Rural Cambodia is dotted with little red signs like this:

Signs that mar the landscape and remind us that lurking beneath the country’s verdant green fields are a gazillion landmines. Ugly little buggers. Waiting. To kill.

We got to know Aki Ra in one of these minefields. It wasn’t exactly on our to-do list. We’d come to Cambodia to hang out with Boreak and Vannak. Find out about their lives, tell their stories.

But then, Aki Ra invited us to join him on a demining expedition. The offer caught us off-guard. Triggered long, heated discussions and caused a few sleepless nights. How dangerous exactly, was a minefield? Did we really need the footage?

What if… something… happened?

In the end, we went. Hired a tin-can taxi and headed for Bantaey Meanchey province. The scenery was magnificent, but the roads were not. By the end of our nine-hour journey, our stomachs were churning and we were covered in a layer of red dust. We were hungry. We were grumpy. We wondered if we were insane.

Aki Ra was waiting for us underneath a makeshift shelter. He’d been sleeping rough for four days now. But his face broke out in a wide grin when he saw us.

This man’s something of a legend in Cambodia. He’s been described as possibly the world’s best deminer – for years, a tireless crusader against a terrible scourge. And his motivations? They’re tied up in a complex story of guilt and redemption.

He was just four when Khmer Rouge soldiers killed his parents. The military then took the boy, and taught him the delicate art of laying landmines. Decades of warfare honed Aki Ra’s skills. But when peace finally came to Cambodia, the former child soldier decided it was time to make amends.

It was a decision that would take him inside countless minefields, earn him the wrath of the local authorities, lead to a terrible bout of TNT poisoning, and bring him more fame and notoriety than he’d ever imagine. Forget afternoons in a minefield. Think days, weeks, months. This man has personally removed some 30,000 landmines.

For the past few years, Aki Ra’s been training farmers and other villagers to do the same. It’s a calling that’s earned him both kudos and criticism. There are those who believe demining is best done by experts using proper gear. And then, there are others who say that rural folk will try to clear the fields on their own anyway, and some training will at least help minimize the likelihood of a tragedy.

Enter a minefield and you enter an area where rules are everything. We’d been briefed and knew the drill – Follow the guy in front. Use only the marked paths. Watch where you’re going. Don’t wander off – but even so, there were audible gulps when we were told to enter.

Oh, and try not to let your knees buckle. Keep breathing. Don’t freak out.

Soon after our arrival, we heard a distinct BEEEEEP. It was the mine detector going off. One of the villagers had found an anti-personnel mine. The next few minutes went by so quickly, it was hard to tell what happened. Aki Ra was called, the mine carefully dug out, a twist, a turn and it was over.

“OK, carry on,” he said.

What did he do? We must have blinked.

And then an incessant BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP told us they’d found something bigger. An anti-tank mine. Buried underneath what was now an abandoned road.

Removing the device took an eternity. So much sand and mud to brush away, roots to cut through, booby traps to look out for.

Our hearts were thumping hard. We were just a few feet away from Aki Ra. He told us that it would take a lot more than our bodyweight to set off an anti-tank mine. The reassurance helped. But we couldn’t help taking two instinctive steps back.

Clink. Clink. Clang. Clink. Clang.

The mine refused to twist open.

Clink. Tap. Tap. Tap.

They were using a changkol to break open the thing now.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

A hammer, maybe that’ll do the trick.

We could feel the fear rising. Getting stuck in our throats.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. BANG.

An eternity, and then, the lid fell open.

“It’s live,” someone said.

LIVE. Should we run?

“It’s OK now.”

Aki Ra had removed the fuse. How did he do it? Did we blink again?

The expedition ended with a big bang. All the TNT was placed in a neat stack inside a hole. A phone call was then made to the head of the nearest village to tell him to keep his people away. Leaves covered the stack. A fuse was lit. Then – a full minute to dash to safety.

And then, BANG! The explosion was somehow not as huge as we’d expected. But the team had disposed of enough explosives to kill dozens of people.

Aki Ra grinned. His day was done. He’d just cleared the equivalent of a football field.

“OK,” he said, “Time to go for a swim.”