Sun Moon Lake: it’s a poetic name, and a place that is on virtually everyone’s list of must-sees when they come to Taiwan. We had really high hopes for the place, perhaps too high for it to actually live up to. And it didn’t.
It isn’t that Sun Moon Lake isn’t pretty. It’s that it is the domain of the thing we dread the most: tour buses, and lots of them. This not only brings crowds, but poor value. The hotels are expensive, the food is poor quality and you don’t feel like you get much back for what you pay.
At a lot of places around Sun Moon Lake, you’ll find yourself a small spec in a mass of bus tourists with selfie sticks and matching baseball caps. The renowned cycle track (one of our main reasons for visiting) is almost entirely closed at the moment which didn’t help, but more on that later.
It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great. However, if you’re like us then you probably want to see for yourself. So here’s the low down on the things we did in the area, good and bad.
What to do in Sun Moon Lake
We’ll start with the positives!
Now this was a good one! Ci’en Pagoda was something we kept seeing from several places around Sun Moon Lake as it’s perched at the top of one of the peaks close to the lake.
If you have a scooter, you can skip some of the steps to the top and head for the car park. From here it’s 570 steps (we think that’s literal footsteps, not stairs as it was over very quickly and we weren’t nearly puffed out enough for it to have been stairs!) to the top.
The view from here is beautiful, even on an overcast day. The pagoda is set in a garden with white gravel and beautiful trees and it was easily our favourite lookout in Sun Moon Lake.
You can climb to the top of the pagoda for more expansive views. It’s known as a great sunset spot, whilst it was too cloudy on our visit, I can imagine that would be a beautiful time to be here on a clearer day.
Admission to the pagoda is free, as is parking.
Sunrise at Zhaowu Pier
When we asked around about good sunrise spots we were told Shuishe Pier. But that definitely wasn’t the case for us, the best place in Sun Moon Lake for sunrise is definitely Zhaowu Pier. It’s only a 10 minute walk here from Shuishe Pier but is much more picturesque, and in the early hours there are very few people around - the perfect place for that stunning sunrise photo.
The piers look out across the lake to the mountains in the distance and Ci’en Pagoda. With the soft light and mist, it is a beautiful place to be in the early morning.
On our visit the main view straight ahead was obscured by the only cloud in the area, so what you are missing in this photo is the true showstoppers, there are huge mountains lurking behind their somewhere so if you get a clear morning don’t miss this spot.
It was also lovely to witness a bit of local life, and watch the swimmers in the lake, complete with their own little brightly coloured floating boards
If you have time
These were the experiences we thought were only so-so but assuming you are here for a few days would be worth a go.
Wen Wu Temple
After getting stuck on the mostly closed bike path (and no they won’t tell it’s closed when you rent the bike), we decided to check out one of the star attractions in Sun Moon Lake before heading back. Sadly, everyone else in Taiwan had decided to do the same.
You know how we warned about the dreaded tour bus? Well nowhere is this worse than at Wen Wu Temple! There’s a huge coach park that felt like a conveyor belt of tour groups.
Luckily Wen Wu is actually pretty big which makes dealing with the crowds a little easier. Set across three different sections, you can take a look at a Confucian Temple Taiwanese style which was quite pretty. There is also a lookout point just opposite the temple with a view to the lake and surrounding mountains.
However, don’t feel too bad if you miss it. There’s millions of temples just like Wen Wu around Taiwan and it didn’t seem any better than any other we saw.
Read next: Taroko Gorge - A natural wonder of Taiwan
Street-food in Itathao
We’re yet to really see what the fuss is about with Taiwanese street food, although obviously this is a matter of personal taste, we know most people love it! You can make your own mind up on the streets of Itathao on the other side of Sun Moon Lake, around 10km from the main town by Shuishe Pier. Wen Wu temple is on route if you feel inclined to stop.
This small town has quite a few street food sellers who will cook up the cheapest meals in the area for you.
