The sleepy coastal town of Kep, Cambodia, was once a playground for the international jet set — its boulevards lined with Le Corbusier and Bauhaus-inspired mansions.

But now, after decades of war and poverty, those majestic villas lie in fascinating and eerie decay.

Kep was founded in 1908 during French colonial rule — and the French and Cambodian aristocrats made it their seaside escape.

They brought in edgy architects from both Paris and Phnom Penh. Three of the most notable were locals — Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap and Chhim Sun Fong, all pioneers of the New Khmer Architecture movement, a mix of modern and traditional Cambodian designs.

Soon, the rich filled the new town with stunning buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place in South Beach or Havana — anomalies in a country known for curved pagodas.

After colonialism ended in 1953, Cambodian Khmer elites filled Kep — moving into the mansions and building a few of their own. King Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state, picked a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand for his summer villa.

And the glitterati — Jackie Kennedy, Catherine Deneuve and so many others — came to swim, play, gamble and race cars. They even gave Kep a nickname, the St. Tropez of Southeast Asia.

The good times came to an abrupt end when the brutal Khmer Rouge regime came into power in the 1970s.

Many in Kep fled or were murdered — often in their homes, which are still pockmarked by bullet holes. Those who stayed stripped the buildings of everything they could, desperate to get cash to buy food.

Here are the renovated buildings of the Knai Bang Chatt hotel in Kep, Cambodia
Here are the renovated buildings of the Knai Bang Chatt hotel in Kep, CambodiaKnai Bang Chatt Hotel

Today, many of the abandoned mansions have been reclaimed by the jungle — trees growing through rooms and vines climbing up staircases that lead to nowhere. Cattle graze in the yards.

“There are spirits inside,” one local told me as I wandered down what was once the main boulevard.

The local tax drivers dutifully drop tourists off at the homes for a peek inside — but they wait outside, refusing to go in.

Parts of the town are being rebuilt, but the new inhabitants favor new over old — and tearing down the mansions and putting with modern Chinese-style homes.

“We want to look forward, not stay in the past,” another local told me.

Here are the renovated buildings of the Knai Bang Chatt hotel in Kep, Cambodia.
Here are the renovated buildings of the Knai Bang Chatt hotel in Kep, Cambodia.Knai Bang Chatt Hotel

Many of the guesthouses and hotels are new builds, too, though three seaside art deco jewels were rescued more than a dozen years ago by Jef Moons, who turned the properties into his Knai Bang Chatt boutique hotel – giving visitors a glimpse into the beauty and luxury of the past.

Soon, though, Moons thinks his resort may be the only reminder of what was once the South Beach of Southeast Asia.

“It’s all about destroying and rebuilding, unfortunately,” Moons told the Phnom Penn Post. “We’re one of the few (local hotels) that respects the original architecture.”

Many of the homes are literally falling down.
Many of the homes are literally falling down.Paula Froelich