Even with a fading olive-green Khmer Rouge uniform, Chea Po looked quite ordinary among the throngs of Cambodians trekking to one of the country's most sacred and historical religious sites. Po, 53, a former guerilla fighter, spent the 1980s defending Phnom Kulen, a rugged, jungle-covered mountain in northwest Cambodia, from government and Vietnamese forces during a bloody, protracted civil war. Now just a simple farmer, Po hikes up the mountain each Sunday to drink from a 'magic' stream flowing under a 900-year-old rock image of Buddha, and cross a shallow river with ancient stone carvings - lingas - protruding from its sandy bottom. 'I'm happy everyone is part of the new government now,' Po said. 'Now we have peace at Phnom Kulen.' It was here during the ninth century that King Jayavarman II crowned himself the reincarnation of the Hindu god, entrenching the concept of the god-king, or devaraja, which still exists in modern Cambodia. The king's spirit was said to reside on the mountain top, from which he could communicate with the gods. The recent collapse of the Khmer Rouge not only brought peace to this troubled country for the first time since 1970, but opened up Phnom Kulen and other previously unreachable temple sites of the Angkor empire from the eighth through the 15th centuries. Tens of thousands of foreigners have seen the famed Temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, some 50 kilometres to the south, which have been under government control for years. But tourists are still a novelty to the ex-Khmer Rouge of Phnom Kulen, who politely touch and rub white-skinned foreigners for good luck. 'It's weird when you think that just a year ago, if these people saw you, they would kill you,' said one American who accompanied journalists to Phnom Kulen. 'Now, they want to sell you food and water and tickets to the mountain.' Indeed, while Phnom Kulen - mountain of the local kulen fruit - remains far off the beaten track, it is hoping to cash in on Cambodia's budding tourism industry. The hills around the mountain provided much of the sandstone used to make most of the Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat, the largest structure in the world built to religion. Currently, Phnom Kulen is a gruelling day-long, round-trip journey from Siem Reap that requires travel by car, on foot, and by motorcycle. But officials are building a road from the base of the mountain to its peak, which will accommodate tour buses but throw out of work several teams of porters who carry elderly people up in hammocks. Nonetheless, the mountain is an exceptional day excursion from Siem Reap, Cambodia's top tourism destination, which is accessible by road and air from Phnom Penh and the Thai capital, Bangkok. The trip up Phnom Kulen has five different stages of travel and interest, the first of which requires paying government soldiers at the entrance gate for an armed escort. This is no longer required for protection but rather to ensure no 'hassles' walking through the gates to the mountain base. Once the government officially opens the site, soldiers will no longer patrol the entrance collecting 'fees', according to tourism officials. The mountain base, once riddled with landmines, is now a mini village market selling food, water, drinks and cigarettes. Trekkers do not have to load up here as sellers are set up along the trail. After a 20-minute hike from the mountain base, trekkers come to the second stage, Buddha rock and 'magic stream', where they can observe ancient beliefs and superstitions that are still in practice today. Cambodians rush to bathe in the stream as it flows from under the Buddha rock, freely drinking the water to help cure illnesses and bottling it up to take home. The locals on this one day resembled children playing in a stream, but the smell of incense and chants from a nearby Buddhist altar clearly showed the seriousness with which these people hold their beliefs. The trail continues along a steep series of sandstone boulders, where knotted vines help visitors maintain their balance. Those who stop to catch their breath can take in a great view of the mountain base and wide-open, barren land beyond. Eventually the trail emerges near Phnom Kulen's 463-metre plateau, where jungle begins and stretches more than 10 kilometres. Trekkers can either continue walking eight kilometres along the jungle trail, or pay up to US$3 (HK$23) to hire motorcycles that somehow were hauled up the mountain months ago. The motorcycle ride is a breathless adventure of dodging trees, trekkers and rocks. At other times, where the motorcycles can only coast, the scenery and deadly silence provides images of Vietnam War movies. Halfway through the trip, the motorcycles and trekkers cross a shallow river, whose bottom comprises 10th-century stone lingas. The site, called River of a Thousand Lingas, is well preserved as visitors walk on top of the carvings to cross the river. At the end of the eight-kilometre journey, the jungle opens again to a giant, building-sized rock near the top of Phnom Kulen. Perched on the rock is an old pagoda housing a carved, reclining Buddha dating back to the 12th century. Visitors line up by the dozen to walk past the Buddha, offering prayers, incense and money, some of which is being used to build a new pagoda nearby. Visitors then walk down a nearby trail into the jungle that leads to the top of a large, multi-tiered 35-metre waterfall. Along the trail are the ruins of an outer wall of a 10th-century temple nearly hidden beneath thick vegetation. Depending on the time of year and strength of the water, visitors can swim or bathe at both the top and the bottom of the falls. A few hundred Cambodians visit Phnom Kulen every Sunday, openly showing the joy and calm of a country now at peace. In addition, the site is now a safe and adventurous journey for foreigners, giving them the chance to see an ancient site before it succumbs to tourism development.