SUN MOON LAKE

I once woke up at an ungodly hour in hopes of seeing the sunrise over the Sun Moon Lake.

The sun never rose though. Apparently, you can’t see the sunrise from the lake during the summers. So don’t make the same mistake. After all, the scenery looks like a dream under any light, so by all means sleep in.

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Sun Moon Lake is the biggest body of water in Taiwan. Its name is derived from the shape – apparently one side is round like a sun while the other is crescent-shaped like the moon. I don’t really see it, but I guess whoever named it had more of an imagination than I do. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite places in Taiwan. Even though it is offensively touristy, if you spend some time walking around, it can still be quite serene. The high elevation means it is a sanctuary from the ungodly heat and humidity even in the dead of summer. I’d introduce it as the perfect weekend trip from Taichung, but let’s be honest, unless you’re Taiwanese there’s little to no chance you’d be hanging out in Taichung, much less long enough to need a day trip.

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But even if you’re not in central Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake is well worth the trip in itself. There are buses that’ll take you to the lake from Taipei, but it’s faster to take the high speed rail or normal train mountain line to Taichung and then grab a 1-2 hour bus from there. The HSR from Taipei takes about 45min to 1hr and will set you back 700NT or about $23, with up to a 35% discount for booking early. Normal express trains take 90 min to 2hrs and tickets go for about 300-400NT or $10-13. Buses from Taichung to the lake have one-way tickets for 189NT ($6).

Once you’re there, plan on spending a night or two in the area to make the most of the excursion. There are dozens of hotels big and small around the area from intimate bed and breakfasts to 5 star hotels, as well as campsites and hostels. If you’re feeling particularly luxurious, check into a hot springs resort and treat yourself.

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DAY ONE

If you take an early morning train from Taipei, you’ll probably get to Sun Moon Lake by mid-afternoon. Check in and drop off your bags and head to the nearest visitor’s center (XiangShan 向山 on the west side, YiDaShao 伊達邵 on the south side, and ShuiShe 水社 on the north side are the main ones). Grab a one-day pass (80NT) for the hop-on hop-off bus that goes around the lake.

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Spend the rest of the afternoon walking or biking along the lakeside trail. Grab a rental bike by Shui She Wharf Plaza and make your way through the XiangShan bikeway for a killer view of the lake. As you make your way towards XiangShan Visitor Center, you’ll pass LongFeng Temple and ShuiShe Dam before crossing a literal “Friendship Bridge."

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Grab a coffee or snack and enjoy the view (and the minimalist architecture) from XiangShan Visitor Center. When it’s almost sunset, head over to the XuanGuang ferry pier to finish off the day with a cruise across the lake (100NT) to ShuiShe. There, you can grab dinner at a nearby restaurant or hotel. (Given that this place is made for tourists, many of the best restaurants are actually in the hotels!)

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DAY TWO

The next day wake up early. Not for the sunrise though, but to beat the crowds at WenWu Temple. Snag another one-day bus pass and head over to the Confucian temple. Built during Japanese occupation to replace two smaller temples, it overlooks the lake from the northern shore. Buy a wind chime at the temple and write your name and wish on it. Then, go down to the “Year of Steps” (366 steps for each day of the year), find your corresponding birthday step and hang the chimes. There are also shaded trails behind the temple for hiking and Songbailun Natural Park nearby for a waterfront view.

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If you’re traveling with kids, spend the rest of the day at Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village (780NT for adults, 580NT for children). It’s part amusement park, part museum, part European garden (random, I know). The Aboriginal Village Park features 9 areas representing 9 different aboriginal tribes. There, you can experience traditional performances and dances as well as participate in hands-on cultural activities. The park especially popular during February / March for cherry blossom season. Note that FACV tickets also include the Ropeway (cable cars), which can be a scenic way to leave the park. (It drops off at the Sun Moon Lake station)

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For a more personalized experience, venture a away from the lake for a few hours and craft your own souvenirs. Sun Moon Lake is known for Assam Black Tea, and there are several tea farms that invite visitors to experience the tea-making process. Hugosum is a historic tea farm and factory about 15 minutes north of Sun Moon Lake. You can tour the factory and make your own tea from fresh tea leaves. They will walk you through the process of rolling out the tea leaves on large bamboo trays. Once the tea leaves are wilted, they will finish up the drying process while you sample local tea treats. They have a range of DIY projects from painting tea containers to making soap, for 150-320NT ($5-11).

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If tea isn’t your thing, visit Kuang Hsing Paper Mill and try your hand at paper making and traditional printing. Located in the town of PuLi (about a 30 min drive north), this former paper factory is now a cultural center that preserves the art of paper making in a town where the industry used to thrive.

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About a 30 minute drive south is the town of ShuiLi. There, you will find the Snake Kiln (150NT). Where PuLi was known for paper making, ShuiLi is known for ceramics. The Snake Kiln is a center and museum for ceramics, centered around a long snake-like kiln – the oldest in Taiwan. The kiln was severely damaged during the 9/21 earthquake in 1999, so the park features a large ceramic monument for the earthquake. Of course, there are also DIY ceramics, though they'll need to send the finished work after a couple days.

Finally, head back to the lake and enjoy one last sweeping view from the Ropeway and grab some pizza from White Deer Cafe before taking a bus back to Taichung. (300NT - note that you don't need a FACV ticket to ride the cable cars)