Sun Moon Lake is at 748 meters above sea level, which is 240 meters higher than Taipei 1O1. It's the largest alpine lake in Taiwan.
It's hard to imagine that this lake has been the water reservoir of the largest hydropower plant in Taiwan since the Japanese colonial era. In its heyday, it provided 37% of the total electricity in Taiwan.
Once you travel through long mountain roads to get to Sun Moon Lake, you'll be surprised to see such gorgeous lake and mountain scenery.
The native Taiwanese tribe Ita Thao has lived here for many generations. Their ancestors were probably just as surprised as you when they saw Sun Moon Lake.
According to the legend of Thao, their ancestors initially lived in a more southern area. They found this alpine lake while chasing a large white deer all the way from A-li-shan.
The Thao tribe has since inhabited this secret place on the mountain due to the abundant water and food. Sun Moon Lake and "Lalu Island" became the sacred places for the Thao tribe.
While visiting these lively tourist attractions, understanding the history behind the aborigines and the land will help you calmly experience the beauty of Sun Moon Lake in its primitive form without feeling lost among the abundant hotels, restaurants, cycling groups and yachts.
We recommend that you start your journey by enjoying the service of any of the three Sun Moon Lake visitor centers established by Taiwan Tourism Bureau.
Xiang-shan Tourist Center
Although each visitor center has its uniqueness, the most distinctive one is the Xiang-shan Visitor Center with its spectacular architecture. It's referred to as the most beautiful visitor center in Taiwan.
Entering Sun Moon Lake from Provincial Highway 21 on the west side, you'll come across Xiang-shan Tourist Center.
This is the work of Japanese architect Norihiko Dan in 2003. A strong emphasis was put on the harmony between the architecture and the land. You can feast your eyes on the panorama of Sun Moon Lake after climbing the stairs.
The lakeside pond where the building faces is a must-see. It imitates the effects of Infinity Pool. Sitting next to the pond, you can enjoy the pond view connecting to the lake.
Such scenery used to be accessible only in the lobby of Lalu, Sun Moon Lake Luxury Hotel; you can now get a cup of coffee on the lakeside across from the hotel and indulge in the same scenery.
Shuishe Visitor Center
Continuing forward, you'll arrive at Shuishe Visitor Center. This is the main pier for round-the-lake yachts. CNN did a news coverage on Sun Moon Lake Bike Path here, which is one of the ten most beautiful bike trails in the world.
Sun Moon Lake Shuishe Pier is the transshipment hub with a spacious parking lot. You can board the yacht to go on a lake tour from here.
The yachts stop at 3 of the 4 piers, allowing you to disembark to visit each tourist attraction.
Alternatively, you can get to all the main attractions on your own from Shuishe Pier. Although it's very crowded here, it's still quite comfy sitting on the chair by the pier. We went to the restaurant there and ordered some fresh juice. Watching the scenery from the inside is even more relaxing.
Looking across from here, you'll see a small island in the lake. That's the sacred Lalu Island for the Thao tribe. Legend has it that their ancestors' spirit rests in peace there.
There is also the sacred mountain for the Thao tribe Shuishe Mountain behind Xuanzang Temple if you look a bit further. Due to its 2059-meter elevation, a round trip takes at least 8 hours.
You can rent a bicycle here at Shuishe Pier. The round-the-lake bike path is bustling and perfectly suited for children.
Lalu, Sun Moon Lake Hotel
Going south along Hanbi Trail, you'll come across Lalu, Sun Moon Lake Hotel and a memorial hall.
Lalu is a famous landmark and hotel, originally built by a Japanese businessman. It eventually became a private travel lodge for Chiang Kai-shek. After being destroyed by Nine Two One Earthquake, it was rebuilt to become the Sun Moon Travel Lodge.
The new Lalu, Sun Moon Lake Hotel was built by a private developer. The memorial hall nearby was established by partially utilizing the construction materials from the old travel lodge. There are many pictures of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo vacationing in Sun Moon Lake.
