Sun Moon Lake: Nature’s Gift to Taiwan

September 1, 2017 Updated: October 8, 2018

Nestled among mountains, an idyllic refuge lies at the center of the island nation of Taiwan. Like a classical Chinese landscape painting, Sun Moon Lake emanates a tranquil beauty, with its clear waters set against a backdrop of emerald peaks.

Sun Moon Lake’s name comes from its unique shape: The eastern part resembles a round sun, while the western part looks like a crescent moon.

Besides its natural beauty, Sun Moon Lake is also a thriving center of aboriginal life in Taiwan. In the middle of the lake sits Lalu Island, an ancient settlement of the Thao tribe, one of Taiwan’s many ethnic minorities.

According to legend, the ancestors of the Thao people first discovered Sun Moon Lake while chasing a rare white deer through the surrounding mountains. Finding the lake was not only beautiful but also filled with fish, the Thao people resettled their tribe there. A marble statue now sits on Lalu Island, immortalizing the white deer of the story.

The Thao people now mainly live in Ita Thao, a village next to Sun Moon Lake dotted with shops selling local handicrafts, as well as eateries offering local foods. There’s a system of cable cars that carry visitors over mountain tops to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, which showcases the cultural heritage of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

The area around Sun Moon Lake also features traditional Chinese architecture, including several temples built in the styles of different Chinese dynasties. Among them is Xuanguang Temple, which enshrines the renowned Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who lived during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century. His pilgrimage to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts inspired the classic Chinese story “Journey to the West.”

Right outside Xuanguang Temple is Jin Men Grandma’s Tea Eggs, the famous street stall selling braised tea eggs. Its owner, who has been selling them for 50 years, once said in an interview that she can sell up to 4,000 eggs a day. She meticulously cracks the boiled eggs and braises them in Assam tea, mushrooms, and herbs before putting them in the fridge to soak in the delicious flavors. This humble vendor is just one of the area’s many street stalls offering mouthwatering treats, often with some distinctive local flare.

Sun Moon Lake, once a quiet refuge, now frequently bustles with activity as locals and foreigners alike come to the lake to boat, bike, or hike while relishing in the picturesque scenery and the area’s rich cultural heritage.

Wenwu Temple

Wenwu Temple. (Jedsada Kiatpornmongkol/Shutterstock)
Wenwu Temple. (Jedsada Kiatpornmongkol/Shutterstock)

Perhaps the most well-known temple next to Sun Moon Lake, the imposing structure of Wenwu Temple sits on the northern side of the lake, guarded by two vermillion stone lions. The front hall of the temple venerates the Civil God of Wealth and the God of Literature; the central hall enshrines the God of War and the celebrated Chinese warrior Yue Fei; and the rear hall—known as the Hall of Great Achievements—is devoted to the wise sage Confucius.

Visitors can climb the 366 steps—symbolizing the days in a year (including the extra day in leap years)—to the top of the temple for breathtaking views of the lake. Lining the path are numerous wind chimes, placed by visitors seeking blessings from divinities.

Biking Around the Lake

Sun Moon Lake before sunrise. (Ivy Weng/Shutterstock)
Sun Moon Lake before sunrise. (Ivy Weng/Shutterstock)

Sun Moon Lake boasts some of the world’s most beautiful biking routes, ranking as one of CNN’s 10 best cycling routes in 2017. The main path brings bikers around the lake and past several temples and cultural sites.

A massive cycling festival, the 2017 Sun Moon Lake Come! Bikeday event, will be held on Nov. 11 and 12, with biking activities for both toddlers and adults. There are three routes, including a family-friendly 6-mile route, a 19-mile-route around the lake’s perimeter, and a 50-mile ride to Tataka, the highest mountain in Taiwan. And to top it off, there’s a bike competition for toddlers between ages 2 and 6.

To sign up, call +886-2-8919-3595, or email service@cyclist.org.tw

Antique Assam Tea Farm

Assam black tea was first brought to Taiwan from India in the 1920s during the Japanese colonial era, and the locals soon found that the area’s mild climate was perfect for cultivating Assam black tea. The Antique Assam Tea Farm was once a factory with over 200 workers. Now, it’s been transformed into a historical and cultural site that invites visitors to sample teas and explore the art of tea-making.

Ci En Pagoda

The Ci En Pagoda.(Shutterstock)
The Ci En Pagoda.(Shutterstock)

The most visible monument at Sun Moon Lake is the towering Ci En Pagoda, built by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in honor of his mother. Sitting on the Shabalan Mountain, its upper tip is 3,281 feet above sea level (exactly 1,000 meters). After mounting the summit, visitors can sound the great drum (believed to grant a year of good fortune) and relish in panoramic views of Sun Moon Lake and the surrounding mountains.