Sun Moon Lake has been the Taiwan of my dreams. Ever since I set my gaze on pictures of it some years ago – of its placid waters, it’s lofty mountain ranges at the background which are softened by the descending fog, blanketting the base – it has always been on my mind.
Before the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, I made this travel to Sun Moon Lake and enjoyed a 2-day stay in one of the cabin hostels along the lake. I had a very early start that day: a pre-dawn flight to Taipei. Afterwhich, I took a 2-hour intercity bus going to Taichung, then transferred to a different bus which goes directly to Sun Moon Lake in Nantou. I arrived some time mid-afternoon and the rest of the day was spent exploring the town, Shuishe.
Shuishe is the base town for tourists exploring the attractions around Sun Moon Lake. This is where most of the commercial establishments and accomodations are. Nevertheless, it was nothing short of lovely. At eye level, the town has the most dreamy view of the lake especially around twilight, when the sky becomes bright orange and purple and the fog descends over the surface the water. Make sure you enjoy this view while walking along the Hanbi trail off right next to the pier. And while you are at it, bring a hot coffee or milk tea and some grilled wild pig sausage with you.
The next day was spent exploring some of the attractions around the lake. There are aplenty so I only chose which I think I’ll like the best. I went first to Xuanzang Temple and the nearby Ci’en Pagoda which is several meters uphill. The hike was worth it. The pagoda is majestic and the temple grounds are laid with pristine white pebbles. A carefully manicured garden completes the entire ensemble which makes the pagoda a perfect place of respite from all that hiking breathlessness. Up to the topmost floor of the pagoda is a balcony where an unobstructed 360 degree view of the lake beholds before your eyes. It was a breathtaking sight.
I went next to Ita Thao, the nearest town from the temple. If you look at the map this town is at the opposite bank where Shuishe is. From Xuanzang Temple, the way to the town is going back to Shuishe but the bus doesn’t return in an hour so I walked instead which was a good choice since the path is mostly downhill. It was a no-sweat, 40-minute hike. Right before reaching Ita Thao, a road diverged left, off the highway, which took me to a quaint fishermen’s village. I also be passed by a scenic view of mangrove forest along the way before eventually reaching Ita Thao’s old streets.
Ita Thao was heavily advertised as a legit aboriginal village of the domestic tribe of the same name. However, quite a disappointment, the place is a big tourist trap. It is does not differ really from the usual street markets in Taipei. But be keen however on shops selling aborigine snacks and take a bite. For all its worth, this could be your only authentic Ita Thao take away.
I used my one-way boat ride across the lake voucher to take me back to Shuishe. This is part of the one-day Sun Moon Lake pass package that I bought at Taichung. The pass also includes a voucher of bike rental which I have no plans of availing. But after crossing the lake, I happen to pass a bike rental shop and the lady there happened to see me holding the vouchers. She approached me and offered me the bike rental. Good thing cause I do not have any itinerary in mind for the rest of the day.
The first two hours of the bus is included in the voucher and every hour or a fraction of it in excess you get to pay it for a fee once you return the bike. The lady told me which road to start and guided me on the path to take. The trip is on the opposite side of the road past my cabin taking me to Xiangshan Visitor center.
I’d say if I had not taken the bike rental, that would be the biggest regret of my life! The biking path around the lake offered the most scenic views. I had read later on that the biking path around Sun Moon Lake is one of the top 5 most scenic biking paths in the whole world! The path went over the side of the road, and later on, some parts over the water! Autumn trees with their orange leaves line along the path. The path later on takes you to thick clump of trees. The afternoon sun wafting in and out of their leaves. It felt like I’m in a romantic scene in a movie. Slowly, the mountains at the background become clearer and an island in the middle of the lake which is called Lalu comes into view. This was considered a holy place of the aboriginal settlers who lived here.
I could have stopped at Xiangshan Visitor Center where people congregate to enjoy the park and savor the fresh breeze coming from the lake but I decided to go on further till the road turned steeply uphill. That’s when I was reminded of the 2 hour limit. I went back but decided to stop by at Xiangshan Scenic Outlook where I get to have the clearest view of the lake and the nearby Lalu island. At some point before I reached it, my bike crashed to a major bump on the road and my camera which was on the bike basket in front went flying off and the lens broke off when it hit the road. I only took pictures from my mobile phone afterwards.
I think I spent around 2 and a half hours circling the lake but the lady did not charge me an extra fee when I returned the bike. By that time then it was already 5pm and twilight is closing in. I had dinner at the nearby 7-11 and decided to call it a day. On my way home, I went back to the park nearby and took a last glimpse of the lake – to savor the view of its placid waters, the purple orange skies and the descending fog over the mountains and forced this image to be forever etched in my memory.
1. Coming from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, take the intercity bus from Terminal 1 to Taichung. The final bus stop is at Taichung Railway Station. Alternately, you can take the Aiport MRT from the airport to Taoyuan HSR. Take the HSR from Taoyuan Station to Taichung Station. Journey is less than an hour. In Taichung HSR station, head down to the basement floor and look for the bus platform going to Sun Moon Lake.
2. Since I took the former, from Taichung Tailway Station, walk a few blocks towards Gancheng Station where the Sun Moon Lake buses are. Gancheng station is not a physical terminus. It’s just a place where several Nantou-based buses are parked. You will know exactly that you’ve reached the right place when you are being approached by touts selling day passes to Sun Moon Lake.
I bought the day voucher which costs 600NTD. It included a 2-way trip from Sun Moon Lake to Taichung and back (either at Taiwan Railway or THSR), one-day unlimited bus ride aroud Sun Moon Lake, a ferry ride to either Shuishe or Ita Thao piers and a 2-hr biking rental along Sun Moon Lake biking path.
3. While in Sun Moon Lake, your source of information will be the Tourist Information Center which is also where the bus from Taichung stops. The bus terminus is just in front, as well as the bus schedules of round-the-lake bus, buses going back to Taichung and buses going to Alishan.