Taiwan is brimming with incredible natural scenery yet few locations captivate the tourist masses quite like Sun Moon Lake. Interestingly, the lake as it is today is actually man-made, formed as a result of the dam constructed during Japanese rule in 1931. However, regardless of the fact that it is a relatively new landscape, the area is home to the Thao tribe and as such there are many myths and legends relating to the mountains surrounding the lake.
In Thao legend, hunters of the tribe one day spotted a white deer, followed it and the chase led them to the lake. The hunters were so impressed by the landscape with its lush greenery, fish-filled waters, and abundant wildlife that they decided to relocate to the lakeside. The countryside became theirs and they still live there to this day.
At the heart of the lake lies Lalu Island. This is a sacred ground for the Thao tribe yet it is only in recent years that it has been recognized as such. During Japanese rule the island was renamed as Jade Island then again, later, as Guang Hua. The island originally split the lake into two distinct shapes, one resembled a sun while the other a crescent moon. This is believed to be how the lake got its name although there are other stories that claim it was due to the colors of the lake water.
The local government built a marriage pavilion on the island in 1978 and for many years, annual group ceremonies took place there. It may have seemed a touch insensitive to the local Thao tribe who believed that their most revered ancestral spirit resided on the island.
However, after an earthquake in 1999 (known locally as the 921 earthquake) the landscape shifted resulting in much of the island sinking and the destruction of the pavilion. The island has since been recognized by the government as sacred ground and locals insist that only members of the Thao tribe can now set foot on it.
While the deer hunting legend is told by many tribes (not just the Thao) there is another legend that is especially popular among tourists. This legend tells of how the Thao were one day working their land when they heard a massive boom before the sky went dark. The sun had disappeared but they took comfort in the fact that the moon would soon come to offer them light. However, when the moon came out that night the same thing happened and the world was left in utter darkness.
A young couple took it upon themselves to search for the sun and the moon and after a long hard trek they came to the lake. There they saw two dragons playing with the sun and the moon. Before they could do anything they noticed smoke coming from under a rock. They moved the rock and followed a passage to find an old lady that claimed the dragons had forced her to live there cooking their meals.
After hearing this the couple were worried that they could not defeat the dragons but the old lady had an idea. She told them of the golden axe and scissors under Ali Mountain which when thrown in the lake would kill the dragons instantly.
They found the axe and scissors, threw them at the dragons and won back the sun and moon but unfortunately they didn’t have the strength to put either back into the sky. The old lady then informed them of the powers of a dragon’s eyeball. Apparently once consumed, you would have the strength of that dragon and so the couple ate an eyeball from each dragon. They soon became giants and with their now superhuman strength, the couple lifted the sun into the sky using a palm tree. When the sun began to work properly they did the same with the moon.
It’s easy to see why this legend persists and why tourists love it so much.
If you’re heading for Sun Moon Lake, then the best way is by bus or by car. There are many private tour companies that run buses from both Taichung and Taipei to the lake and some even include hotel accommodation in their tour package. However, a car of your own or a rental is a far more enjoyable way to get there as you’re not bound by schedules. There’s plenty of paid public parking around the lake and most hotels provide on-site private parking.
There are many things to keep you occupied during your time at Sun Moon Lake. Take a boat trip across the lake or a cable car trip up to the aboriginal theme park. For many though, the chance to rent a bike and ride around the many cycle paths is the best way to see and appreciate the local scenery.