Whilst it was better than the restaurants (not a big statement) we just found that most of the street food seemed to be deep fried and ladened with MSG. Our pick would be the scallion pancake, but don’t have high hopes!
Read next: Alishan - our favourite place in Taiwan
Give it a miss
Cycle round the lake
We thought this would be our favourite activity and it would have been if the path was open! After hiring our bikes, we found that the entire Eastern side of the cycle track was closed from Wen Wu Temple onwards (supposedly it’s now private property). This gives you the choice of either going up the incredibly steep highway with tour buses, cars and motorbikes whizzing past you or you need to turn around just a few kilometres into the track. We will say that the other road users were actually considerate of cyclists but I still don’t enjoy cycling on a highway and it was also extremely hilly so not one for novices!
Heading back to Shuishe Pier, we soon found that the path in the other direction was partially closed and we had to detour temporarily back onto the road. Just outside of town there is a small section of path open as far as the Xiangshan Visitor Centre (which does a delicious - albeit expensive - local tea if you’re in the mood for stopping) around 3.6km one way.
Now this would have been lovely but of course as the majority of the path is closed that meant that every other cyclist was crammed onto this short open section making it absolute carnage!
What could have been a really enjoyable and leisurely way to explore the Taiwanese countryside has been sadly lost by the closure of several parts of the bike path.
If you’re determined to go round the lake, then we highly recommend hiring a scooter. This was actually really fun and a great way to get around and duck away from the crowds.
Know before you go
Where you stay is key
There are two choices for accommodation in Sun Moon Lake: Shuishe Pier and Itathao. Whilst Shuishe Pier has the restaurants and ammenities, Itathao has less tourists and the street food. Itathao is further away from the partially opened cycle path and Wen Wu Temple as well. If you hire a scooter, this wouldn’t be too big a problem.
The food in Sun Moon Lake is pretty expensive and underwhelming. We tried the local favourites, ventured to the street food and eventually settled on plain noodles or fried rice. It seemed that the restaurants in Sun Moon Lake knew that you were short on choice and were happy to charge a fortune for really basic dishes ($15 USD for fried cabbage anyone?).
One of the funnier options we saw was in the local Starbucks (our breakfast go to) who were championing their Penne Massaman Curry - an Italian-Malay fusion no one asked for.
Avoid the weekends (if you can)
Weekends in Taiwan are tricky as the whole country travels and explores, something which is both lovely as it is great to see so many people out and about enjoying nature, and yet painful too if you don’t like crowds! Sun Moon Lake in particular gets affected as hotels sell out a long way in advance and the ones that remain rocket up in price, becoming really bad value. If you can visit midweek, you’ll find fewer people and better rates.
Getting to Sun Moon Lake
If you’re looking to get public transport, you’ll need to get to Taichung (if you’re going from Taipei, you can get one of the many High Speed Trains that run every hour). You can then get the Nantou Bus that runs from the High Speed Train Station and takes 1 hour 15 minutes (you would get to the lake much quicker but the bus becomes a stopping service when you get to Puli) to get to Shuishe Pier. You can check the schedule by clicking here.
Hiring a car is the most convenient way to get to Sun Moon Lake as the roads in Taiwan are in great condition and the drivers are pretty considerate.
Where we stayed in Sun Moon Lake
Mi Ren Hotel
Southeast Asia this isn’t, Sun Moon Lake is extremely pricey. There aren’t many good hotel options in Sun Moon Lake if you don’t have a huge budget. We managed to get a room at Mi Ren which was centrally located, had comfortable old fashioned rooms which were quiet.
However, it was small and had a wet room for a bathroom, which floods but then that was standard in Taiwan. For $60 USD a night it was the best value in Sun Moon Lake for our dates (dorm beds can cost over $30 USD here). Poor value but reasonable if you are on a budget.
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Are you planning a trip to Sun Moon Lake? Or have you been and think it’s a lot better than we did? Let us know in the comments below!