, N.Y.”
Photogenic Checheng village sits just below the Mingtan dam. The rail-line terminus bristles with attractive wood-built structures. In the Qing Dynasty, this was a camphor-production settlement. The Japanese first built a push-trolley railway for sugarcane and people transport, then replaced it with the Jiji Line. Logging was key thereafter, local operations eventually shut down in the 1980s. Today the tow is a popular tourist destination.
Visit the sprawling, airy Checheng Wood Museum, in the old timber mill, which has displays with good English on Checheng’s past and different types of wood. DIY wood-handicraft sessions are also held. The quaint Checheng Railway Station is a replica in the classic Japanese rural architectural style. The town’s graceful boardwalk-rimmed pond is the original timber storage pond; logs stored in water release resins faster, augmenting preservation.
There is a regular Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus service to Shuishe Visitor Information Center from Taichung’s rail-way/High Speed Rail stations. Catch the bus at the latter’s ground-level bus terminal. Taomi Eco Village is passed on the way; tell the driver in advance if you want to get off there. There’s also regular round-the-lake shuttle service from the visitor center at Shuishe (hop on/hop off, NT$80 day pass, bike racks on buses), as well as shuttle service to/from Checheng.
A number of passes have been designed that give you discounts at popular SML, tourist destinations, on transportation, on shopping, etc. These are available at the national scenic area visitor centers. Find out more information here.
Check out Klook’s A Day at Sun Moon Lake tour guide. Hosted by a knowledgable tour guide, you’ll experience: