Piperlongumine (PL) produces reactive oxygen species (ROS) and induces G2/M-phase arrest in cholangiocarcinoma (CCA) cells via the JNK/ERK pathway. A differential response to PL was observed among all CCA cell lines However, the underlying mechanisms have remained to be fully elucidated. The aim of the present study was to investigate the molecular mechanisms of PL-induced heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) expression in CCA cell lines. The anti-proliferative action of PL in the CCA cell lines KKU-100 and KKU-213A was analyzed using sulforhodamine B assays. Reverse transcription-quantitative PCR and western blot analyses were used to examine mRNA and protein expression. HO-1 inhibition was achieved using the chemical inhibitor zinc protophoryn or specific small interfering RNA to HO-1. Intracellular ROS was detected using a 2,7-dichlorodihydrofluorescein diacetate fluorescence assay. High expression of phase-II detoxification enzymes, including NADPH quinone oxidoreductase-1, heme oxygenase-1, superoxide dismutases and aldo-keto reductase 1 subunits C-1 and 3, were detected in the KKU-100 cell line. Of the CCA cell lines tested, KKU-100 was the least sensitive to PL. Dose-dependent upregulation of HO-1 expression via PI3K/Akt activation was detected in PL-treated CCA cells. Inhibition of HO-1 eliminated the antioxidant defense mechanisms, leading to increased anti-cancer activity of PL in the CCA cell lines via an increase in intracellular ROS levels and apoptotic protein expression. These observations indicated that HO-1 inhibition had a chemosensitizing effect on CCA to PL.