Sun Moon Restaurant
Restaurants abound in the vicinity of Shuishe Pier. We picked Sun Moon Restaurant recommended by the locals.
We heard different accents from the dining guests there; some are from China; some are from Europe and America.
我們聽到許多用餐客人不一樣的口音; 有些是中國，也有些歐美國家。 ==They allow dining guests to write their names on the wall / 他們讓用餐客人在牆壁上寫下名子==
We ordered Rice in a Bamboo Tube, Steamed Lake Fish, Stir-fried Beef with Green Onion, Stir-fried Water Spinach with Sour Bamboo Shoot and Stir-fried Cabbage. Our dessert was Fried Banana.
Rice in a Bamboo Tube is an aboriginal dish, using a mixture of steamed Sticky Rice and Japonica Rice. Cooked inside a bamboo tube, it's both stylish and tasty.
Sour Bamboo Shoot is an indigenous vegetable. It tastes very distinctive when stir-fried with Water Spinach.
Lake Fish is an exotic species. It adapted well after its free range and became a main species in the lake. It tastes very similar to Taiwan Tilapia, but without the earthy taste. It's even more popular than the fishbone-laden "Presidential Fish."
You used to have to get to the Thao tribe by boat. The establishment of the Round-the-Lake Road in 1995 allows for transiting by road. Going north from the Shuishe Pier, you can get to many attractions by car.
You'll come across Chao-wu Pier along the way. This is the place for Annual Swimming Carnival, attracting 30 thousand swimmers that swim to Ita Thao Pier from here.
We happened to run into many tourist buses clogging this little pier the day we came. We had no choice but to back out.
After the construction of the Round-the-Lake Road, there are many newly established hotels on the way to the Thao tribe. Viewing the lake scenery from above, such as Fleur De Chine Hotel, is even more alluring than Shuishe Pier.
At the same time, you can see many trail entrances with a parking lot next to them, allowing you to park at any time for a short walk. Trails such as Round-the-lake Trail and Dag-zhu Trail allow you to cycle through.
Shue-iuatou Hiking Trail
We highly recommend that you take the Shue-iuatou Hiking Trail. The entire trail is situated inside the forest. Its destination is a sculpture in the lake called the Nine Frog Heads.
This sculpture is a stack of 9 frogs of various sizes. Counting the number of visible frogs lets you know the water level. There is a water-level chart next to it.
Sun Moon Lake is currently operating hydroelectric power. It utilizes the off-peak electric power from the generators at the bottom of the hill to draw up water every night. The water-level difference can be as high as 2 meters. The sculpture is to highlight the characteristic of this type of electricity generation.
Continuing forward, you'll come across Sun Moon Lake Ropeway Station. Next up is the Ita Thao Pier, which is the location of the Thao tribe.
Sun Moon Lake Ropeway Station
Ita Thao Pier
The Thao tribe is the smallest native tribe in Taiwan by population. Their sacred place Lalu Island divides the Sun Lake and the Moon Lake of Sun Moon Lake. Literally, the Sun Lake resembles the sun, and the Moon Lake resembles the moon.
Upon getting on the sacred mountain, you can get a panoramic view of Sun Moon Lake from the hill road. We ran into a Thao tribe lady at the hiking entrance telling us that we could actually see Changhua from here in good weather.
Despite being the smallest native tribe in Taiwan, they still guard their ancestral land. The tribe is located at the hiking entrance to the sacred mountain Shuishe Mountain. Every household uses trees to carve their aboriginal language on the front door, preserving their own culture.
Further north is Xuanzang Temple that worships Buddha Relic of the Master Xuanzang, the greatest Chinese Buddhist Scripture translator.
During Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese brought the Buddha Relic of Master Xuanzang back to Japan in fear of the war effects in Nanjing. Part of the Buddha Relic, a very precious legacy of the world, was later redistributed to Taiwan.