From Hualien we headed to another famous attraction in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake. We almost decided against going. The first reason is that it is kind of a pain in the ass to get to. As you can see from the map below, even though Sun Moon Lake isn’t that far from Hualien as the crow flies, there is no good train or car route through the middle of Taiwan because of the mountains that run through the middle of the country. The second reason is that we were reading mixed reviews about Sun Moon Lake on TripAdvisor and other websites. The pictures we saw while researching didn’t seem like anything special, kind of like Lake Tahoe but not as pretty. A lot of websites also said that it was one of the top 3 things to see in Taiwan though. We ended up deciding to leave early from Hualien to get to Sun Moon Lake by sunset. The plan was that once we arrive at Sun Moon Lake, we’d take a couple pictures, walk around the lake and then leave the next morning to Alishan, our next stop.
We took a 10:15AM train leaving Hualien. The times that Google gives above are not accurate for our trip. It took us about 4.5 hours by train to get from Hualien to Taichung (through Taipei) then from Taichung we took a bus for an hour to Puli and then another bus for 30-40 minutes from Puli to Sun Moon Lake Shueishe Station. We almost missed the bus from Puli to Sun Moon Lake but luckily a really nice lady saw that we were about to miss the bus and directed us to the correct bus. Taiwanese people are the best! We could have made it easier by taking a direct bus to Sun Moon Lake from the high speed rail (HSR) station in Taichung but we were traveling on the slower TRA line which has a different station in Taichung. There are only two daily buses that leave from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan, one at 8AM and one at 9AM. We found out once we got to Sun Moon Lake that both were sold out for tomorrow so we’d be staying in Sun Moon Lake an extra day. We were pretty bummed about it, but we rolled with the punches and got the 8AM bus ticket for the day after. It’s a good thing we got to Shueishe when we did because we got the last bus (5:20 PM) that would take us from Shueishe to Ita Thao, which is on the other side of the lake where we would be staying.
We checked in to our place, which was decent, and then walked down to the Ita Thao pier. It was around sunset, we took a couple pictures of the lake and then went looking for dinner. The town is pretty small so there is only one real street with a bunch of restaurants. One of the good things about Taiwan street food is that you can see the food being prepared before you sit down. We found one where people were eating and their food looked pretty good so we stopped there. We ordered a pork noodle dish and a pork rice dish. This was one of the best dishes we’ve had so far and it was only $160 NTD (about $5 USD) for both of us.
There was an ice cream stand nearby and I ordered what I thought was a mint chocolate chip sundae but ended up being a crepe with mint chocolate chip Sundae which apparently took about 10 minutes to make. It was good though. Afterwards, we went back to the room to research what we were going to do tomorrow with our extra day in Sun Moon Lake and to see if we could find a cheaper room to stay in for the extra night. Unfortunately, Sun Moon Lake is in high demand and the rooms are pretty expensive for Taiwan. We ended up staying an extra night at our hotel for about $50 USD but it is definitely not worth that. The visitor center at Sun Moon Lake has a map with a number of landmarks around the lake (see above). There is also an Around-the-Lake bus that takes you to most of these attractions even though the bus doesn’t go all the way around the lake. We bought an all day pass for the Around-the-Lake bus for $80 NTD (less than $3 USD).
We started the day at Wenwu Temple, a temple overlooking the lake venerating both the patron gods of civil and martial affairs. The Temple looks pretty cool from the main road surrounding the lake but looks similar to other temples we’ve seen in Taiwan. However, as we walked further and further into the temple, we found out just how impressive this temple is. The temple extends back and up which gives you better and better views of the lake. It also has beautiful sculptures, fountains, and calligraphy throughout. We had a really nice day so the view from the top of the temple was pretty spectacular. This was a great way to start the day and made us feel lucky that we got stuck another day in Sun Moon Lake because otherwise we would have missed seeing this temple. We next wanted to see the Ci’en Pagoda on the other side of the lake but we accidently missed the stop and ended up at the Syuenguang Temple which is the last stop for the bus. This temple was way more crowded than the Wenwu temple for some reason. I guess we just happened to get there when a bunch of tour groups stopped there but this temple wasn’t that impressive and the views were not as good as Wenwu. We found a path through the woods that would take us to the Syuenzang Temple, another landmark along the lake. This was only an 850m hike but it was pretty steep uphill and it was getting pretty hot out so it made the hike tougher.
The Syuenzang Temple was also not that impressive of a structure but it did have a nice vista section overlooking the lake. We rested up and took in the view.
We grabbed lunch around the Shueishe station then went to the Peacock Garden. We got pretty close to the peacocks but probably didn’t need to spend more than 10 minutes there. Unfortunately, the bus comes by every 40-50 minutes so some of the day was wasted waiting for the bus. You could really bang out all the sites around the lake in one day if you rented a car or a good bike. We saw a number of cyclists along the road and if I were to return, I would rent a bike and do the entire loop. A complete loop around the lake is 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) and has some challenging hills and winding roads. After the Peacock Garden, we went to the Ci’en Pagoda which required a 600m hike up to the Pagoda.
The pagoda was pretty cool from the exterior and when we got to the top there is a nice view of the Lake. Unfortunately, it was late afternoon and the clouds were coming in so the pictures weren’t as impressive as earlier in the day. One of the main attractions we didn’t do was the cable ropeway (gondola) that takes you us above the lake for a nice view. There are a number of great views of the Lake from the other landmarks so we didn’t think it was worth it but if you don’t want to do as much hiking and want a great view of the lake then this is an option. We caught one of the last buses back to Ita Thao, showered up and went out for dinner. We saw another restaurant along the strip that had pictures of the food that looked good and had another delicious meal.
We were very pleasantly surprised with Sun Moon Lake. You probably don’t need more than a full day there but it is definitely worth seeing, especially if you get a nice day. If you leave from Taipei, it’s not a bad trip and you can cut down on the travel time by getting the high-speed train to Taichung, although it’s twice the price. All the sites around the lake are free, which is nice. One last thing, don’t try to go swimming in the lake. The guys we met on the river in Taroko told us that all the sewage from the towns around the lake goes directly into the lake so the lake is really dirty. You may be tempted because of the heat, but you won’t see anyone else doing it and that’s the reason.
We had to catch the first around the lake bus at 7am to Shueishe station so that we could catch the 8am bus to Alishan. When we got on the 8am bus we realized why it was sold out the day before. It was a pretty small bus that held only about 20 people. The bus ride was about 3.5 hours through some more windy roads and mountains. We stopped 3 times along the way and got to Alishan around 11:30 AM.
See the full gallery of here: Sun Moon Lake.