By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Conrad Gubera first thought they were bird feeders, not ghost feeders. On a trip to Thailand in 1998, the sociology and international studies professor saw a woman placing items in what looked like an ornate dollhouse on a post. She was elegantly dressed in a high-quality kimono, and placed things in the house reverently.
“You could tell, by the way she acted, that she had a piety about it,” Gubera said. “There was a real sense of worship. She must have believed that what she was doing was really important.”
That was Gubera’s introduction to a part of Thai culture that has fascinated and captivated him ever since. These spirit houses are a critical part of the Thai way of life, he said -- they are intertwined with peoples’ spiritual beliefs.
Gubera will talk more about the Thai spirit houses during “Keeping Ghosts Happy,” a special presentation at noon Wednesday at Corley Auditorium, inside Webster Hall on the campus of Missouri Southern State University. His presentation is part of the university’s international semester, an annual event dedicated to the study and exploration of a foreign culture.
His presentation will include pictures he took of several spirit houses, from simple pieces of tin nailed over boards to ornate ceramic houses made with the same architectural details as Thailand’s temples and palaces.
When Gubera traveled to Thailand, he was part of the East-West Center, headquartered at the University of Hawaii. That group took an almost two-month tour of southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Indonesia.
While the group was in those countries for a few days, it spent almost three weeks in Thailand, where Gubera got to explore the culture firsthand.
One of the first things he learned: To learn about history, stay away from the cities.
“The real experiences are seen in the rural areas,” he said. “So much of city life is like America. There’s stoplights, stop signs and McDonald’s. As a result, you feel like you’re in a city just like any other major city. You have to step outside to the villages to really get a taste of culture.”
He spent time in the Golden Triangle region of Thailand with the Karen people, near the Thailand-Burma border. He discovered that the people love elephants, and take care of them carefully. Similar to the ruins in Mexico, he encountered fully developed, abandoned, ancient cities.
“Going through the rural villages, you get a taste of what the country may have been like long before we got there,” Gubera said.
A visitor to 31 countries, Gubera always tries to get to a flea market when in a foreign land. The things put up for sale reveal much about the homes and hearts of the people there, he said.
He said he found Thai people to be gentle and full of warmth. Strangely enough, one of the most beloved sports in the country is kickboxing, a violent form of martial arts.
But no matter where he went, including metropolitan areas, rural villages and ancient cities, he saw spirit houses, as ubiquitous as mailboxes in the U.S.
A spirit house is a place where wandering spirits can find shelter or sustenance, thus becoming discouraged from causing calamity or mischief in others’ lives. Spirits that are well cared for bring protection and good luck.
The houses are decorated with ribbons, flowers and other decorations, Gubera said. Incense can be lit inside them, and food and drink is often left in them, too. Some of them even have small figurines.
Social standing can also be determined. Some of the more expensive spirit houses are large, ceramic creations that feature architectural details found on palaces and temples. Others can be thrown together, made of whatever materials happen to be available.
The small houses are a sign of a culture that deeply embraces a world filled with spirits. Where Americans generally treat ghosts as forms of entertainment, from hunting them on reality TV shows to telling stories around campfires about their hauntings, Thais generally believe strongly in the existence of ghosts, and their ability to help or harm humans.
“We commercialize ghosts more than they do,” Gubera said. “We generally don’t believe in them, but we like ghost stories. In Thailand, they are accepted as a state of being.”
For example, an American who observes a book fly off a table might try to discover a scientific reason for the phenomenon. But a Thai might assume it’s simply the spirits at work, and will accept it without trying to find a cause.
There are many types of spirits, including protective ones and malevolent ones. Gubera said the spirits have gender, and that most of the spirits are male. The female ones are usually malevolent, especially if they were a victim of an act of violence.
The strong belief in spirits may seem to conflict at first glance with the country’s primary religion, Buddhism, Gubera said. But Buddhist philosophy allows for acceptance and belief in such spirits.
“The idea behind Buddhism is to get you healthy,” Gubera said. “If you want to believe in rituals or gods, then by all means do so, as long as you’re not causing suffering.”
Because the spirits are believed to have effects on people’s lives based on their actions, Gubera said Thais can feel a sense of peace when confronted with unfairness or harm, similar to the concept of karma.
“It frees them,” Gubera said. “Justice is there. They think that if a perpetrator of something is not paying his due process in this life, the spirit world will take care of it. In a way, it’s cathartic. It eases their minds.”
The practice of maintaining these houses is one of several ways Thais express their belief. Other displays include intricate tattoos and wearing medallions. But spirit houses have been a part of Thai tradition for hundreds of years, Gubera said.
“They are proud of saying they have always been this way,” Gubera said. “There are little spirit houses in the ancient cities. It’s a deep belief that has carried over.”
Gubera said the belief in spirits helps Thais take good care of the country -- he noted that Thailand ranks close to Japan and Malaysia for developing environmental laws. Thais take pride in keeping their cities clean.
The practice affected Gubera so much that he was forever changed.
“I really feel an obligation now to walk across a parking lot to pick up that empty soda can, or Walmart sack,” Gubera said. “I think the reverence they have for their land affected me. To see that among the whole people, where it’s everyone’s responsibility, it made me conscious of doing a little bit more.”
Conrad Gubera, a professor of sociology and international studies, has visited 31 countries over the last 25 years. He has earned three Fulbright Awards, a Japan Foundation award and several faculty grants through MSSU’s Institute of International Studies. He has led 10 different study-abroad groups, and earned an award for Outstanding International Education Teacher in 2006.