The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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September 10, 2012

MSSU professor captivated by Thailand’s spirit houses

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.

Spirited away

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.

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