Hemmed in by lush tiers of mountains in the heart of Taiwan, SUN MOON LAKE (日月潭; rìyuè tán) is the island’s largest freshwater body, its calm, emerald-green waters creating some of the country’s most mesmerizing landscapes. The lake’s name is inspired by its distinctive shape, with a rounded main section likened to the sun and a narrow western fringe compared to a crescent moon. Encircling it all is a 33km road, dotted with fascinating temples and picturesque pavilions, each offering a unique perspective on the waters below, while the cable car provides a stupendous panorama of the whole lake.
Given its abundant beauty, Sun Moon Lake attracts large crowds throughout the year (it’s a prime draw for mainland tourists), especially at weekends when hotel rates skyrocket – weekdays, particularly in winter, are the best time to visit.
Swimming in the lake is allowed on only one day each year, when at least ten thousand yellow-capped Taiwanese take to the waters for the annual Sun Moon Lake Swimming Carnival, a 3km cross-lake race that takes place around the Mid-Autumn Festival, usually in September. The lake is also the ancestral home of the Thao (pronounced “Shao”, meaning “people”), Taiwan’s smallest officially recognized aboriginal tribe.
A brief history
Until the early twentieth century, the lake was a shallow marsh called Shuishalian. In 1919 the Japanese started work on a dam for hydroelectric power, finally flooding the area in 1934 – and destroying the last traditional Thao community that had clung to the slopes of pyramid-shaped Lalu Island in the marsh’s centre. Those inhabitants were forced to move to the lake’s south side, into a village that today is known as Itashao. After 1950 Chiang Kai-shek made the lake his favoured summer retreat, spurring further development that continued into the 1970s. In 1999, the 921 Earthquake severely damaged much of the lakeside infrastructure, levelling hotels and restaurants and rendering some hiking trails temporarily impassable. However, the tourist villages on the lake’s northern and southern shores were gradually rebuilt and have long surpassed their former grandeur.